Physical Dramaturgy: Ein (neuer) Trend?

Dramaturgie im zeitgenössischen Tanz ist ? positiv gemeint ? ein heißes Eisen. Idealerweise sind Dramaturginnen und Dramaturgen während der Erarbeitung eines Stücks die besten Freunde der Choreografen. more more



Please touch!

Poet Hwang Chi Woo on the difference between Western and Korean understandings of beauty

Hwang Chi Woo is heading the Korean delegation at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. He hopes that the exposure his country is getting in Europe will lead to a better understanding of Korea's 5000 year cultural tradition, in which feeling is more important than seeing.

Ten years ago, I looked at the dome in Florence for the first time and was overwhelmed by its grandiose splendour. Anyone looking at it must feel that way. The dome doesn't look like a stone building but like an inner harmony of perfect musical composition. What obsession drove the people of Trecento, who didn't even have enough to survive daily life, to build such a superb building? I teach at a Korean university, and refer to "Kultur der Renaissance in Italien" (English version) by Jacob Burckhardt and "Renaissance und Barock" by Heinrich Wölfflin, but still, I was overcome by emotion at the sight of so many monumental marble buildings in one city. I felt small, pathetic, weighted down. I left the Palazzo Pitti in a rush, feeling dizzy. What was that then?

Wherever you go in Europe, you encounter numerous buildings that appear to be totally convinced of their own significance. Whether in Barcelona, Paris, Berlin or Prague, they draw the observer's attention and demand admiration. These buildings seemed to me like great masters who, after finishing their work, take a step back, cross their arms and ask confidently: "Aren't you surprised?"

They demand unconditional praise. The Changkyong Palace, the south gate in Seoul and the Tempel Bulkuksa in Kyong-Chu go through my mind, all buildings that represent Korean culture. I compare Europe's and Korea's monuments and feel unwell.

Because South Korea is the honoured guest at the Book Fair in Frankfurt, many European journalists have come to Korea to research Korean writers and the country's culture. I help to connect them with the authors, find translators, rent cars. And they always ask, "How should one regard Korean culture?" To that I have to say: "You can't see Korean culture, you have to touch it." And I describe how pathetic I felt as I waded through European culture for the first time as a backpack tourist.

I visited Prague in 1999. It was actually Kafka that drew me there but the city, as seen from the Charles Bridge, seemed to be something unreal. It was beautiful, no question. Irritated, but at the same time impressed, I meandered through the narrow lanes and arrived by chance at a museum. There were all the instruments of torture that have been used in Europe since the Middle Ages, beautifully displayed, row on row. They looked like anatomical tools, constructed with great inventiveness and calculation, designed to subject the human body to the worst pain imaginable. As I left the museum, I had the feeling that I understood why Kafka had represented this city as a nightmare. Of course the wonderful Charles Bridge and the stately castle have no direct connection to the instruments of torture. But everywhere in the world, power hides behind beauty and horror lurks in the shadows of monuments. I was unexpectedly reassured by recalling Walter Benjamin's saying: "the assets of culture are not only a document of culture without being at the same time a document of barbarity".

If you consider Korean cultural buildings using European aesthetic categories like "the beautiful" or "the sublime", you won't be able to comprehend them, because they are inconspicuous and look almost squalid. They are simple in design and form, modest in size and proportion and unspectacular in their colour. Monumentality, grandeur, and attention to detail are not characteristics of Korean architecture. It is better described with the term "gozol", which means "inconspicuous, plain, simple and modest but also elegant and gracious". Koreans didn't build pyramids, nor the Great Wall of China, nor the Dome in Florence. They have not erected anything like the stately and commanding defensive castles of the Japanese. Let us recall Benjamin's saying. Korean culture insists that the absence of European artistic characteristics be viewed positively. There's a difference between a culture that can't afford something and one that doesn't want something and therefore tries to avoid it.

The rooms of the Palazzo Pitti are full of Renaissance masterpieces and Baroque paintings by the likes of Raffael and Rubens, which I only knew from books. The decor in the inner rooms is majestic; the brilliantly coloured frescoes on the ceilings look down on the visitor. Nothing is left to chance, everything is planned and decorated, right down to the last detail. At the same time, each of the many paintings demands all your attention. I was so overwhelmed, I thought I might have to throw up. It was a new, unfamiliar feeling for me and it took me utterly by surprise. Because there I was, beholding works of art that represent the height of human culture, that I had been longing to see forever. Why I reacted so strongly must have something to do with a Korean cultural pattern that I have internalised, consciously or not, that is awake and responsive in me.

Korean architecture is more an object of touch than of visual perception, which is why Korean buildings – unlike the castles or old European cities, which were built into the heights – do not look commanding or impressive from a distance. Traditional Korean houses are built in inconspicuous places and in dimensions that are intended to correspond to the human body. Koreans are more likely to sit or lie on a floor, which Europeans walk on with their shoes. The buildings come into contact with the body in a much more intense way and therefore there are parallels between them. As a whole, they seem to be kept upright, to be carried by the breath of the people that live inside them. A traditional Korean house breathes in a very natural way. Air passes in and out through the door which is covered with rice paper and the loam walls. They are built without any nails, from wood and loam alone, they decay slowly and, after a few generations, return to nature, like the human body. The form, however, remains unchanged and the wood and earth finds life anew.

Buildings in Korea – whether they be palaces, institutions or aristocratic homes – are not spectacular in size. Koreans used to believe that big buildings made their inhabitants ill. Traditionally, one took the average size of a person as a point of reference and used dimensions that corresponded to this. Today, one wonders at the smallness of the rooms in the old houses of Korean aristocrats. It seems that they adopted a very particular world-view: they took a step back, reduced the space they occupied in order to make the outside world larger. Monumentality remains foreign to Korean architecture.

It is often said that architecture is art's womb. When one considers the patterns that repeat themselves in Korean architecture, one notes that a particularly Korean ideal of beauty is unconsciously at work. It is also to be found in painting, music and poetry. Art should serve to empty out content and draw silence into the void. Such art possesses a certain incompletion and openness, and this is the link between architecture on the one hand and poetry and painting on the other. In their houses, Koreans do not aspire to great detail, too much consistency, too perfect proportions, excessive ornamentation or luxury. They prefer things that look awkward and unfinished, that are not smooth to the touch, but rather a bit coarse, raw and dry; colours that are not oily and shiny but matt. The terms "simplicity" and "grace" characterise Korean aesthetics, and these distinguish Korean from Japanese or Chinese art.

In the European consciousness, Korea is a far away, unknown country on the eastern edge of Asia. It falls in the shadow of China and Japan. But it's a country with a culture of 5,000 years. Koreans have reflected on life in their own language and looked at the world through their own lenses and they still do today. Korean culture, which cannot be adequately understood with European aesthetic categories, hopes to be understood by Europeans as something unto itself and calls out: "Don't look, please touch!" The Book Fair will play the role of a telescope that zooms into Korean culture, enlarges it, makes it visible. Will that make it touchable?


Hwang Chi Woo, born in 1952, published his first poems in 1980. He teaches at the Korean Academy of the Arts in Seoul and is director of the Korean presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on October 15, 2005.

Translation: nb

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles. - let's talk european.

More articles

No one is indestructible

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TeaserPicA precision engineer of the emotions, Peter Nadas traces the European upheavals of the past century in his colossal and epic novel "Parallel Stories", which was published in English in December. The core and epicentre of the novel is the body, which bears the marks of history and trauma. In his seemingly chaotic intertwining of lives and stories, Nadas penetrates the depths of the human animal with unique insight. A review by Joachim Sartorius
read more

Road tripping across the ideological divide

Wednesday 1 February, 2012

TeaserPicThe USA and the USSR should not simply be thought of as arch enemies of the Cold War. Beyond ideology, the two nations were deeply interested in one another. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov were thrilled by the American Way of Life in 1935/6, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa praised the sheer vitality of the Russian people in 1947. Historian Karl Schlögel reviews a perfect pair of travel journals. Photo by Ilf and Petrov.
read more

Language without a childhood

Monday 23 January 2012

TeaserPicTurkish-born author, actor and director Emine Sevgi Özdamar was recently awarded the Alice Salomon Prize for Poetics. Coming to West Berlin in 1965, Özdamar first learned German at the age of 19. After stage school she went on to become the directorial assistant to Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff at the Volksbühne in East Berlin while still living in West Berlin. Harald Jähner warmly lauds the author's uniquely visual sense of her acquired language and her ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable dividing line through the city.
read more

Friendship in the time of terror

Monday 9 January 2012

Nadezhda Mandelstam's personal memories of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her intimate friend, offer a unique and moving testimony to friendship and resistance over decades of persecution. Published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the text is still unavailable in English but has recently been translated into German. A unique historical document, celebrating an intellectual icon in an age of horror. Portrait of Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
read more

Just one drop of forgetfulness

Thursday 8 December, 2011

TeaserPicThis year is the 200th anniversary of the death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.
read more

German Book Prize 2011 - the short list

Tuesday 4 October, 2011

TeaserPicEugen Ruge has won the German Book Prize with his novel "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" (In times of fading light), an autobiographical story of an East German family. The award is presented to the best German-language novel just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here we present this year's six shortlisted authors and exclusive English translations of excerpts from their novels.

read more

Torment and blessing

Wednesday 28 September, 2011

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu escaped into exile in Germany in July this year. His new book about his life in Chongqing prison has just been published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder". Both book and author have a life-threatening odyssey behind them. I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller
read more

In the vortex of congealed time

Monday 12 September, 2011

No other European city suffered more in World War II than Leningrad under siege, when over a million people lost their lives. Russian literature delivers a rich testimony of the events which have been all but forgotten by the West. Only a few works, though, also do the disaster aesthetic justice. By Oleg Yuriev
read more

My unrelenting vice

Tuesday 6 September 2011

In this apology for the vice of reading, Bora Cosic describes the magnificent and fantastic discoveries of one of its practitioners – revealing how texts contain what we bring to them, how we sometimes read without reading and how books are not only found in books but many other places. 
read more

Potential market, no buyers

Monday 4 July, 2011

The most successful Croatian book of 2008 sold exactly 1,904 copies. Not what one could really call a market, although together the successor republics represent a single language community. A look at the situation of publishers and authors in the former Yugoslavia. By Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
read more

Head versus hand

Monday 27 June, 2011

TeaserPicThis year's German International Literature Award goes to "Venushaar", a Russian novel that starts out as a dialogue between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer, and opens into a vast choir of voices. A conversation with its author Mikhail Shishkin, a literary giant in his own country, and his German translator Andreas Tretner. By Ekkehard Knörer. (Image: Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler)
read more

Cry for life

Monday 20 May, 2011

Algeria's youth: Frustrated, isolated and in the stranglehold of clandestine political structures. Young Algerians are rebelling against being locked in traditional political and social structures, but have no chance of a national uprising like that in Tunisia, says Algerian author Boualem Sansal. An interview with Reiner Wandler.
read more

Witness to intellectual suicide

Tuesday 3 May, 2011

TeaserPicOn what would have been Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran's 100th birthday, Suhrkamp has published a volume of his essays from the 1930s, "Über Deutschland". Effervescing with enthusiasm for Hitler and fascist ideas, they cast a dark shadow over his later writing. Fritz Raddatz wishes he'd never had to read such abominations and bids a former companion a bitter farewell. Photo: E.M. Cioran © Surhrkamp Verlag
read more

RIP Andre Müller

Wednesday 13 April, 2011

TeaserPicAndre Müller Germany's most insightful and most feared interviewer is dead. Elfriede Jelinek said of him in her obituary: "Andre Müller goes all the way into people and then he makes them into language, and only then do they become themselves." Read his interviews with Ingmar Bergman and Hitler's sculptor Arno Breker in English. Photo courtesy Bibliothek der Provinz
read more

A country on the edge of time

Monday 4 April, 2011

TeaserPicSerbia was the country in focus at this year's Leipzig Book Fair – its extensive literature seems to be bound up in the straitjacket of politics. Serbia is having a hard time with Europe, and Europe is having a hard time with Serbia. Although there are signs of a softening stance, the country is still locked up in the self-imposed nationalist isolation into which it manoeuvred itself as the aggressor in the Yugoslavian war of secession. A visit there inspires mixed feelings. By Jörg Plath
Photo: Sreten Ugricic
read more