Monday, September 5, 2011

Performance Art in the Subway Cars: Dongdaemun to Incheon

Performance Art is one of those areas of the art world that you either like or dislike. As for myself, the more zany and out of this world the more I am intrigued to watch. But I know for those uninitiated Performance Art can look like just a bunch of crazy people acting nuts. However, it is a medium of art that is so close to the human experience, that a painting or sculpture just can't radiate.

The Tate's glossery page describes the medium like this:

Art in which the medium is the artist's own body and the artwork takes the form of actions performed by the artist.
With that said let's begin our journey into a Seoul subway ride that was anything but normal. Around 1pm the artists started to show up and eventually were a sizable group.
We had a set departure time, that of 2:06 pm and as we waited Eric briefed us on what to do.

The artist, Jin Sup Yoon, engaged in the experience by drawing pictures throughout the event.

Our train arrived and we sheepishly stepped into the train car. Actually, this was the moment I was most anxious for. How were a group of performance artists going to deal with the dilemma of a train full of unsuspecting people? But I knew one of the best traits of this art form is it's interaction with the audience. In this respect, I was full of excitement at the same time.

The artists above (from left) Gwen Atkinson, Brooke Carlson and Bianca Turalija, got the groove going on the train by letting the deep notes of the saxophone get everyone's attention. While he played Gwen spoke a poem in English, and when finished Bianca translated it into Korean.

While this was happening the artist, Mrat Lunn Htwann, was setting up his materials for his performance.

Immediately, the attention was on him as he set up slippers, a black furry swath on the subway chair and rope hung in the style of a noose.

During Mrat's set up / performance the sound artist, Sato Yukie was playing his guitar. I think the element of sound made by his guitar gave a nice narrative to what was happening. In some ways I think it helped soothe whatever nervous feelings people were having.

Mrat's performance was kicking off and soon he was found wielding an iron and interacting with the audience, by "ironing" them. It made for a lot of giggling on the train.

When people would walk away from this confrontation he went with this energy and followed them. The following picture shows him going after one girl who was quite surprised.

Jin Sup Yoon got in on the fun and added his own element with the iron. 

But not all who were on the train that day could deal with this aspect of the performance art. One man, who was being interacted with by Mrat, had a go at him. He mostly used language as his choice of weapon and was very upset. Thankfully he was cooled down by the photographer, Young-il Kwon. 

I'm going to make a video of this event and I believe I have a clip of this altercation, which can show just how powerful performance art can be.

 I was actually amazed and impressed that the following two passengers didn't flip out and go off on tangents, considering the kind of "face value" culture there is in Korea.

Accompanying this crew of artists was "Tiger" from the group "Tiger and Bear."  Their a duo of artists who have interpreted Korea in a very interesting way. The following, taken from their blog explains this better.

When James Topple and Colin Riddle moved to Korea, they had an idea to investigate how people have adapted
to the economic and social changes that have taken place over the past decades.
They would do it through the eyes of “Tiger and Bear,” important creatures in Korea’s mythology.
The results are fresh interpretations of modern-day Korea.” -The Korea Herald

His performance included walking around the train car and passing out a paper that had both Korean and English on it. Another theme he used was the image of many phallic shapes on his shirt and ones drawn on his body, which I am guessing relates to a theme in their 2D artwork.

At this point "Tiger" was doing his thing along with Mrat and then the artist, Park Juyoung started hers.
Her performance consisted of walking up the aisle of the train car, while pleasant music was played via a recorder dangling around her neck and paintings displayed in her hands. It is my interpretation that she was commenting on the same actions made by disabled people who beg on the train. Note: she is deaf. Although considerably more mellow than the other performances I found hers quite evocative.

More "Tiger" prowling around the train...

Meanwhile, during all this Eric Scott Nelson was at the front of the train engaged in his own performance. His consisted of laying out cat food in a message in Korean.
However, by the time I was aware of his performance I was too late. As the officials on the train were quite upset with it and asked him to clean up. His message reflected an event that happened earlier, which was his cat had gotten run over. The message was meant to say thank you to those riding the subway as that prevents cats from getting run over, but he didn't get the chance to finish writing it.

At this point the artists gathered their things and met up with Eric. We were getting closer to Incheon and less people were on the train. After some time the artist, An Jung began her performance.
In this performance she used a food directory book as her material. In it were white stickers that she peeled of and placed in her mouth. Then she proceeded to peel out pages and pin and tape them to her head.
It was a quiet and thoughtful performance that properly ended the trip to Incheon. Afterwards, we all grabbed a bite to eat and put fuel back in our artist bodies.

The PAISC event was definitely something I will always remember, as it was my first time seeing performance art in such a grand manner. I look forward to making the video and showing you guys what it sounded and looked like.

I hope this has sparked some interest in Performance Art and shows just how creative and dedicated artists of this medium can be.


  1. I understand the concept of performance art, but I don’t think the inside of a crowded subway car is the appropriate place for it. There are plenty of other places where a group can express its creative performance to the general public. I think it is telling that these folks feel compelled to foist their performance on an unwitting and captive audience in a relatively small, enclosed space. It begs the question of how many people would enjoy their performance if they were free to escape from it.

  2. Jon you make a great point and thank you for sharing. It is true that the space chosen definitely calls for some controversy. I was especially in tune with the whole bus scandal recently and a little worried. I think these artists enjoy that this space is being "invaded". During the after hours we talked a little about doing it in the subway and many folks expressed that if people don't like it they can move to another car. I am not sure if the group will do it again. But maybe...they are thinking of different places and spaces to go to.

  3. I think anyone visiting any country should be mindful of the people, culture, and tradition of that particular country. They should also be aware what they do and not do reflect on the rest of people back home. (I hate the stereotype of loud and obnoxious Americans). Respect and courteous.
    These artists chose the time and the train with intention to carry out their agenda. Hijacking, that is what I call it, a train full of people in a name of art and force them to watch and be unwilling participants to some crazy routines, then I think it is a bad idea especially in a confine space like this. I don't think I mind if this was in an open space like a park for example. At least I have room to get away. But I should not be a circumstance that I have to make that choice.

  4. Those are good points Frank. FOr the most part people seemed interested and amused. But definitely there was an air of uncertainty. However, I kind of liked seeing people react and also how things unfolded in this space.

  5. born out of social space, performance art questions, challenges, and celebrates being human. what we as people do with our space matters, and i appreciate both frank and jon's comments concerning respect and invasion. is advertising an intrusion? what sort of choices do we have in the presence of people, places, and things we do not like? p.a.i.s.c was a beautiful experience of people making art in the seoul. if more people made art today, the world would be a better place.


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