Korean shamanism

TBA: shamanism for today

Korean performer Dohee Lee's blend of technology, ritual, and engagement gets TBA:17 off to a stirring start

Dohee Lee’s performance Mu at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 15th annual TBA festival is only one of the elements of her ongoing, multidisciplinary Puri Arts project. The Korean word, “puri” refers to the relieving and releasing of suppressed or suffering spirits, while “Mu” means shaman. From the start of the show (which opened Friday night and repeats at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, in the Winningstad Theatre) it’s clear that these are not allegorical titles. Lee is embodying her own new form of performative shamanism which combines traditional spiritual and theatrical elements with modern technology, contemporary settings, and current events. The large-scale projection that opens the show follows Lee as she literally brings her rituals to the streets of the modern world, walking in full costume through the streets of New York as if she was leading a procession of monks instead of curious spectators filming her on their phones.

She accompanied the large-scale projection on Korean barrel-drums, wearing the same amazing costume seen in the video. She was draped in a coat of hundreds of long paper strips bearing writing mostly in Korean, though some appeared to be in English. She wore a simple but elegant and somewhat official folded paper hat and brandished a small hand gong that carried remarkably well through the theater. The paper strips, which could easily be prayers or spells or remembrances of the dead, fluttered behind her on her long sidewalk processional as she chanted, danced, and performed a series of genuflections. While clearly following a set ritual, she demonstrated a seasoned performer’s ability to adapt to the unscripted interruptions from the world around her.

Dohee Lee’s technological shamanism.

One of the most affecting moments in that video came from an encounter with a police SUV. First appearing in the background for a moment, it later dominated the frame when the scene cut to Lee in an alleyway, kneeling in a doorframe and reciting something to herself. The SUV bristled with authority, aggressively stating its right to be where it stood. Its presence seemed to underscore Lee’s status as interloper, as the trespasser interrupting the everyday with a spiritual duty. At the moment it seemed the cops might get out of the car or squawk their siren, Lee stood up, held out her gong, and without looking back processed out of the alleyway, as if she were leading the SUV. It was the first of many moments where the line became blurry between whether Lee was using ritual as a type of performance, or she was performing an actual ritual.

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