Cuckoo is the second piece in South Korean performance maker Jaha Koo’s Hamartia Trilogy, which focuses on how the inescapable past tragically affects our lives today. Combining video, music and his own carefully delivered monologues, Koo reveals the layers of damage done to the South Korean psyche by the events of their ‘National Humiliation Day’ in 1997. In the midst of a spiralling financial crisis, the country’s leaders accepted a 55 billion dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund, on the condition that they implement the organisation’s proposed (and drastic) changes to fiscal policy. Over twenty years later, Koo depicts a country haunted by this decision, a populace suffering from the escalated inequality it caused, and a generation wracked with the anxiety and loneliness of abandonment.
Koo himself is a lonely figure. He orbits a table lit in the centre of the stage and is made small by the surrounding darkness. When he speaks, I read along to a translation that appears on a screen behind him. He’s so still, composed. I wonder how many times he’ll look out at an audience staring just above his head. Isolated by his own words. His only companions are his cuckoos, three rice cookers who sit proudly on the table, emitting twirling wisps of steam that climb up light towards a possible escape. Under the pressures of capitalism, we become more like our commodities, but here our commodities have become more like us. Hana, Duri and Seri are clever rice cookers, they can talk and so, obviously, they argue intensely and define each other by their most impressive features. They’re hilarious, swearing so furiously at one another that Gordon Ramsey would be proud to have them in his kitchen. They also sing, quite beautifully, in an eerie robotic tone. Jaha Koo is a music producer (under the pseudonym GuJAHA) and the sound of his electronic breakbeat accompanies and enhances his most potent stage images. Unafraid to let an image linger, he cradles a cuckoo in his arms and speaks softly about an old friend. His words read:
When he died, I made this music.
Koo creates frenetic montages of news footage, sharp edits portraying a people beset by panic and rage. Burning flags. Bloodied faces. Bodies clashing against one another and the earth beneath them. Acts of violence as desperate energy expenditure. When Koo speaks of the South Korean people he knows though, their energy is contained inside, pressure building up unseen. His cuckoos are able to emit steam, let heat rise, but human beings are not as well-made as their commodities. Koo reveals that he’s lost many friends to suicide. It’s the inevitability of this fact that makes it so painful.
Koo places the blame for South Korea’s high suicide rates since 1997 on the self-serving foreign interference of western neoliberal power. The United Kingdom doesn’t escape the piece unimplicated. Sitting in a room together, we soak in the same pool of melancholy, share the desolation. 고립무원(pronounced ‘Golibmuwon’) is an untranslatable Korean word that Koo keeps coming back to. He describes it as an inbetween space, or a feeling of isolation without help. Cuckoo feels like a peculiar kind of dream, a communication from your subconscious, offering some truth you’ll never be able to translate into words. I’m not sure whether Jaha Koo has created 고립무원, or made me feel it, or if it’s just sitting in the room between us, but I know it now. Cuckoo is an act of translation.
Cuckoo was on at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts on 12 February. More info here.