By Dao Strom
A woman in white walks down a New York City sidewalk. Her dress is a construction of paper strips, fragments layered into a plumage, each strip inked in Korean script. The woman is Korean. As she walks she performs a ritual that involves waving red paper. She moves down the street toward a building. A building with an alleyway. Bystanders turn their heads. She kneels in the doorway, in the alleyway. She seems to be wrestling with the red paper, either to wrest something from it or signaling with it. She appears emotional. A police vehicle arrives at the end of the alleyway. This is when the woman gets up from her ritual and walks off down the sidewalk.
In 1982, another woman–also Korean-American–walked down the same New York City sidewalk. She was an artist. She had moved to NYC a short time before from the SF Bay Area, where she’d been developing her practice as an experimental writer, video-maker and performance artist, working in the hybrid arena between genres, in the poetic area between shores and losses, languages and cultures. She was 31; her career, one might say, was on the rise: a book about to be published. She couldn’t yet know, but in a decade this book would go on to be quietly seminal among scholars of Asian American avant-garde and for other women artists like herself: women of color, working between established spaces. This artist was Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. On that evening Cha was on her way
to meet a man, her partner, at a certain address. She reached the address but didn’t make the meeting. Someone intervened; her life ended that evening, tragically.
Dohee Lee’s MU/巫 theater performance opens with Lee, in her white costume, beating on a set of traditional Korean drums beneath a video projection of the performance ritual she conducted in front of the building where Cha was murdered nearly four decades ago. That Cha’s body was violated and then strangled, and that Lee uses her own body and voice as vessel of invocation, now, are no coincidence. The lineage of Korean diasporic women making art in the Americas is a short one, and traceable to a diasporic circumstance connected to decades of violations, namely involving U.S. (and other) military presences in Southeast Asia. In this New York City sequence, Lee picks up the truncated thread of Cha’s life and art, acknowledging the cost and also the invisibility of it. Her
ritual in this location is a gesture toward repair: revisiting a site of trauma, wearing on her body Cha’s poetry, she mourns and vocalizes in front of the very building where (we might surmise, if we believe such things) Cha’s ghost may still be caught. But now Lee is calling to the spirit, letting it know it is heard. As evidence, as provocation, she wears the dead artist’s words on her own live, vividly expressive body. Then the police car arrives at the end of the alley. The police car has shown up several decades late perhaps; but time is mysterious. As is ritual. At this point
Dohee gets up from her movements on the sidewalk, her work in the alleyway done.
I begin this essay reflecting on Cha, and Lee’s place in the Korean diaspora, because much will already have been said about the most dramatic and apparent delights of Dohee Lee’s performance work, her sheer power to engage performers and audiences alike, and her immense range—musically, vocally, bodily. Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure of several conversations with Lee in which I’ve gained greater insight into her art and intentions. The way she absorbs her surroundings while retaining the potency of her heritage is singular. In one conversation she mentioned that when she first began playing music in the Bay Area she would improvise Korean percussion with Bay Area jazz musicians, for instance. As a performer Lee is a force—able to rouse, engage, adapt. She is warm and fiery, humorous and provocative, vulnerable and deeply, clarifingly emotive.
For myself, another woman of Southeast Asian descent, I find Dohee Lee’s dialogue with Cha’s art to be an apt context through which to understand Lee’s performative ritual work. She is an Asian-bodied woman making art in America; the history of this relationship—U.S. presence in Southeast Asia—is rife with transgressions, violations, military occupations, and violence. The existence of a Southeast Asian diaspora in the U.S. cannot be separated from this complex web of political and war-related histories. Meanwhile, Lee has arrived carrying with her a deep vein of spiritual-aesthetic tradition, from her Korean ancestors and a musical-performative tradition rooted in Korean shamanism: a tradition that recognizes the power of spirits, and communing with them. Art in this vein
isn’t merely for consumption or vanity or glory, nor just storytelling. The purpose, rather, is rooted in relationship: between people and land; people and ancestry; people and other people. On Dohee’s native Jeju Island, the keepers of this tradition perform rituals to promote harmony between people and the environments they occupy.
MU/巫 is still a work-in-progress, Lee tells me, and may be different wherever performed. In Portland, Oregon for the TBA:17 Festival, she enlisted a small workshop of volunteers to join her onstage for the group-drumming parts of the show. Within three hours, she taught us not just a fairly complex choreography, but also impressed on us the true motivating aspect of this performance form: to tap into a connection, a conduit if you will, to one’s ancestors, whomever they may be. The point is not performing to be seen, but a participatory process by which your performative actions open—something—into the space. Later, over breakfast with Lee, I learned that her process for working with communities is usually spread over weeks of ongoing workshops. This culminates in a
community and audience engagement that is deeply felt and personally realized. In the Bay Area she works with immigrant and refugee groups, communities with, doubtless, many wounded ancestors. What we experienced as her Singing Body workshop participants in Portland for TBA:17 was just a glimpse of the wider net this work casts.
Lee’s MU/巫 performance embraces elements and elemental directions. The piece evoking water—built on a vocalization of weeping—is especially striking. Lee begins this sequence kneeling onstage reading a scroll, which unfurls from her skirt. Is this a history of violations she is reading, we wonder? At first she is just a single voice weeping, but then, through the use of vocal effects triggered wirelessly via hand movements (her gloves are rigged with sensors), the gesture of an arm raised or lowered, fingers spread or closed, build her weeping song into a tsunami of sorrow-sound, layers of echo and delay that transform into an ocean—a whole population’s sorrow perhaps, yet harnessed and orchestrated through a single performer’s body. Lee inhabits several more characters, including a bird-like being who seems to traverse seduction, trepidation, mirth, fear; to the final personage we meet, in a multi-colored garment and striking red-feathered headdress. This character breaks the language barrier—the whole show has so far been conducted in Korean—and addresses the audience directly in English. Her message desperate, adamant: The mountain is on fire. Do you understand me? Several times she repeats this: Do you understand me? She is challenging the audience about our environmental consciences, no doubt, but in this I glimpse, too, a shove against perceptions of the inscrutability of ‘the Other’, a stereotype that has plagued countless Asian/Western interactions, and been used to excuse western excesses in many non-western parts of the world.
In short, Lee doesn’t let the audience rest in the comfort of spectatorship. As one of the volunteer performers in the last act, I observed from the stage as Lee moved through the rows, the audience looking silent and stunned, and I admit at first I doubted Portland, I doubted us, feared we might choose to stay in our seats rather than stand up. But in the end Lee’s magnetism won over. The room woke to its collectivity.
The message in Dohee Lee’s art is in truth quite simple: Reconnection—connection itself—are crucial. Between ourselves and others; between ourselves and all the bodies of the earth. And Lee suggests we can start by paying homage to ancestors—in our own cultures, in the land. We can start by recognizing what has been wounded, and hear it sing.