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FireCliff 3: In the presence of Monster

Looking back on the evening of Thursday 30th May, when Minouk Lim in collaboration with Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson presented the performance FireCliff 3 in the Walker’s Burnet gallery, it is rather difficult to recall the intricacies of the piece. This is made ever more complex by the fact that I was privy to its […]

Photo: Gene Pittman

Looking back on the evening of Thursday 30th May, when Minouk Lim in collaboration with Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson presented the performance FireCliff 3 in the Walker’s Burnet gallery, it is rather difficult to recall the intricacies of the piece. This is made ever more complex by the fact that I was privy to its development from concept to realization, so my thoughts are inevitably filled with successive impressions of it. For me, the performance exists as series of fragments of half finished and half completed movements, recollections of late night rehearsals and early morning Skype conversations, continuous reviews of scripted elements and sounds samples, all conflated with countless musings on the pragmatics of lighting, sound and crowd control. I suspect this is also how Lim and Johnson experienced that evening; as they stood at the crest of a figurative firecliff in the darkened gallery, ready to deliver for the first time to an expecting audience.

Despite my fuzzy memory, on the night, the work presented itself anew, and as I watched it unfold, certain elements that repeatedly came to the fore during the project’s gestation resonated once more. As such, in place of providing a play-by-play review of the performance, which will do it a great disservice, I offer a reading of it through the singularity of the word Monster. Yes, Monster. This particular noun came into Lim and Johnson’s joint vocabulary during the very early stages of their conversations, which were conducted via emails and Skype sessions given their relative distance from each other – being in Seoul and Minneapolis respectively. In an early correspondence Johnson writes about her explorations of “the ongoing creation of Monster” in a new choreography she was developing at the time.  Speaking about the menace of this at once real and imagined fiend, she conjured images of terror, fear, evil and destruction in relation to the natural world, socio-cultural relations and oneself.

Instinctively for some, Monster takes them back to childhood – to the creature under the bed (or in the wardrobe) that is a signifier of childhood fears and uncertainties about the world beyond the safe space of the bedroom. For others, Monster is the mythical being that populates old wives tales and urban legends. Ostensibly fictive, it often exists as a constructive coping mechanism in places that have faced real moments of trauma. Being from across the proverbial pond, the Monster to the north in Loch Ness is an international calling card for tourism to the region as well as a representation of belonging and shared belief (or skepticism) across the communities of those great isles. Even more menacing for some, in the complex realm of geopolitics, Monster poses a very real danger to real lives in the form of military action, seemingly dormant terrorist threats or even multilateral sanctions that purport to serve a greater good. For no matter what side of the geographical or ideological border you are on, the specter of war and conflict signal a very monstrous end.

Photo: Jenna Klein

All these strands converged poignantly in FireCliff 3, as Johnson’s scripted monologue and choreography returned the audience to the place of childhood memories and family interactions. In the haphazard yet formal gestures and poses of the five dancers, we witnessed the “feasting and dancing, talking and making things” of days gone by. Propelled into a space that narrated the ritualized effacement and remembering of the past, of time hurtling forward and receding back into personal consciousness, benign movements took on ominous tones. Surely we were not to trust the saccharine and homely landscapes Johnson’s choreographed bodies created, because beneath all this there lay palpable moments of loss, death and anxiety – Monster was indeed very present.

Photo: Jenna Klein

Likewise, as the narrative transitioned to Lim’s inner voice, we were brought within reach of the mental state of individuals and communities who live in the shadow of potentially monstrous neighbors. For the artist, this is most evident in the threat to the north of South Korea’s territorial boundaries. By extension, Lim’s script also articulated the dangers of seeking protection or release from the grip of Monster – and the ‘by any means necessary’ dictum that usually guides such desires. In this case, the rampant militarization of borders that has gripped her country in the name of maintaining the political impasse and the contingent relationship with western powers, particularly America, have in themselves become stifling facets of daily life. Lim summed this up beautifully when she uttered:

“I want to be part of you
I want to be chosen by you
I want to praise you and commit myself to you
I willingly show you the back of my neck”

On a broader level, Lim’s metaphor of vampirism and self sacrifice also extends to the quest for modernization and the compulsion to partake in capitalism’s global project that has gripped emerging economies in the late 20th century. This is has proven itself to be an ideal that consumes hearts, bodies and minds indiscriminately – a fact that Lim experiences firsthand living through rapid social and spatial change in contemporary Seoul. In touching on this very salient point, FireCliff 3 ultimately asks: ‘where do we to turn, when in an attempt for self preservation and progress, we succumb to Monster and end up replicating its features?’ This question lingered heavily in the air as the audience stared at their reflections and that of the infrared feed of the performance through the mirrored screen ahead of them. Thus begging the question, might we be able to turn to each other for emancipation?

Photo: Jenna Klein

If as the performance proceeded, there appeared to be no resolution to this conundrum, then this was certainly helped by sound director Byungjun Kwons’s fascinatingly anarchic soundtrack, which mixed sound samples from Korean Pop culture, Top 40 hits and traditional Korean instrumentals with aplomb. Under the weight of this aural onslaught, the performers oscillated between desperation and exhaustion. Similarly the assembled audience was caught in the belly of the beast unable to escape its raging tumult.

Nevertheless, amongst the darkness and melancholy, there was much light in the performance, both symbolically and literally. For essentially, both Lim and Johnson infer that when there is no one else to turn to, then courage must come from within. The kernel of this idea can be traced to earlier exchange between the collaborators, where Lim writes of conceiving “Monster as courage…who is not afraid of dying and darkness…” Sharing this sentiment, Johnson adds “Monster as flame of light, as courage to be reborn.”

Photo: Jenna Klein

At this point, it is important to mention the use of Lim’s wearable sculptures and Portable Keepers throughout the performance as it points to the possibility of countering the destructive forces of Monster. Constructed from scavenged industrial materials that are piled and pasted together, these objects at first sight appear to be of little use or import. But as the dancers go about carrying, holding, hugging and raising them aloft, contorting their bodies to the uneven forms, they take on a peculiar functionality.

At various junctions in the performance, the wearable sculptures become shields or appendages to the human frame, at other moments they are mere adornments –for a short while transforming into impromptu headdresses or jewelry. These vignettes gesture towards the overturning of fear and sorrow into direct action and resilience that often follows cataclysmic events of social change, political upheaval or natural disasters. Whether we consider the use of raw material as emergency shelters, or the shifting of social oppression into a revolutionary spirit or even the translation of acts of terror into an ethos of tolerance, Lim’s tactile sculptures embody the overwhelming ability of the human spirit to push through all costs. In the end, it is clear that Lim and Johnson encourage their protagonists and the audience alike to be consumed by the mess and mayhem of Monster – to emerge from within its bowels. Monster thus transposes into medium for constructive reawakening and rebirth.

Photo: Jenna Klein

Fittingly, the performance ends with Lim starkly describing the death of an unidentified lover, juxtaposed with a projection of her 2009 moving image work Portable Keeper. As the figure in the video carries a totem pole fashioned by Lim through the busy streets and construction sites of Seoul, the performers unravel and raise aloft a limp fishing net weighed down by latex. In this closing sketch, Lim and Johnson allude to the reclaiming of forgotten lives, memories, most importantly, a foreseeable future, that can be brought about after succumbing to and surviving the presence of Monster.