by Jai Arun Ravine
If sound waves could manifest as a corporeal presence, they would take the form of Korean American dance and performance artist Dohee Lee.
In early October I observed a rehearsal of Lee’s current work, MAGO, which will premiere at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on November 14 and 15. Lee was rehearsing at Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland with sound designer Adria Otte, who has collaborated with Lee on the development of the sound score for the MAGO project since 2011.
As I witnessed Lee move through her material, I noted various states and qualities of texture. The utterance of her voice and body was at times airy and spacious, at times fiery, directed and harsh, and in other instances like pulled and stretched out thread. I saw correlations between the articulations in her throat and those of her fingertips and spine, and traced the intimacy between gestural voice and gestural body. They were deeply in tune—tonally resonant. Her movement was at once incredibly specific and infinitely elastic.
In my notebook I wrote, “She moves in a way that’s like the physicality of sound.”
Afterwards as Lee discussed the project, she conveyed that “in traditional Korean shamanic ritual, the way of communicating with spirits is vibration.” The role of musicians in such rituals is to support the shaman’s journey through states of shape-shifting, transformation and transfiguration. Their percussive and metallic tones travel, aiding the shaman’s journey to a specific place and helping the shaman attune to a specific mental state very quickly. During rehearsal I experienced the accumulation and release of breath and vibration within Lee’s body that was required for her to shift and pass through. In program notes to MAGO, Lee writes, “She placed a bell in my hand / and it vibrated throughout my entire body. / Its energy made me dance and sing. / / That was the beginning of my journey.”
Like these ritual musicians, sound designer Adria Otte creates an environment of sound to assist Lee on her journey through MAGO. During the course of their collaborative process, Lee sometimes conveyed to Otte the story or intention of a certain section of movement, and at other times a specific description of the type of sound needed at a particular point. Lee and Otte explained that each section has distinct emotional tones, but that within these sections lives the potentiality for those tones to flex, transform and adapt to the unknown.
In discussing her process of compiling and creating the score, Otte shared that “it’s about finding a sound with lots of different aspects, that can morph in multiple directions.” Her tools include repetition, a variety of filters, and an exploration of high and low frequencies in order to manipulate mood and texture. With this archive of sound at her disposal, Otte mixes elements of the score live, supporting the path Lee takes as she moves through the work. Other collaborators will join Otte, including drummers and live interactive animation, to create the landscape within which Lee moves and against which she tunes her voice and body. The energy of this landscape, motivated and influenced by sound, is dense, palpable and highly charged.
These charges are emotional, spiritual and political. The MAGO project utilizes traditional Korean shamanic ritual and myth to create a new ritual form that responds to the continued struggles against militarism and US imperialism in Lee’s homeland of Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Jeju was the site of the April 3 massacre of 1948, in which 30,000 islanders, protesting the division of the Korean peninsula, were killed in an “anti-Red” campaign led by South Korea’s first president, US-backed Syngman Rhee. Nearly 60 years later in 2007, the South Korean military began to push forward plans to build a naval base in Gangjeong village, on the south side of Jeju. Despite resistance from Jeju’s residents, many of them elderly, who “have laid in front of bulldozers, staged hunger strikes, done jail time, and penned banners in their own blood” (as journalist Puck Lo reports in her multimedia piece The Egg and the Rock), construction is currently underway.
The construction of the base is eroding the island’s ecosystem and many aspects of traditional culture on Jeju, among them the practices of the haenyeo, women deep-sea divers, who submerge as much as 200 feet without oxygen tanks to collect abalone, urchin and shellfish in the coral reefs, and who work through their 70s. Lee meditates on this in one of the sections of MAGO, in which she works with a long river of cloth, tied at one end to a post and extending along the floor. Lee told me that the cloth symbolizes waterways and their relationship to the haenyeo, who dive all day and then return home to their children and grandchildren. She begins at the free end, wrapping it upon itself as she moves and sings, connecting the tension of the cloth—the water—with her gut in a way almost umbilical, until the entire cloth is balled up like a baby, like a seed.
This seed is a symbol Lee uses elsewhere in MAGO to reference the future of our world, and to ask important questions like, “What action do we take now? What character do we show?” Puck Lo’s thorough mapping of Jeju’s history and struggle in her multimedia piece The Egg and the Rock calls us to examine the root causes. Lo writes: “This isn’t just about how a naval base is going to be built in a far-away village of 2,000, or about the casualties caused by the unstoppable march of progress toward industrialization and a global economy. This isn’t a nostalgic history of the haenyeo. It’s not about a few hundred farmers, or endangered dolphins and the ecology of an island off the coast of South Korea. This is about us: our legacy as people and what we are losing.”
Lee’s performance invites us in and shows us a history we were unable, until now, to see or hear. “We urgently need myths and rituals to regain what we have lost in this destruction,” Lee writes in program notes to MAGO. “I believe that art has the power to creatively confront our struggles–to regain our strength and to take action.” In order to provide context for Lee’s work, I also spoke with Korean diaspora activists Eugene Kang and Hyejin Shim, who both spent one month on a solidarity trip in Jeju during August 2013, a project documented in Lo’s article.
Villagers and activists have been fiercely opposing the naval base construction for over seven years, and opposition still bravely takes place on a daily basis. “The most important thing to convey is that the struggle isn’t over, even if the base is completed,” said Kang. “It will only be the start of a new struggle,” one in which the residents will have to contend with the inevitable changes military culture will bring. “Seeing another way that US imperialism, neo-liberalism and militarism are being played out, both here [in Oakland] and in Jeju, on a global scale in a way that’s very personal, is intense,” remarked Kang. “It’s an opportunity to build with other organizers working against the militarization of the Asia Pacific,” he continued. “These struggles uniting across countries, across the world, is the next step.”
During the rehearsal I observed, I was kinesthetically awakened by the intensity of the physical, emotional and psychic states through which Lee moved, how deeply she was able to go, and how quickly she was able to shift. The process of performing MAGO takes incredible energy, but the catharsis it provides is necessary for Lee. As Shim told me, “It can be hard as a Korean to dig up your own history.” Beginning with the story of Jeju can lead to uncovering other buried histories and the sharing of more stories, leading to deeper connections within one’s family and community and opportunities for release and healing. “The challenge is, with that knowledge, how do you move forward?” asks Shim. Lee’s MAGO is a ritual performance within which this question can be contemplated and ultimately answered.
“The Jeju struggle mirrors struggles across the world,” says Shim. With global attention currently focused on topics like Syria, ISIS and drone warfare, Shim notes that “it’s also important to pay attention to more subtle forms of military buildup. When a military base moves in, the economy shifts and people become reliant on it for sustenance. What kind of work is possible in that framework?”
To witness Lee invoke “the ancient time of the universe,” the creator goddess of Korean mythology, the haenyeo, the crow’s protector spirit and the seeds of future life is to be affected by a frequency vibrating just underneath everything. MAGO moves us with its resonant questions. What is the vibration that will end genocide, occupation, militarism, and US imperialism, that will unite us across our struggles and across continents? What is the vibration that will tune us in to each other, that will move through us?
What would it sound like?