It’s a scene that harks back to the canons of art history; a corner restaurant strikingly reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s modern masterpiece, The Nighthawks. The street is dark except for the warm glow emanating from behind tall window panes. A couple sits huddled over a bottle of house wine. The bartender tends to the bar. A man walks by, but pays little attention to what’s happening within. But this is no downtown New York; it’s Seoul’s very own Seocho district, nestled in the back alleys of Bangbae-dong, beyond the cafe row that beckons to well-heeled brunch crews. Even the regulars agree; Foyer is a bit out of the way, resulting in a kind of unintentional urban isolation that permeates Hopper’s oeuvre. But you shouldn’t judge a space by its ground floor, especially in the case of Foyer, because what you see is just the tip of the iceberg. The real action takes place underground. Literally, in their basement black box theatre. If the dining space is white and open, the theatre is quite the opposite—black, drawn with that musty theatre smell and inanimate objects that come alive at night. Special things happen here.
“You must be commercially and artistically successful in order to produce ongoing performances. You can’t starve. And you can’t do it alone.”
Seoulites have never been too eager to embrace the ideology behind the multifunctional space. A traditional Korean adage even encourages one to be devoted to one trade, as opposed to many. From the posh Cheongdam-based Italian import, 10 Corso Como and the blatantly German Platoon/Kunstalle, to Itaewon’s hilltop haven, RUF Projects, multi-spaces are still somewhat of a novelty among locals who are accustomed to the progressive cha (차)-based social agenda. Round one: restaurant. Round two: theatre. Round three: bar. To base an entire itinerary within one venue is unheard of, and Foyer is the most obscure of them all. If RUF is the bohemian baby and Platoon/Kunstalle is the aloof eldest in the family of multiplexes, then Foyer, with its sterile walls and musty basement theatre, is perhaps the misunderstood middle child. But despite their core differences, these spaces can’t deny what runs in their blood: a penchant for good company, and a space that facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration.
Of course, any multifunctional space would cease to function without feeding the hungry. Foyer, the companion dining space to the theatre, officially opened to the public last spring, although it remained an unintentional agitpunkt (아지트) for an inside circle of friends for months before neighborhood folk started taking notice and began trickling in. Still even to this day, no one seems to enter uninvited into this corner bistro. The scenario usually plays out like this: First-time passers approach the tall window panes, peer in and glance at the smorgasbord menu taped to the window and furrow their eyebrows at items like the Sixth Form Sandwich (a nod to the owner’s boarding school days in Scotland, now retired from the menu) before disappearing around the corner.
Although people refer to the bistro and theatre collectively as Foyer, the theatre itself has actually been standing for nearly two decades as Doori Dance Theatre (두리춤터). Doori is the family legacy of Nakhyun Kang and Foyer is his brainchild. Kang, a Seoul native who spent over a decade studying and working in the UK, restored the dormant theatre to its current functioning state over the past couple years. He convinced his family to lease the ground and second floor to him and his business partner and created a complementary theatre and reception/cafe area (hence the name). Enter a diverse roster of artists and the genre-blending productions that sprung forth, and voila, Foyer Productions was born.
Despite having recently been awarded the Korean Art Critics Society’s 2010 Emerging Artist Award for his interdisciplinary performance series, Drive-Thru, this past December and having booked a five-city European tour for the production in February, Kang doesn’t seem to be at rest. Sporting a full beard most Korean men could only dream of (the kind that asks to be rubbed in a worrisome manner, naturally), he comes off slightly more European than Korean, even when he’s not speaking English. He exhibits what one could identify as masochistic working habits, such as sleep deprivation and self-isolation. And there’s a certain nonchalance about his demeanor, which could either be the European, the Korean or the Artist in him.
Drive-Thru, Foyer’s flagship production, premiered last year on Halloween weekend. This series of interdisciplinary performances combine film, music and dance as part of an ongoing creative collaboration with award-winning dancer-cum-choreographer Bokyung Jung and singer-songwriter Ida Grändås-Rhee. The Drive-Thru series, Kang explains, is made for instant consumption—a hallmark of American culture, which is increasingly prevalent in Korea as well. According to Kang, the drive-thru window is a disposable experience, and by adapting the concept to stage, he seeks to challenge the attachment many artist have to their work. He creates more and discards more, continuously reconstructing channels of communication with the audience and other artists. The Drive-Thru series includes five installments (and counting) and these ongoing collaborative productions seem to happen overnight—quickly surfacing on Foyer’s Facebook page just a day or two before the performance, then disappearing to make room for a new marquee. Fleeting, just like their ongoing collaborations.
In early January, Foyer presented Birds Come to Die in Peru (Les oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou), a show that Kang considers to be one of his more narrative productions. Contrary to what one would expect of a performance titled after birds, four dancers, dressed in identical costumes the color of moss and texture of waves, spend most of their time anchored to the floor—weighted and tortured like subjects of traditional Korean dance. Before their anguish becomes too overwhelming, the lights dim and scenes of the West Sea flash across the screen as the audience is engulfed in another visual journey through Kang’s hand-held Canon XL-2. He is never one to cut a clean edit, unapologetic about shaky cinematography, abrupt jump cuts and voyeuristic close-ups of harmless but loaded, vulnerable body parts like the neck and kneecaps. And just when the film begins to feel a bit self-indulgent, the projection disappears and the dancers return to the stage. In the final act, they take flight with powerful, synchronized remorse. The audiences murmurs in appreciation and heads out in a single file line up the stairs and into the night.
Of course, no artistic expression is complete without its critics, or in the case of Foyer, skeptics. Instead of explaining their work to those who don’t quite understand, it’s easier for the artists to accept any discord with the reasoning that we’re all informed by different intellectual spectrums.
At Foyer, work begets work, and it never stops. Kang considers his shows as formal rehearsals best described as “R&D” at the moment. For him, it’s more important that people get together to create work than to have a complete, polished show. He feels that artists often do not attach value to rehearsals, so he created a performance out of these works in progress. These dress rehearsals that draw from various genres of film, music and movements are the antithesis of the mainstream. It’s a kind of show you can’t invite all your friends to, because not everyone will get it and even the ones who appreciate it don’t know exactly why. Some of the collaborations are in fact so esoteric they could almost be considered self-serving. But for Kang, filmmaking and combining it with other arts, is his most natural form of expression. The shows are not really for show, but an extension of who he is. And for what his work lacks in mainstream acceptance, he makes up in level confidence and the ambitious feat of staging two or three shows nearly every weekend.
In the age of hipsterdom and grassroots movements, ‘profit’ has become a dirty word among purists, but the creative collective at Foyer seem to understand and embrace that capital—via grants, sponsorship or ticket sales—is what enables them to create work. Kang is adamant on refuting the stereotype of the starving artist. “You can’t be an artist without making a profit,” he says carefully. Morever, mainstream is an equally dirty word among artistic circles, but Kang has no inhibitions about embracing anything that will result in better shows. “You must be commercially and artistically successful in order to produce ongoing performances. You can’t starve. And you can’t do it alone.”
Long-time friend and collaborator, Bokyung Jung is the diminutive, doe-eyed principal dancer and choreographer behind the Drive-Thru series. Jung, who took home the Grand Prix in last year’s ACT Festival in Bilbao, could even be considered Kang’s muse, but he wouldn’t go that far to call her his inspiration. Rather than speaking of her evident talent, Kang praises Jung’s problem solving skills (“I cause the problems, and she solves them.”). Another of his ongoing partnerships is with Ida Grändås-Rhee, the sinewy Swede transplant who provides the eccentric and highly diverse soundtrack for most of Kang’s productions. The singer-songwriter made her Foyer debut at their Halloween soirée-performance, serenading the audience with her androgynous voice and straight back-lit silhouette. It’s not until you see her from up close and realize that she’s shockingly beautiful and the crew cut framing her face only accentuates her classic Scandinavian features. The director has only nice things to say about the composer, citing her ability to process information and direction at a ten times the rate of other musicians. For this group of performers, the brains are as important as talent. And talent, on the other hand, is a no-brainer. An obvious prerequisite.
Of course, no artistic endeavor is complete without critics, or in the case of Foyer, skeptics. Instead of explaining their work to those who don’t quite understand, it’s easier for the artists to accept any discord with the reasoning that we’re all informed by different intellectual spectrums. The belief that different individuals respond to different frequencies and that everything is subjective could be rather convenient when it comes to your craft. And on the other hand, it’s also a great excuse for inadequacy. But instead of becoming delusional or disillusioned, the artists of Foyer choose to focus on their ever-evolving works in progress. After all, tomorrow will usher in a new day and a chance to reconstruct a new show.