"Let a Sleeping Bear Lie"
While participating in the 2016 Artist-in-Residence program at YATOO Korean Nature-Art Association in Gongju, South Korea, I created a site-based performance work, "Let a Sleeping Bear Lie," inspired by the old "she-bear" legend in the Gongju and Geumgang River region. The legend tells of a she-bear who captured a human man in her cave, his eventual escape and the bear's tragic death in the river in pursuit of her beloved. The Gongju legend was likely related to an origins myth of the Korean people that also involved a bear-human encounter. In the Dangun story, a bear and a tiger pray to Hwanung, the son of Hwanin, the "Lord of Heaven", to make them human. Hwanung gives them a task to perform. The tiger gave up before the task is complete, but the bear perseveres and is eventually rewarded by incarnating into a human female. The bear-woman, Ungnyeo, made offerings of thanks to Hwanung who decides to marry her. They have a son who became the ancestor of the Korean people. The allegory may be thought to symbolize the unified origins of the entirety of the Korean peninsula.
The project was also informed by the rich mask-making traditions as well as the Salpuri ritual funerary dances of Korea. Using silk (the meaning of Geumgang is "silk river") and other materials, I constructed a costume and mask in which to perform the bear as she processes through the Yeonmisan forest in search of her man, down toward the bank of the river and eventually arriving at the shrine built in her honor on the other side of the river. The Yeonmisan mountain, the grounds where the legendary cave is purported to be located, was adjacent to the artist-residency.
Photographs: Daekyum Rho
Performance; Cherie Sampson
Shot on location around Yeonmisan Mountain and Bear Shrine, Gongju.
See also: Video/Film
The Gongju She-bear Legend:
A large female bear was lonely and trapped a human man in her cave in the Yeonmisan mountain. He was in captivity there, surviving on the provisions provided by the bear from her hunts. They gave birth to two cubs. One day, the bear went out hunting, leaving the man behind in the cave. She no longer blocked the cave entrance as she gradually began to trust her mate would stay put. However, finding the cave open, the man escaped from it and down the Yeonmisan mountain to the Geum River at its base. The she-bear returned to the cave to find her man gone. Searching for him, she eventually made her way to the river and called out to him but he did not respond to her. He had crossed the river to the bank on the other side. Distraught that the man was unresponsive to her, the bear threw herself into the river, along with the cubs, and died. As a result of her death and tragic spirit, fatal boating accidents occurred in the river. A shrine was erected along the bank of Geumgang River to assuage her spirit and finally the accidents ceased. The shrine is located on the wharf where it is believed the man had crossed to, known as Gomnaru or "Bear Wharf."