At the PuSh Festival, Cuckoo uses talking rice cookers to unpack tragedy

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      To understand the importance of the rice cooker in South Korean culture, start with Jaha Koo carrying his prized Cuckoo model with him as cabin luggage when he first moved to Europe for graduate studies.

      This was not simply because Koo, like many Koreans, is picky about the quality of his cooked rice. The adorably bulbous contraption with the computerized voice was also a little bit of home. Invented in South Korea, it’s considered no less than an object of national pride.

      But even Koo did not realize how important the rice cooker was to him until he lost a friend to suicide a few years ago. “I was living in Amsterdam, and that was very sad and tragic for me,” the multimedia artist recounts over Skype. He’s now working in Ghent, Belgium, at the avant-garde arts centre CAMPO—and in a much happier headspace, celebrating the arrival of a baby boy. “I was sitting next to the rice cooker and suddenly the rice cooker said, ‘Cuckoo is finished cooking rice. Please take me.’ And somehow I felt relieved. This is not human; it is a machine. It was sort of a posthuman friendship. And so I started to think about the work.”

      In his resulting performance installation Cuckoo, part two of his Hamartia Trilogy, Koo uses the home appliances to explore the isolation and helplessness his generation feels, not to mention technology’s role in that. In it, three hacked rice cookers take on a life of their own. Light panels are now rigged to show their emotions. “They have conversations, they sing a song, sometimes they fight with each other,” Koo says, adding they have become telerobots, and performers alongside him. “We inserted small computers inside and when I perform I operate the rice cooker via wireless. And one of them always cooks rice.”

      Eunkyung Jeong

      In the work, Koo also interweaves his own personal torments with the last few decades of South Korean history, specifically the fallout from the 1997 financial crisis that put the country under the International Monetary Fund’s fistlike control and led to violently suppressed protests. The 1984-born Koo also addresses the high rate of suicide that plagues his generation to this day.

      Koo’s dark critique of his home country’s sociopolitical gaps makes it hard to resist asking him about Bong-Joon Ho’s Parasite—an Academy Award–nominated film that takes a similarly biting look at the struggle between rich and poor in his country. “What I feel, actually, is I really like his film, but somehow I was really disappointed,” the artist comments candidly. “He’s getting to be a really old guy and has the perspective of old men, with how forced the female characters in the film are—and how we make stories regarding female characters is very important in society. The characters are very male-dominated; the mom and the daughters support the male characters.”

      Koo’s ongoing interest in South Korea’s situation speaks easily to the social disparities he sees performing Cuckoo around the world, from Athens to Taipei—and Vancouver.

      “I am very much looking forward to showing the work in Vancouver at this time,” he says. “When we think of Vancouver, it’s a lovely city and a very beautiful one, but I would say the reality is different from my imagination.” He’ll soon find out that it’s a whole other kind of cuckoo.

      The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Cuckoo at the Waterfront Theatre from February 3 to 5.