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Hyung Seok Jeon explores identity through solo performance

Performance art can often seem daunting to the average theatre-goer. Many millennials may immediately think of Freddie Prinze Jr’s “Hacky Sack Scene” from She’s All That (an uneasy & half-baked example of the form, to say the very least). If you’re limiting yourself to Neil Simon and avoiding the MOMA altogether, Hyung Seok Jeon’s performance art may inspire you to dip your toe into the unknown. A Held Posture, his most recent piece, provokes the audience to fill in their own narrative. In this interview, we talk about how Hollywood blockbusters inspires his work and where his national identity fits in. 

You’ve been making films since you were 14 years old. What were the original catalysts for those first pieces? What kind of subject matter did you explore at that age?

I was focused on the grammar of things. For example, when I started making videos and watching films carefully, I realized that if you shoot some shots in a certain way, you can tell that what you’re seeing is being shot by the camera. Or if you shoot in another way, you don’t realize it is being shot by the camera and feel like you are there. Recognizing those differences was fun. Also, just looking through the viewfinder was a big part of the fun too. Nowadays we have monitors and screens, but when you see through the viewfinder it is the same thing but the atmosphere around it is so different

Hyung Seok Jeon

Subject matter wise…I guess identity? For example, I lived in NYC with my parents for two years while I was in middle school.  Living in Queens at that age, coming from South Korea, it was a big cultural shock for me. After 2 years, we went back to Korea. I think it was about three months in (we moved back to the same town in Korea where we used to live) that I went to school with mohawk hair. Back then, most of middle and high schools in Korea, you have to wear same uniforms and boys have to have same really short hair style. But I showed up with a mohawk and it became a big issue. I had to go to principal’s office…my mom had to come to school.

After the event, I realized I wanted to say something. It was more to myself then to others. ”After 2 years of experiences in a foreign country, I’m the same me, even though my appearance might have changed.” My appearance didn’t actually change, but I guess I wanted to stress that I’m same me, by changing my appearance in a radical way.

Also, I made another piece, a short film that imitated the visual grammar of a scene in the Matrix, cool film for a kid at that age. And making it about different replicants killing each other.

And here I thought I had it rough moving from Texas to California!

Oh!! I think every migration is a big internal step!!! Even from Yonkers to Brooklyn.

Who were some of the first artists you were introduced to in your upbringing?

I’m not sure I can say artist, but filmmakers. I was sooooo into Hollywood films (like Spielberg films). And then in high school, I discovered other filmmakers. In case of theatre, when I was in high school, I saw Slava’s Snow Show. It blew my mind. There is a scene where a clown comes out to the stage with a suitcase, sits down, opens the case, and a little helium balloon slowly rises up and up and up to the high ceiling of the theatre, and disappears It was a magical moment.

Hyung Seok Jeon

Is your family supportive of your artistic endeavors?

Emotionally yes. I’m very grateful for my parents. Many of my friends face their parents’ disapproval of pursuing art. Traditionally, one should get a good stable job and get married and settle down. But I feel, that way of living is a form of art in itself, I see my friends getting married, having kids. Raising a human being, growing together. That’s totally an art practice too. My mom is a ceramist, so I think they are more open to me pursuing art too.

I love that point of view. Here I feel like, when someone leaves NYC or LA, goes back home and starts a family, there’s this idea of failure. Or that you can’t create art in a different way.

Totally. You live your life and art comes out of it, that might be your craft, painting or family. Putting life (or living) in front I feel is very important. I’m not sure I’m doing that well though, haha.

It’s hard finding a balance for sure, but I guess there’s beauty in accepting the ebb and flow. Sometimes you get to focus intensely on your art, sometimes it’s more on family.

Balancing is so hard. Maybe there is a way to do one thing and fulfill both aspects of life. Meeting Alexander Technique at grad school was a big change, I feel. Coming back to your own body, helped me to find a grounding point.

Did you find the cultural differences daunting once you got here? Or is the act of creating a theatre a helpful bridge between cultures?

Yes and no. I feel, general atmosphere here is that people are more generous and open for experimentation. But at the same time, we watch commercial films from here and narrative structure often tells us that we can really understand what is happening in the US. Actually living here, I think it is very different. Such  mix of cultures in NYC can be daunting but that is also the beauty of it. I feel. I have not lived in other parts of US, so I don’t know. I heard New York is different from rest of US? Is it true?

I think it is part of the question, can we understand each other? How do we live with each other, how do I even live with myself?

New York is a very special place. There’s such a mix of cultures, but most importantly you can’t avoid other cultures. Everyone is living on top of each other, taking the train together. Here in LA, for example, you’re surrounded by the same wide swath of culture but you can stay in your own little bubble. If you want to be surrounded by middle class tech people, you stay on your side and avoid certain parts of the city. Which really segregates things. I think that’s why NYC has such bravado. Everyone is working together.

I see. I’ve been in LA for few days when my cousin was there and I really enjoyed it. NYC’s fast rhythm is a lot. I’m a very slow thinker. Sometimes, I feel I make these work for myself to help me calm down.

How does your national identity (being from South Korea) play into your work?

I don’t know yet. I feel I’m starting to ask that question. I asked myself, ‘What if I directed A Held Posture and let my friend perform it? Depending on that performer’s identifying gender and skin color, how would the piece work differently?

Trailer for A Held Posture by Hyung Seok Jeon from Nicki Pombier Berger on Vimeo.

Tell us about A Held Posture. The generational references make it feel like a very intimate, personal piece. How much of the work is drawn from your life?

It’s definitely autobiographical (as many solo performances often are), but the piece didn’t start from that. It started from an image impulse of a small object falling into a huge body of water and slowly sinking down. I had that impulse 5 years ago maybe? I first made it into a short piece I can perform for my friends, one on one, sitting across a coffee table. At Sarah Lawrence College, we were given a year to develop a solo piece as our thesis project. During this time I took playwriting classes for which I did daily free writing sessions. I revisited this writing later and picked ones that seemed to have something to do with the image impulses that I had.

My father lost his father when he was young. I’ve never met him. Somehow, that patriarchal connection found a space in the piece through the metaphor of sinking down, through that sensation. I feel one can explore what’s inside of oneself. Also I’m hesitant to say the word ‘self’, you know. It’s a construct, but still when you go inside one or just sink down, I feel there is a pile of concentrated something. So I wanted to ‘see’ what that is.

Hyung Seok Jeon

A Held Posture — Created, Designed & Performed by Hyung Seok Jeon // Theatre Lab performance photographed by Alex Shi

A Held Posture has so many visual elements to it: puppetry, film, choreographed movement that makes it feel almost like a dance. What playwrights / visual artists did you draw from during the development period of this piece?

I participated in the residency at The Watermill Center in 2014.  I was able to observe the artistic director Robert Wilson’s theatrical vocabulary. I was greatly influenced by vocabulary of theatre and his careful attention to each given object I feel I was influenced very much. Also, during that time I started working with rocks. Through the concept of emotional core, which I came across in playwriting class, I was able to investigate more deeply.

What advice would you give to an aspiring performer / artist / maker?

I want to say that focusing on the grammar of each medium/form can be very informative (maybe it is too obvious).

No, I understand that. Really understanding the form you’re working in, so you can break out of that form with intention

Yes, often we see a piece that wants to say A, but the form is unintentionally saying B. This is also an interesting outcome, but growing awareness of this seems to be important.

Actually, this is what my professor told us.“Don’t make and analyze at the same time. It is different brain. When you are making, just make make make. Then you take a step back and focus on editing. That helped me very very much.

Hyung Seok Jeon is a multi-disciplinary theatre maker from South Korea, based in NYC. He is focusing on inviting video cameras on to stage performances. More info can be found:

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