Die Meistersinger

25 Sep 2018 - Stanford, CA - 18:00

My grandfather escaped from North Korea in the midst of the Korean war when he realized the danger of staying in the village where he lived. Quietly, in the middle of the night, he dragged a boat to the water with two other young men from his town, and they alone, family-less, set away. He arrived in what would become South Korea, and worked in labor camps, the typical but tragic way to eat, drink, and tenuously tread water during post-war reconstruction. After some time, he became an important freight-forwarding business owner. I have magazines on my bookshelf with his wry, dry smile on the covers.

My father, his eldest son, wanted to play music rather than anything else. Before long, my grandfather found out, and tore up all of his music books. My sister anthologized this event in our reconstructed family history with a simple imagined declaration: “It is not a man’s job to play music.”

My father listened to Die Meistersinger, a Wagner opera about guild singers from antiquity, in our house when we were growing up. After a little while longer, I learned about the Nazi’s love of Wagner’s music. My father listening to Die Meistesinger, Nazis burning paintings: a sort of Stockholm Syndrome tied to banning art that followed our family from Korea to Chicago.

There’s a painting in the SFMOMA by Anselm Kiefer with the words “Die Meistersinger” scrawled at the top. It’s a blue painting of a field, with the canvas covered in straw. The clumps of straw that sit atop the paint are protrusions sagging out, like herniated sacs. Straw becomes organs, spilling out of itself and gushing red paint into other parts; straw creates autonomy, crafted through bloodless flesh. I look off to the horizon of the field. Circles of red and white lie silent next to phantasmic black splotches that float out of the canvas and into the air besides the straw.

These clumps were die meistersinger. They burned in secret and sang in the tempo marking langsam und schmachtend, which, my dad explained to me once, translates to slow and languishing. They performed in theaters as, elsewhere, what my father cherished was removed, slow and languishing, from memory.

My father was der meistersinger. In one dream I have, I see the painting, my father’s face within the straw. He furrows his brows, as he always does, and 12 limbs of yellow stalk rupture from his body. He screeches, like a Francis Bacon painting, vaults towards me, and the last thing I see before awaking is blood, in the same red color as what hides behind the numbered cardboard of the painting.