by Steven Pisano
If you could videotape and then three-dimensionally play back for an audience one of your recent dreams, it might look like Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral, presented at La Mama last week as part of the ongoing Prototype Festival.
Yoon is fascinated with the subconscious, the hidden side of us that lurks below our everyday awareness yet nonetheless influences who we are in our waking lives. In a voiceover early in the show, Yoon says: “The architecture of the mind is an infinite space.”
Deliberately sharing the same title as a prelude by Claude Debussy (“La cathédrale engloutie”), Sunken Cathedral is not an opera, nor a concert, nor a work of musical theater. It does feature, among other things, a violin, Tibetan bowls, empty tin cans, a metronome (from Yoon’s childhood, we are told), and hand clapping. There is also Yoon’s marvelous ethereal singing, which is worth the price of admission alone.
Accompanying the music were gorgeous surrealist projections featuring the kinetic sculptures of South Korean artist U-Ram Choe. There was also dancing and drumming by Vong Pak, dressed in a Korean folk costume, a long ribbon snaking from the top of his hat (known as a sangmo).
Yoon has described herself as a “sound artist,” and during a Q&A after the Saturday matinee performance, director Glynis Rigsby spoke of how the show was put together over the last several years more like a painting than anything else, arranging colors and shapes in sound.
The stage was filled with evocative objects. Circles of wood bisected the stage. The hammers of a piano hung on a wall like a freeform sculpture. A grandfather clock served as a portal through which the performers passed back and forth (think Alice in Wonderland, or C.S. Lewis’s Wardrobe). Projections of stars on the walls wheeling away like galaxies, or a school of giant squid.
Interrupting one extended passage of trance-like singing, during which Yoon is seen preparing a meal as if she just got home from work, we hear the abrupt squawk of an answering machine message. It's Bora’s mother, who asks: “Bora, how are you?” The audience laughs. This is what our lives are like: in the midst of our private realms of thought, we are interrupted by phones, by mundane obligations, by our mothers checking up on us.
But as effective as Sunken Cathedral is musically, it is less clear how this aural landscape works as theater. Without narrative or human emotion, it is hard for an audience to invest itself. Perhaps I'm too traditional, but in the best performances, the performer(s) and the audience embark on a shared experience together. An audience that can share the performer’s “story,” for lack of a better term, makes that story their own. An audience that doesn't understand the performer's private symbolism can enjoy it's surface virtues, but ultimately cannot internalize it. We become voyeurs, passively looking in through the window.
In the original Breton myth on which Debussy’s piece was based a century ago, there is a cathedral immersed in the sea near the coastal town of Ys, which magically rises up out of the depths on clear days, when one can hear on the wind the sounds of bells and priests chanting before the cathedral sinks down again below the dark waves. In much the same dreamlike way, Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral rises up to intrigue us, to entertain us, to enthrall us with its mysterious beauty. Then it too sinks back down, to be forgotten until another day.