The Phantasmal Moments That Plunge You into Contradiction


The Phantasmal Moments That Plunge You into Contradiction

Established in 2003, Theatre Momggol is Korea’s most distinguished street art troupe. Its 2016 production Bad Impulse is the company’s third work to be selected for PAMS Choice, following Orpheus (2005 PAMS Choice) and Handcart, Overturned (2006 PAMS Choice). We met and spoke with company founder and artistic director Yoon Jong-yeon at the troupe’s rehearsal room in Mullae-dong

▲ 필자와 윤종연 대표 © 이강혁

▲ The author with Artistic Director Yoon Jong-yeon © Lee Kang-hyeok

You’re also the artistic director of the Ansan Street Arts Festival, but you look a lot younger than we expected. When and how did you get involved with theater?

I was twenty years old when I first attended a workshop held by Yoo Jin-gyu. Mr. Yoo announced that he was starting mime again after a brief hiatus, and opened a workshop in Boljae Studio, near Gongan Small Theater. He said he was going to start a company after the workshop, so I joined as its youngest member for about a year. Afterward, I went to the UK to study corporeal mime for around three years. A year after I got back, when I was around twenty-nine years old, I started Theatre Momggol.  

So you got your start when Korean street arts were taking off.

Street theater was exactly what Yoo Jin-gyu was attempting back then. It was very simple at first. It started with small conversations about how to transform objects d’art and capture the attention of passersby, and it grew from there. In ’94, we teamed up with members of the mime association to establish the Chuncheon International Mime Festival. Originally, it was a small project intended to instigate exchange between Japanese and Korean artists. We did a lot of interesting outdoor projects in the mid-’90s. We performed in the lobby of Yonkang Hall at Doosan Art Center. We also set up a scaffold on the stage of ARKO Arts Theater, planted various dolls among the seats, and did a performance that started in the lobby and progressed to the stage. We even did a reenactment of the assassination of Empress Myeongseong at Gyeongbokgung Palace. We didn’t have a permit, so we just performed in various spots around the palace trying not to get caught. The choreographer then was Shin Yeong-cheol, who is now part of a troupe called no name. I was shocked that we could put on shows like that. When discussing the evolution of Korean street performances, I think it’s important to talk about productions before the advent of events like the Gwacheon Festival or the Ansan Street Arts Festival. Examining those early performances will give us a richer perspective.

It seems that you had a rich base of resources when you founded Momggol.

We started out in a rehearsal studio near Saejeol Station. I was young and in high spirits, and enjoyed showing off, so I redid the floor myself, applying my experience in building a studio in England. Although I had to tear it all out when we left, I found our current studio in Mullae-dong, where we’ve been stationed for about ten years. I wanted to be closer to Daehangno but didn’t have the money. Lately, more artists have moved into the area, but it was quite desolate back then. Most buildings in the area had a factory on the first floor and a second floor full of trash and discarded materials. We did a fair amount of construction on this place, and have lasted this long.
Before I studied in England, I was interested in external factors, formal techniques that could beef up content, and decorative elements—much more so than abstract concepts like "truth" and "justice." Even with physical language, I was more concerned with the shapes of movements that occurred by chance, and continued my training to be able to extract those moments. That’s what the ggol, which means "shape," in Momggol ("body shape") embodies, an emphasis on the external elements. Of course, my ideas have changed since then.

Any particular turning points?

There were probably a lot, but I think street performances comprised the main one. For early productions like Orpheus and Handcart, Overturned, I performed on a stage. For street performances, however, I had to encounter different ways of living, underwent interviews that were more theatrical than theater itself, and witnessed phantasmagoric visions that seemed to float above the city—all of which changed my approach to dance. Meeting different people made me think about the relationships that form between people, about the driving force behind human movement, which naturally led me to social issues and the current generation, the stories of contemporary humanity.

When I randomly saw a Momggol performance at a festival, I was quite struck by the phenomenal bodily language and the grand-scale mise-en-scène.

In the early days, I trained my performers so hard that it almost qualified as exploitation. Rigorous training was the most important thing back then. Rather than focusing on simple movements and technique, I endlessly explored how their bodies interacted with the surrounding physical realities and the contradictions that I could extract from such interactions. I think that by using an unfamiliar viewpoint to perceive objects that are rife with spatial and temporal contradictions, we can set in motion poetic, phantasmagoric moments. In those moments, the audience falls into a theatrical phantasm. The performers are suddenly sucked under the bedcovers, which transform them as if throwing them into a bog so that they take on the appearance of an island. Those are the transformative moments that I sought to extract. I think that the uncompromising movements and physical training that we underwent formed the base of our potential. Since then, we’ve emerged to the surface to start thinking about daily routines, contemporary society, and our lives in this era. To be honest, I got really ambitious after getting some attention, and produced some grand-scale productions that I’m not so proud of anymore. Now, I think who you meet and where you meet is more important than mass appeal and large crowds. Of course, visually appealing performances are always good for the street, but it’s most important to find ways to better communicate with the audience.  

Some performers have been with Theatre Momggol for a long time, yes?

To me, a single performer like that is worth a hundred temporary performers. They understand the original vision and mission of our early days, but can still keenly perceive the direction and goals of our current projects, so we can work together fluidly without having to say much. There was a time when I sought to meet new performers and perspectives through different workshops and methodology seminars, but I’ve lately seen the hidden potential and power beneath all the years of trust I’ve built with my most loyal performers. 

▲ <불량충동> © 극단 몸꼴

▲ Bad Impulse © Theatre Momggol

About Bad Impulse

About Bad Impulse, what kind of production is it?

In 2013, we were given an open studio by the Seoul Street Arts Creation Center, which supported our production in showcase format. What we completed then we performed at last year’s Hi Seoul Festival and Goyang Lake-Park Arts Festival. After those two festivals, we toned it down and perfected it. What we created was something that offered more delicate textures, a spatial quality, controlling the work’s density in a fresh way. Turning away from massively flashy spectacles, we focused on subtle, clandestine movements. What first resulted was Orpheus. However, taking a ten-year-old relic from our past and putting it on contemporary stages for the sake of nostalgia made for a cluttered, clumsy process. So we decided to keep the tools and material but add our grievances and discontent, and the result was Bad Impulse. The ladder, one of the objects d’art of Bad Impulse, and its movements represent insatiable desires and greed that only grow as one chases them, thus creating anxiety that leads to regressive behavior and impulses. We also show extreme decisions like suicide, seeking to explore the results of such choices. I’ll be performing in the upcoming production. I started out as a dancer, so to move around with the cast allows me to communicate in a new way. 

Theatre Momggol is also known for its unconventional applications of large-scale objets d’art. Would you tell us more about the ladder in Bad Impulse?

The most important thing to consider when selecting an objet d’art, actually, is the dancer. Thinking about objects or materials isn’t inspiring. Imagining a dancer’s place in relation to the object, however, effectively turns the object into a theatrical device. That’s how we arrived at the ladder for Bad Impulse. Ladders are usually stationary and can only be climbed when stable, so we created a production around an unstable ladder. In Handcart, Overturned, I decided to employ a handcart after imagining dancers being placed in positions that differed from everyday life. 

Your productions were selected for PAMS Choice in 2005 and 2006, and again this year. What has changed in your approach?

Being selected for PAMS Choice brought many benefits. Truthfully, when the market first started out, the idea of turning my work into a sales pitch was unfamiliar and discomforting. Yet I experienced something while performing abroad. It’s similar to what I learned while working as artistic director: Creating a good production is important, but it’s also important to share your artistic vision with festival and company organizers and formulate creative relationships. It’s important to consider what you want to give people, since we’re not creating a material good or tangible product.

Multiple Perspectives

As the head of one of Korea’s premier street performance companies, what do you anticipate for the future of Korean street arts?

Street performances have developed significantly, and now capture the interest of cultural policy makers, and I think perspectives regarding street performances are continually diversifying. The words and formats associated with "street arts" or "street performances" still haven’t been accurately defined, as the scene keeps changing. These days, I actually think it’s more important to continue broadening our spectrum to absorb more forms and approaches, as opposed to firmly sticking to a certain form. In fact, the very word "street" has always contained a wide range of meanings. I believe it’s necessary to interpret the genre so that it can grow in as several fields. For example, you could approach it from a hip-hop or artistic perspective, or you could craft a production in the name of civic responsibility, which would open up a whole new path for street performances.   

What’s in store for Theatre Momggol in the near future?

This year, we’ll perform our production The Grave Faraway at the Seoul Performing Arts Festival, the Hi Seoul Festival, and the Goyang Lake-Park Arts Festival. We’ll alter the format depending on whether it’s an onstage or outdoor performance. We’ll also continue working on a collaborative production with B-Floor Theatre in Thailand, which we started last year. The director of B-Floor Theatre is interested in the issue of censorship. The military junta, the royal family, and religious authorities put severe restrictions on freedom of expression for artists. That’s why he’s so interested in freedom of expression. He’s also done a lot of research on the subject. Last year, we headed a co-production that covered the issue and performed it at the Bangkok Theatre Festival. This time, the Thai company will lead the operation. I’m interested in a long-term partnership, and am curious to see how our perspectives will merge next year. 

▲ Director Yoon Jong-yeon © Lee Kang-hyeok

▲ Director Yoon Jong-yeon © Lee Kang-hyeok



Oem Hyeon-hee (theater critic)
Oem Hyeon-hee (theater critic)
Oem Hyeon-hee is a theater critic who was born in 1977. Since publishing a piece titled "What Is the Public Quality of Street Theater?", Oem has contributed to a variety of publications. She is currently the editor-in-chief for the Korean Theatre Journal and the Forum for Children’s and Young People’s Theater, and is currently a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, Korea. E-mail