Sung-Im Her is a dance artist from South Korea based in Belgium and the UK. Currently she is coming to the end of working with Needcompany for 5 years. She has been developing her own work and collaborating with others alongside this commitment. Now is a time of transition, and I caught up with her in May 2015 to track the evolution of her practice and reflect on the trajectory.
SH: In a way I think I am pretty naive and slow, I was very happy to be a member of the company, and I was very happy until I was not happy. I was more driven by my feelings than rational choice, and my feelings were: okay as an artist if you have nothing to say by yourself, then you’re not truly an artist. That was how I was starting to think about it, even if it’s really humble, or trash, or not important, but you still think it’s very important, you should just speak it out. When you’re in a big group of people it’s not always easy to bring your ideas out as a member of a group, so I decided to do things independently, and combine with the group work and my independent practice.
AB: What is the work you will be doing in Bonn, Germany?
SH: This is my first solo I’m making, which puts me in a confused situation. Normally you speak and listen to other people’s reactions, and all at once I’m alone with no one to rebound the thoughts with. It started from the point of how we are living in an international country and mixed culture, and how we are not really mixed, how are we letting people into our culture or not. I’ve lived in Europe for ten years, I lived in Belgium until now, and from now I am in the UK a lot because of my husband. But I wasn’t really living in Belgium, because I don’t know the language, I don’t speak Flemish, I don’t speak French, I speak English, so I’m not really one hundred percent understanding their culture, there is always this limitation. And in a way in the UK, I don’t know anything about it – okay I understand the language, but I don’t know your history, or what your pride is.
SH: Pride! The British have a lot of pride in their country, and I don’t know any of those things, I mean I know only a little of the history. I go back to my country once in a while, and I’m a stranger there. Because I have been away for ten years, I’m really in nowhere, that’s how I started to think about what’s accepted and what’s not acceptable in a culture, or as a person. And also I have a lot of problems with border control in the UK, because it seems like if you don’t have the right paper you’re all criminals, and yeah, I was wondering what my country has agreed with this one and what’s not acceptable, and why people aren’t being accepted with different papers. So this was the starting point of my work. It’ll work a lot with language, how much we understand languages, and so I’m taking really simple steps with language and the body. What’s the relationship with your language and your body, and if you don’t understand, what’s the effect on your feelings and physique?
AB: Are you still going to be doing interviews with Korean people in Germany?
SH: So the process: I will be in Bonn, North-West Germany, in September and October this year. There were a lot of Korean miners and nurses there in the 1950s and 60s, because after the second world war, Germany had lost a lot of young people and they really needed help to cultivate their country and get back to business. At that time Korea was so poor, there were no jobs, people were dying from hunger, so a lot of young people came to Germany to work and sent money back. Ten percent of Korea’s income came that way, and this money made Korea richer, gave a base for how they are living now, and then we forgot about these people and their working environment. A lot people died also, it was a very poor situation in the mines. And the people: most of them are left in Germany, they didn’t go back. Why are they holding back and choosing not to go?
AB: And what made them stay? It’s two different questions
SH: Yes and how they feel, if they feel like Germany is their home country or if they want to go back, what they miss the most and like the most about being in Germany
AB: This touches on many thoughts about returning, having an origin that you have to honour, and that not honouring the origin is difficult to face, and that it’s actually okay to not go back, but it’s also a question of what’s lost and gained, what doesn’t really change no matter where you are in the world. Do you know anyone there?
SH: The mother of my collaborator, an illustrator living in London, was a nurse, and part of this generation. I’m going to visit this part of Germany and interview them. It’s going to be a kind of documentation-performance, which will project my life through their lives.
AB: Are you going to do audio and film or just audio?
SH: I don’t think I will film, I will probably just do audio. I’m more interested in how their feelings come through their language, which also the German people will not understand, as it’ll be Korean. I’m very excited about it. I saw some documentaries about it already, it’s extremely touching for me. When I was watching I was already crying, because of how they miss their country and have exactly have the same as what I feel – I’m a foreigner in Korea, why would I go back there, and start there. I didn’t know that in Korea they built a German village. Some people who missed Korea so much came back together to Korea, and they built their own village where the street names are in German and the houses look German. They came back with their husbands, who are German, and they are living a German life in Korea. I’d heard about it – people eating pretzels somewhere in Korea, but I’m also going to see it this summer when I go back. It’s interesting for me. I also heard that a daughter of a mine worker, who died when she was very young, made a documentary about him, and it starts with breathing as his heavy breathing is what she remembers of him, before he died. I would like to check that out as well.
AB: So the piece that you’ll be creating is dealing with some really important but also very timeless themes of home, migration, of family, of generations, work, belonging, cultural practice, of living in the world. Are you going to frame it as a piece of dance, of contemporary dance? How do you want your art to be referred to, and does it matter?
SH: I might sing, I might speak also, I might show illustrations, I might dance, so it will be a performance, rather than contemporary dance. The contemporary dance field sounds for me too narrow; it will be a performance.
AB: Can you speak a bit about those overlaps of aesthetics and styles in your experience…the work you were doing with Needcompany was very theatrical. I remember in that period that you were asked to learn a whole script, and the shift of the learning and materiality of what you were doing. What does contemporary dance still offer you as an artist? What do you offer it?
SH: For me what we present on stage [with Needcompany] means everything is contemporary, whatever form of movement and expression, form of language, is all very contemporary performance for me. What I learnt with Needcompany is it doesn’t matter how beautiful the movement is, if it doesn’t touch the audience, then what is the meaning of it? More important is the intensity, what you want to do, even if it’s a very stupid idea, only the intention is very important, more than the form itself. For example, (and quite a sad one), we performed Mushroom in South Korea last year, there are two dancers in it, four musician-actors, and we do all the same things. We dance all together, we speak all together, so there is no differentiation, and the audiences were quite shocked, remarking ‘so they were pretty bad dancers’. But then, I was wondering, and think that they have to still open their eyes a bit more, to accept something different, to what was then not only the message but what we are we trying to do. The intetnion was not to show great technique or beautiful movement; there are so many beautiful dancers and beautiful music, so let’s do something else.
AB: I feel it important to acknowledge power of the inner intention. There are people who are under an umbrella of contemporary dance for whom inner intention and theatrical presence is really important, and ideologically it’s still dance, rather than performance. I’m curious about how people position themselves. Your premise isn’t an uncommon one when I think about a conversation I had with another dance artist, who acknowledges the artistry of the inner world, as part of their work as a performer and of their performance practice. I’ve been thinking about another dance artist who now identifies as a contemporary artist. So it appears that he is less interested in talking about himself as a dancer, even though dance is part of what he does. These ideological shifts are perhaps inevitable, with different worlds being the same world. How you identify yourself, and what’s important to you, what heritage do you want to belong to all feel increasingly relevant as artists navigate their application forms, festivals, funding applications, and dare I say it, brands. But you can’t deny the past you’ve come from, especially as lived material in your body, so then how to work with all that, and whether that defines you in a way that is limiting, or liberating.
SH: I also respect other opinions on this. When I talk with my husband, who is not an artist, he wants to see something very safe, something beautiful for the enjoyment of it, with no disturbance and challenge, which I also understand. So I think art needs both ways, and you need to embrace it. But I do believe we need all kinds of aspects in all sorts of directions, art cannot always be safe and beautiful. Especially contemporary art.
AB: It’s a safe place for danger and risk, that space.
SH: Although I also have difficulty with contemporary artists who try to be edgy all the time by just disturbing without any reason. I also had that problem with Needcompany also.
AB: In what way?
SH: Some of the narrative choices, some are quite sexual.
AB: I remember speaking with you this character of the ‘crazy/sexualised Asian woman’ that seemed to crop up a few times, and if you have any thoughts on this you want to share? I’m curious about exporting an interpretation of a version of a culture through another culture of performance, and different cultures of femininity. I’m curious about it ethically from the outside, but also want to know more about it from the inside, for you as a job, a role in a performance.
SH: I would never put myself in a subordinate role to a man, but sometimes there are demands…
AB: Demands…..has the word man in it…
SH: … sometimes there are demands that you have to put yourself underneath somehow. In Jan Lauwers work, at the beginning I was against it. Why put women in such fragile vulnerable roles, where men are always the assholes and destroy women? He’s putting women in a stronger position by doing that I realised later, so now I have less of a problem with it, but it’s also a male point of view. I made another collaboration piece where we both are topless, with just men’s underwear on. We shake for half the show, and the nakedness has a different meaning than only female beauty. That’s also one aspect, but there is another, where the body becomes a body. I have more interest in the female body as just a body itself, delivering the method and expression of it, than of a seductive body. But indeed a lot of male directors want to use a female body in a seductive way. A lot of my last works with Abattoir Ferme, from Belgium, and with Needcompany, and in my work, were naked. And then people in Korea ask me ‘are you going to be naked again?’ And I think we need to be in the next step, of it not being about being naked or not naked, or even an issue. It shouldn’t be an issue anymore for me, it’s about why the choice is made, and how it would be different if she put clothes on, about the images and potential meanings.
AB: Would you mind talking a little about the work you did with Jan Fabre?
SH: That was the best experience I had. They were looking for an Italian, breastless person.
AB: That was the casting?
SH: Yes, and it was written in Flemish so I didn’t understand it very well, so I just went there and everyone was Italian, everyone could speak Italian, so I thought I’m fucked, and yet I started to speak Italian, what I know ‘spaghetti, bolognese, gusto gusto!’ Then there was me and another Italian girl left at the end. It was the first time I was naked in an audition, everything naked, and he put olive oil on the floor, and we had to roll of the floor, where of course you had no grip. It’s different to water, you can’t even stand it is so slippery.
AB: Did you know that that was going to happen in the audition?
SH: No. I had no idea. But it was the most beautiful piece I ever did, it was quite an experience. It was the first time I was speaking on stage, I had to juggle, I had to sing, I had to be a man, I had to be naked, I had to speak Italian. Everything was new. I had been a very closed-minded contemporary dancer, really a dancer dancer, and it was the first time I really came out of this, and Jan found all these different elements in me, so I was very surprised by myself and by him. From then on I was very interested in expressive dance. When I met Needcompany, Jan Lauwers started to put me more and more in acting roles, and I found it super interesting to explore. I never had had any experience or study in acting, and he found it more interesting to be working with me who has no knowledge about acting, and perform in this very rough way. He found it vey pure, like when you see dancing without any technique.
AB: There is a lot to think about in this aesthetic shift to ‘purity’ that doesn’t have training behind, which of course calls into question ideas of training and what technique is valued.
AB: So talk a little bit about Grace and working with her.
SH: Grace is the other director of Needcompany, her work is very different to Jan Lauwers although they are husband and wife. Jan always writes the script first and builds an image around it, so dance is kind of secondary, it’s not the most important thing, text is the most important thing. Grace Ellen Barkey starts making an image, for her also, movement itself is not so important, how beautiful, or how fluent, it’s not important, it’s just making the image itself which she always used to say ‘don’t make beautiful movements, just make useless movements’, which you never hear! Just make very intensive, but useless movements. But it was quite interesting too: your intensity is there, and you’re doing something very ‘un-useful’, but you’re giving 100% which also creates another story out of it. I did two creations with her, there was also text in both, there is a lot of freedom for a performer, so she just gives the text, and we improvise, improvise, improvise, until we find an agreement or a way by ourselves. The last collaboration or performance was Mushroom, the music collaboration was The Residents from America, so that was a bit different. We had the music first already, and then we kind of matched with the movement and scenes with the music, and there is not a huge story behind or message behind, in a way I like it.
AB: With Mushroom particularly?
SH: Mostly, with Mushroom particularly. She also said its about political things, how people are grouping up, how people are against each other, but all these messages are not such a metaphor or big heavy thing. The performance is very light, and its easily enjoyable for everybody, therefore it’s easily enjoyable for us as performers – each time we perform we really enjoy it. And why not? Sometimes you need this also.
AB: There is something in that work that’s also playing with those more serious moments, there was probably about three, when something is mentioned that is something more dark or serious, and it carries so much weight because it’s come from this light place, and I think that was a really successful thing somehow, amongst the comedy you really feel it. It’s really hard to do comedy, to make something so funny. And it was funny.
SH: Probably the main key is that each show is so different because there are a lot of improvisations. It makes it very alive, especially the text parts. Yeah everyday is different no problem, and I think it’s also very important to have this breathing place, if everything is too set it becomes machinery, a mathematical machine.
AB: So let’s finish with your most machine-like choreographic experience, as a dancer, what was the piece that you were in that felt like you had to repeat it exactly the same every single time, what that piece was, what that did it do to you as a performer, and how you navigated your way through that as a performer?
SH: Since I moved to Europe, I don’t think I had this experience. Rosie Kay maybe. I worked with Alias in Switzerland, we kind of improvised for a month, just improvise, improvise, improvise, and then he filmed it and we had to refind it, and it was difficult.
AB: It’s not an uncommon process, happening in the UK also, and yes a difficult process
SH: You watch the film back, having now lost the feeling and sensation of then, it was not easy.
AB: And the work that was made from the recreation of the improvisation, was there still flexibility in it to evolve or was it then quite precise?
SH: It was quite precise, yes, In the beginning you don’t find the freedom because you are so focussed on the structures, you need time to evolve in a way, when you perform it. That’s a good thing about European companies, you don’t perform only four times and throw it away. You do 50 or 100 times, and by doing that you kind of evolve, find a way, some breathing points, you develop it, you know where it can be flexible. For example in Korea, you make a piece after spending months on it, and perform it about four times. I find it quite a pity that you don’t tour more, recycle the performance.
AB: To recycle, but to get to know it, and for it to be seen and known. I’m just thinking about the thing I saw yesterday that was 13 years old. The emphasis on always making new work treats performance and the performer’s body as disposable; it’s a very wasteful model in some ways. And the emphasis in festival applications for new work, well what’s that idea all about really?
SH: In Korea if you do repertoire you get, “we don’t support that”.
AB: What’s wrong with repertoire?
SH: Yes what’s wrong with repertoire?
AB: The expectations around the new thing being the better thing, obliterating the old thing, always hope in the future… it’s a little naive perhaps .
Sung-In her is presenting You Are Ok (Work in Progress)at Trip The Light: Intercontinental Drifts on the 20th June 2015.