Pushing Beyond the Scene with Yiyun Kang and BTS
Exploring the veiled choreography of BTS as movement beyond barriers under the surveillance of a global audience.
Go Beyond the Scene and experience a BTS inspired installation as part of global public art project, Connect, BTS. Beyond the Scene drew influence from the K-pop group’s choreography and immersed the audience in an environment of unnerving familiarity. This final look into Connect, BTS shows us the most explicit connection between BTS and the project which took place across five cities with 22 artists. This exhibition which was deeply personal and transformative for many who attended, take Revolutionaries writer Julia’s account for example. Beyond the Scene placed the audience in the unique position to experience BTS’ choreography from behind a veil, where they could come face-to-face with themes such as persona and shadow prevalent in the work of the group.
The Seoul leg of Connect, BTS ran from January 28 to March 20 at Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Beyond the Scene is a large-scale video installation project, which includes a 9-minute-30-second video directly inspired by BTS’ choreography. The artist, Yiyun Kang, is known for her site-specific video projections that take advantage of the space, and Beyond the Scene is no exception. Her work seeks to explore the relationships between spatial and temporal forms through generative immersive environments. By moving the digital world beyond the frame of the screen, Dr. Kang can invade the space of the audience as well.
Installation art and projection is not merely placing an image on a wall. The art must account for, and make proper use of, the space, which enables a connection with the audience. The projections work not only to elevate the surface, but also to incorporate the viewer into the space as lights and images fall over everything in the room. This incorporation of the audience is a central theme to not only Beyond the Scene, but to Connect, BTS as a whole (and, by extension, to BTS).
Aside from the abstract digital projections, there is the choreographed performance aspect that ties most directly into BTS’ ethos as musical artists. This component of Beyond the Scene obscures the choreography, both behind a physical veil and through performative abstraction. Beyond the Scene, being the only work in Connect, BTS with direct relation to the group, offers a unique perspective of a pop culture phenomenon through the lens of fine art. The distinction between high (fine) art and low (popular) art becomes arbitrary when you start to dissect the themes at play in both BTS’ work as pop musicians and the contemporary artwork of Beyond the Scene, which include persona and identity.
The idea of performance as ephemeral is foundational. Among the most well-known and strongly-voiced assertions of this is in Peggy Phelan’s opening sentences to “The ontology of performance: Representation without reproduction”:
Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. (Phelan, 146)
These claims open up several issues. They distinguish between the nowness of performance and representation’s promise of temporally bridging the pasts it has recorded from the present to keep for future encounters where they may be re-presented. As performance’s other, representation sometimes operates like the suspended animation technologies in science fiction stories, which extend life by shutting down everything but the most vital life functions. Still, does not suspending animation — movement, in other words — negate the very point of performance as dynamic embodiment? Beyond the Scene refuses this negation by keeping performance in permanent motion and negotiation with various media of representation and reproduction. Performance here is both representation and reproduction of bodies and materiality.
The capacity of Beyond the Scene to be an example of mediated performance art has to do with how it deals with the materiality of the medium and the virtuality of bodies. The screen is the surface upon which images are projected and is usually rendered invisible. In Beyond the Scene, images of the screen itself are represented by projecting a white light that viewers see but do not look at, at least until it becomes unavoidably visible as an image shattering to pieces. Through image, the body of the screen is made to appear as if it is breaking, which reinforces the screen as intact, because such a projection can only be made upon an unbroken surface.
After the screen is shown to perform its breaking, bodies appear on the screen, from the side opposite to where we expect; the bodies are on the screen but not as images of bodies across its front but appearing as bodies behind it, pushing and threatening to break the screen. These bodies are not visible as images but palpable in tactile ways. They treat the screen less as a field of vision and more as a tangible barrier for touch. The bodies are recognisably human but not identifiable as specific persons. Viewers cannot presume to identify them as the bodies cannot even be counted, appearing to multiply by itself. Still, they are certainly bodies, pushed against the limit of and that is the screen, the limits of what a body can normally do, and the limits of identity and individual personhood.
The focus of performance on presence also raises questions about time, which is, alongside space, a fundamental condition of reality, actuality, and liveness. What is the relation between the two, and how do prepositions, as the verbal expression of relations between two objects, like “as” and “in” function when we think of being as present in space and being in the present time? What point is there in asking about differences between the “in” of spatial presence and the “in” where we seem to occupy or inhabit time like space?
Time is crucial in performance, because movement is change, and change takes place in time. As Beyond the Scene transforms performance into video art, we see the process of spatialising time. While a live performance “plunges into visibility — in a maniacally charged present — and disappears into memory (Phelan 148), the performances in Beyond the Scene are examples of performances looped in gallery spaces, performances renewed in every encounter with viewers.
This sense of renewal happens when the white light upon the screen again appears to lose its shape, not by breaking into shards but by blooming in petal-like shapes. These are fractal geometries with a life of their own. They resemble nature but also go beyond it, in the speed of time and life they demonstrate in their rapid blooming and reshaping. Again, there is a kind of tactility at work here, but unlike the bodies physically pushing against the screen, this is a visual tactility, similar to what Laura Marks calls a haptic visuality or what Miriam Ross calls a hyper-haptic visuality.
When the images of these organic shapes become angled and shaped into the regular surfaces of the walls of a proscenium, a traditional way in which (live) performances are framed in space, the bodies reappear as images in their most primal form: shadows on a screen. They do not push against the materiality of the medium, the body of the screen, but appear at peace.Their movements look gentle, the palms pressed against the screen appearing more like dancers holding onto a surface that supports them as they move, rather than prisoners breaking through a prison that holds them.
Other fractal geometries also appear in Beyond the Scene. Some of these are more regular geometries, tiny squares that move and flow in a way that seems organic, almost like enlarged pixels trying to perform their mimicry of the natural world. Sheets of imagery that look like fabric give way to tiny dots that look like sand or computer pixels or what we imagine stardust to look like. In these shapes, especially in their movement, we see time performed — from the ground of nature to the building blocks of digital technology to the new nature we imagine out beyond the world we live.
The moves of the dancers throughout the performance are familiar to ARMY (as they draw from BTS’ routines), but the disguise behind the veil takes away the comfort of knowing exactly what’s being performed. These acts of “revealing and concealing” emphasize the duality of presentation (as there are always shadows to the persona), which is a theme that BTS has always represented in their work (link). The moves of the dancers, while hidden behind a screen, simultaneously imply both familiarity and discomfort. This represents the group’s constant battle to both present themselves as performers, while also trying to maintain a sense of self beneath the public persona.
There are other subtle links which can be made to BTS’ work from Kang’s Beyond the Scene. Take the use of the white screen, for example, something which can symbolise purity and heaven. It can be seen in songs such as Lie with the whiteness of Jimin’s bathtub overflowing and N.O with the whiteness of the classroom. Perhaps just as much as white symbolises purity and heaven, it can represent control, or a lack thereof. The shadows created by the performers forebode what was then to come, the release of Map of the Soul: 7, where shadows became a recurring theme throughout songs like Interlude: Shadow and Black Swan. Perhaps a link to Fake Love can be made, where 3D structures in Beyond the Scene bear a striking similarity to the white sculpture at the beginning of the music video. These structures and sculptures evoke an almost uncomfortable feeling of power. They are much larger than the ordinary individual, representing forces which we cannot change.
Beyond the Scene shows a glimpse of the pure, controlled and surveilled nature of idols. The audience is placed in the position of someone surveilling, on the other side of the screen; this is all a metaphor for the relationship between idol and fan, idol and public. The audience watches on while it appears the performers, shadows, are breaking through a barrier which we presumed to be a screen, but it’s far more tactile. These are the shadows of idols, perhaps they are pushing into a new realm, or coming forth into the world to walk amongst us; the real secret is that they’re already here. Amongst the shadows and uneasy feelings of Beyond the Scene comes a slither of hope from projected colour onto sculptures. This light touch reminds the audience that among the controllable forces in life, beauty can spring out of dark corners.
Performance art offers direct access to the temporal and physical capabilities of creative work. In the grand scheme, Connect, BTS itself is very much a living organism, with multiple parts that cross over time, space, technologies, and people. Beyond the Scene demonstrates this on a smaller, more concentrated scale and in multiple aspects. As we’ve seen in various elements of this project, the participation of the viewer is essential to the experience. Kang, like many artists, has a similar goal to BTS: to provide some form of healing through creative means. The unifying catalyst between BTS and Kang’s work as an artist, even outside of Beyond, is the audience.
ARMY is such a major part of BTS’ success and motivation, and this influence is certainly felt in the space of Beyond. Kang interviewed 15 ARMY in London to serve as foundational research for this project. When asked how she wants her work to be perceived, she had this to say: “The conversation with BTS fans of diverse ages, jobs and backgrounds gave me a chance to look back on my art. Fine art is sometimes too exclusive. While it is called ‘high culture,’ its influence on the general society is so little compared to that of BTS. I hope my work will give the audience, whether they are fans of fine art or not, some consolation and healing effects, similar to what BTS gives their fans.”
Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press, 2000.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.
Ross Miriam. “Hyper-Haptic Visuality.” In: 3D Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015.