by Jai Arun Ravine
Wind, rock, women. These are the three abundances (samdado or “three many”) of Jeju Island, which lies off the coast of South Korea and is home to Korean American dance and performance artist Dohee Lee. Yet Jeju is also the site of a different kind of “three many”: massacre, militarism, US imperialism. MAGO begins in the mythic past of preverbal time, cuts through the thick silences of memory, and invites us to connect to our personal and collective histories and myths in order to protect and sustain our world.
MAGO / THREAD OF KARMA
The world premiere of MAGO was staged at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on November 14 and 15. From the plaza the audience enters the long and narrow space of the Grand Lobby. Lee crouches low on a small raised platform at the front end. Behind her, down the platform’s steps and along the floor, trails a long thin stream of white cloth. Sound designer Adria Otte mixes the soundscape from the gallery’s balcony above. Lee embodies the Korean creator goddess, Mago.
The energy is something very ancient, existing before spoken language yet carrying the memory of eons of struggle.
Something like bacteria escaping from eroding rock on the sea floor, flexing its cells toward sunlight, coming into sentience. When she speaks it is a stone’s language—one that is highly porous, contrary to its surface. She wears a garment that seems to be made of thinly pressed paper, and she sheds her papery skin with a series of guttural whistles, like threads of breath and sound, like air released through punctures in her body.
Lee walks along the white cloth to the back, onto another, higher platform. More lengths of white cloth are draped from the ceiling behind her, falling to the ground, Korean text visible on their tips. She breathes sharply, in and out, her whole body expanding and releasing. She vibrates with the voices of ancestors speaking all at once.
Clumps of white oblong shapes, like seeds or eggs, adorn the skirts of her dress. Small bells rattle when she shakes. She lifts up her top skirt to reveal more seeds, now fetuses. She gives birth to the world, to future life. In the program booklet is a sketch by Lee of a crow holding something in its beak: a clear rounded object with dark pointed ends on either side. In the margins by this object are the words “Soul = Seed = Eye.”
Then the audience moves into the Forum. Two large projection screens are set up on either side, and strips of white cloth hang from the ceiling to frame a small wide platform upstage. As we filter in, Lee sits in the middle of the space. A white trail of cloth from the back runs along the floor underneath her. Her garment is again made of paper, with many strips tied into the band at her waist and falling outwards. She reads from them. Sometimes they seem to be excerpts of stories or letters. Other times she seems to be reading names of people, of ancestors, perhaps people who died in the April 3rd massacre of 1948, in which 30,000 residents of Jeju were killed in an “anti-Red” campaign led by US-backed South Korean president, Syngman Rhee. (See journalist Puck Lo’s multimedia piece The Egg and the Rock to learn more.) The video projection behind Lee is of an elder woman’s face, a rock crop and the ocean, a boat.
When everyone is seated, lights change and after finishing the strip of paper she is on, she says in English, “grandmother.” In the program notes Lee writes of her grandmother, a haenyeo or deep sea diver of a long tradition of women divers in Jeju, who to this day dive as many as 200 feet without oxygen tanks to harvest fresh abalone and urchin. Lee figuratively dives from the rock into the water, sings and dances the memory of her grandmother and the haenyeo lineage. Lee picks up the end of the white cloth and begins rolling it up upon itself with gentle care. The ball of cloth becomes a buoy attached to a lifeline, a baby attached to an umbilical cord, a baby strapped to her back.
The projection turns from water to tree, from blue-green to the color of rusted iron, copper, and sand. Lee slips out between the strips of cloth in a dress the color of dried blood. She moves about the space light yet weighted and anchored, placing her body in shapes that are like questions. She is almost child-like, a young sapling, jutting out and retreating back in again, at play yet inquisitive, testing the limits of her range, or what might be answered. Her joints are like knuckles of new branches rotating within their sockets, choosing a direction and sprouting. With her arms she traces the soul/seed/eye in the video projection across a dry, mountainous landscape.
Because Lee moves in the way of questions, traveling along lies of inquiry, following the seed, she uncovers hard truths and atrocities.
A dramatic change in the soundscape acts as a veil being ripped away from the eyes, a necessary violence, exposing her suddenly to a history that was silenced and denied. The eyes of the Crow show us images of what appear to be an American military officer, an elder man and a soldier with a gun, and a young child turning to face the camera with an expression of incomprehension. While these scenes play out Lee sits on a charred tree stump with short black mesh branches coming out of its sides and sharp black barbs. The stump makes me think of rebar and concrete, and the blasting of sacred rocks that occurs now in Gangjeong village, where construction of a US naval base continues today despite daily resistance from Jeju residents.
The weight of destruction and injustice bears down on Lee. She moves now in another set of broad paths across the space, but this time there is no lightness; her body is jostled by memories, once silenced, that now contort and fight within her. This knowledge seems to also age her and bring her new wisdom. She comes to stillness, and breathing heavily, grieving, she says, “Over 60 years, and it still continues,” a reference to the 1948 massacre and the current naval base. At some point I begin to feel the entire space vibrating from underneath, sound ringing from the floor into the risers and our seats. I feel it enter through my feet. The beat thrums and Lee’s voice hovers and sails.
INVITED RITUAL – CROW
After a musical interlude with the Spirits, Lee returns as the Crow. In her program notes, Lee writes that when visiting the massacre sites on Jeju, “I constantly found myself in the company of a murder of crows. It seemed to me that they were witnesses and protectors of the land and lost souls.” To become the Crow she dons an impressive garment that incorporates elements of her previous dress. Hints of white seeds jut from her hips, and strips of paper with writing fall down the sides of her high-collared jacket, which is lined with red underneath. Tufts of feather jut from her forehead and temples.
She is like a seer with a majestic, trickster stride. She moves with fierce, powerful angularity, commanding the space with her chin and shoulders. She wears sensors on her hands, and specific gestures trigger video and audio cues. She asks us “What did you see?” and gestures one way, triggering a new video loop. She asks us “What did you hear?” and gestures in another way, triggering a series of short audio clips.
The Spirits have come to sit in the aisles with the audience, in effect asking us to go back in time with them. In this climactic moment, Lee shifts the focus to everyone in the audience, repeatedly asking us, “What did you see? What did you hear?” The overlay of audio and video clips calls us to name these acts and release the buildup of energy. I hear someone shout out “colonialism,” and another, “airstrikes in Gaza.” Lee invites us to “Open your eyes. Open your ears.”
And then she says, “Let’s bring the heartbeat back.”
Like a wind, she draws in four drummers, or Crow Warriors (Adria Otte, Codie Otte, Elisa Gahng and Yeri Shon), who rush in with drums on stands, placing them in a wide but tight crescent. Lee joins them and they begin. I have witnessed Korean drumming groups before, and it still astounds me how quickly yet delicately the drumming can go from a resounding thrum to the shush of a whisper. It is incredible to see how the drummers’ bodies pulse, how it really is a dance with the drum, a dance of vibration, from bone marrow to muscle to flesh to wood to stretched hide to air.
The suppleness, yet also the gravity of their movement as they jump and drum across the line—to the right, to the left—and clatter across the tops of the rims. Watching Lee and the drummers is like hearing a wave crest and crash on a rock face, at once the rush of its break and the tiniest ripple. As the Crow, Lee becomes the wind, not only in feather but also in voice, in flight and with the drum. Experiencing their drumming is like being enchanted by a deep undercurrent—an undercurve rising up, swelling, up and up.
Suddenly I want them to be in an outdoor amphitheatre or on a cliff face by the sea. I want moonlight and firelight instead of stage lights. I want to sit on the earth instead of a plastic chair. I want to be closer to this source, their magic.
The Spirits lead us back into the Grand Lobby, accompanied by the brass droning of the Spirit Musicians, where Edward Schocker plays large glass vases and smaller glasses of water. The sound now is the brittle clatter of sticks on glass, of water against glass, silvery. Lee enters in a sea creature’s dress, playing a small silver harp in the shape of the soul/seed/eye. She walks along the trail of white cloth. The sound now is like light passing through water. The voices of the Spirits on the staircase behind us resonate like metal, a hum deep in the gut. I begin to feel that we are all creatures living in shells, or barnacles attached to sea rock.
Lee is the undercurrent of water, the undercurrent of wind. Her singing makes the water move from underneath.
I am awed by Lee’s capacity to create and orchestrate a ritual with a full house of witnesses, to invite and weave everyone in, to collaborate and connect. To be this kind of shaman requires an incredible amount of vulnerability and openness.
The night after seeing this performance, I had a dream about a compass filled with water, the words “wet” and “wager.” Lee stirs an ancient time buried within the rock, and directs us from underneath toward what we must see, hear, and uncover. There is a solemn pledge we must make. What do we risk if we do not open ourselves to the truth? What is the cost if we let what we carry drown?
Read Jai Arun Ravine’s preview article on the MAGO project here.