Seoulmates in dialogue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 12:00am

IT'S SATURDAY NIGHT and celebrations for the Sixth Seoul Fringe Festival has begun in the humid and barbeque-scented streets of the Hong-Ik University district. An outdoor concert is pummelling live, raw rock into the pedestrian precinct 'Street Of Try To Walk' and nearby in a raging hip-hop club, six Hong Kong artists are propping up the bar.

Almost a generation older than the gyrating South Korean youths in their midst, they look marginally out of place, until Kwok Mang-ho, alias the 'Frog King', strides into the mosh-pit. The 57-year-old Hong Kong performance artist starts to sway, then throws his arms up in the air with a poster reading 'Kwok Frog King' bearing down on the bemused dancers.

The artists have just arrived in Seoul, courtesy of the Hong Kong Fringe Club, for their opening group art exhibition. All are professionals who work in a diverse range of media, from the explosive performances of the Frog King to the cheeky ceramics of Caroline Cheng; the video art of Norman Jackson Ford; multi-media works with ink on brush of 'Ching' - alias Wong Sau-ching; installations by Cho Hyun-jae - the Frog King's Korean wife, alias 'The Frog Queen' - and computer art of Young Hay. Their mission is to spark a cross-cultural dialogue with Seoul's artists and audiences at the festival.

The Seoul Fringe is a raw event that was set up as the Seoul Independent Art Festival in 1998 by theatre director Lee Kyu-suk. The 33-year-old explains he started it because of a lack of opportunity for young artists to stage their shows. 'I wanted a festival that was boundless, expressing the whole diversity of thinking,' says this disarmingly humble man, dressed in the same white T-shirt as the mobs of young volunteers who man the 26-day event. 'There was nothing - so I started my own.'

The festival is confined to the Hong-Ik University area, a rapidly growing district of nightclubs, independent clothes shops, coffee shops and music venues.

Within these low-rise buildings and quaint streets the festival is highly visible, with banners on the trees and weekend street festivals. This year there are more than 300 artists, mainly from South Korea, and a string of international shows from Thailand, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong. The emphasis is on the performing arts, although there is a 50-programme Asian Experimental Film Festival. Lee says this year's priority is to make Asian artists create new works together. 'Asian countries haven't yet had much of an opportunity to learn from each other,' he says. And Hong Kong plays a central role in the evolution of this festival.

'Mr Lee has the same kind of obsession that we had in the early days of the Fringe,' says Hong Kong Fringe director Benny Chia, who has become something of a mentor to Lee. Since the pair met two years ago, they have launched a collaborative project. 'Korea before this was stranger to us than a South American city,' says Chia.

'6HK Artists - Seoul' is the launch, and it takes over Ssamziespace, a leading (albeit rather shabby) alternative art space down the road from the Hong-Ik University. Complete with theatres, galleries, 10 studio spaces and a bar, the venue is an anomaly in alternative art as it enjoys full funding from hip fashion brand, Samszie, and is led by Professor Kim Hong-hee, one of the most important names in South Korean contemporary art and head of this year's South Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Kim says this part of Seoul is proving to be 'the epicentre' of the country's emerging contemporary art.

'Young art has been on the periphery of the art field, but now it has become a major impetus,' she says. 'At the conceptual level, young art is rapidly developing.' The morning after their beer-fuelled arrival, the Hong Kong artists set to work and promptly take over the building. Cheng finishes first, with Chicken In Flight. More than 200 ceramic chicken feet stand around a pillar - the heads are in the Hong Kong Fringe Club and the wings in her new branch of The Pottery workshop, recently set up in Shanghai.

'I am using a ludicrous idea, a fake analysis of chickens' behaviour, analysing their flights patterns - of course they don't fly,' explains Cheng. 'They are trying to escape from Hong Kong, like the people who marched on July 1. The wings ended up in Shanghai and the legs in Korea.'

Cheng has long merged political puns, poking fun at SAR and mainland authorities - and she highlights a difference between Seoul and the SAR. 'In Hong Kong you don't have a single art university,' she cries, marvelling at the Hong-Ik district's burgeoning spirit. 'Art is to teach how to think outside the box. This is why Hong Kong is having so many problems now.'

Conceptual artist Hay is breaking boundaries. Earlier this year he was invited to Siggraph, one of the world's most important computer conferences, in San Diego, where he presented his work, Body-Brush. The installation allows participants to dance in an area with motion sensors: their movements trigger drawings on a giant projector screen - and was a breakthrough for the science world.

For Seoul, Hay has developed a smaller version of the work, Interactive Digital Graffiti, where viewers can swipe their hands across a screen to paint digitally. It is wired to the web, creating 'a human-computer interface for intuitive and creative interaction' between Seoul and Hong Kong. During the opening in Seoul, I casually scrawl 'Hello Hong Kong' on the screen to see if it really works. A reply immediately appears from the Hong Kong Fringe Club. 'Hello Korea!' appears with a smiling face.

The sharing of a drawing on a canvas-sized screen is inexplicably exciting. Adjacent to it is the Frog King's temporary lair. Netting hangs from the ceiling over a huge mound of paint-splashed 'recycled art' of toilet rolls, clothing and . 'Every primitive culture has this attitude, everybody makes a mess, it's organic energy,' says Kwok who is dressed, regally, for the exhibition opening in an ink-splattered skirt, a wig and traditional black kat (a Korean hat). And he is soon luring Fringe volunteers to add to the art work. 'Imagine you are a spider in a jungle, you must survive!' he yells at them. 'The insects are the artworks. You are the creator and so am I.'

Audrey Wong, co-director of Singapore's leading alternative art space, The Substation, arrives. 'I find this energy about the Hong Kong contemporary art scene,' she enthuses. 'It is very urban, it's very now and there's also a little bit of a sense of chaos.'

As if on cue, Kwok starts hurling toilet rolls at the crowd. 'Ching' quietly observes the madness. He is an ink painter-turned-doctor of Chinese medicine-turned-founder of the Artist Commune gallery in the Cattle Depot Artist Village in To Kwa Wan. His mixed-media work, Urban Window Hong Kong, is composed of sheets of rice paper cut out with squares (windows) and calligraphic numbers.

Downstairs, things are digital as Cho makes an astonishing use of a basement garage space. Communication Cord consists of hanging transparent plastic sheets covered in text and characters and digital symbols, with blue light eerily shining through the bags and a projected video.

It is a moment of calm before one stumbles into the Ford exhibit, Con/De-Con, an information-saturated video installation with two screens of dense visual imagery that can be seen in the Fringe Club's Fotogalerie. The American has created a fictional TV station based on Bloomberg but filled with a dizzying amount of information based on the concept of borders and spaces of transition. 'It's overwhelming, and that's the idea,' says Ford, who is studying for a doctorate in Hong Kong art at the University of Hong Kong. 'I feel it's a very appropriate project for an exhibition like this.' By the end of their stay, the Hong Kong artists have made their impact on the festival and the South Korean capital with television and press reports. And the Hong Kong Fringe Club has been rejuvenated by the trip, its founders say.

'We're reviving the Fringe Festival next year. We're going to have a City Fringe. The beauty of a Fringe Festival is that you never know what's going to happen until it does.'

6HK Artists - Seoul, until Sep 5 at the Hong Kong Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central (tel: 2521 7251). The Sixth Seoul Fringe Festival, until Sep 7. For more information, visit