MOON KYUNGWON and JEON JOONHO are artists with a mission. This mission has been channeled into their ongoing project New From Nowhere. A multi-faceted initiative which encompasses video art, collaborative research work across different disciplines and workshops exploring the themes which the project presents. The first film of the project, El Fin Del Mundo, is a sci-fi production presented in split screen. One half of the tale follows an artist as he collects objects for a sculpture as the apocalypse approaches. Meanwhile, viewers see another character, unpacking these items in a time which has followed the apocalypse.
This film has been followed up the Anomaly Strolls, another sci-fi film, specially commissioned by Tate Liverpool which features the city as a location. This multi-screen work follows the same male protagonist as El Fin Del Mundo as he journeys to Liverpool where he explores abandoned buildings, empty alleyways and forgotten watering holes which may be familiar to visitors to Tate at the end of November.
The South Korean artists want their work to question the role of art in society, its future uses and our own relationship with these themes. Sam Turner caught up with the duo ahead of the exhibition opening on 23rd November to ask them about their ongoing project, their experiences of making their art in Liverpool and their aims for the exhibit.
You mention that the News From Nowhere project began with a scepticism towards art. One charge which is often levelled against the world of contemporary art is that it sometimes fails to connect with wider society. Has the process of putting together News From Nowhere involved you evaluating this attitude?
It was never our intention to start this project to demand change in our society or to teach morals. The term ‘re-think’, in this project, does not in any way suggest ‘re-set’, which is often perceived as an action to defy everything and restart. Instead, the prefix ‘RE-‘ here is a call for sympathetic solidarity. Namely, the ‘RE’ is used to suggest thinking about something again — and better yet, solve problems and share opinions. To us, the correct role of art is not providing the right answer, but to share the very process of inquiry and discussion.
Our intentions imply a self-reflective attitude instead of evaluating art within the discrepancy between contemporary art’s idealistic discourse and reality.
When describing your films you seem to be careful not to describe the post-apocalyptic setting as neither a utopia nor dystopia, which is quite refreshing. Have you found that viewers have reacted to the work by categorising your imagined future as either of these? What else have you learnt specifically from peoples’ responses to the project?
We were able to confirm that the viewers discover in the video work the continuities between an artist’s last days and the beginning of a newly born artist. We know this because we have been asked countless questions regarding this from our audience. Our film, El Fin Del Mundo, questions the meanings and roles of contemporary art, borrowing a particular situation of the apocalypse and its aftermath.
The film is based on a dialogue we’ve shared on skepticisms and reflections of the art of our times, felt throughout numerous past exhibitions. It is also an intersection of an artist’s attitude and appearance at the final moments of this world, and the birth of art upon a newly conceived aesthetic spirit of a newborn humanity after the apocalypse.
At this convergence between end and beginning, we sought to approach a step further towards the inquiry of contemporary art’s significance and function.
We had many opportunities to talk to people who had interpreted our work in directions different from ours, which was not only a very refreshing experience but also a chance to find new meaning in our project. For example, we encountered various thoughts and opinions on the scene where the female protagonist comes to a realisation of beauty. Based on this, we organised a forum in Chicago on “what is beauty?” and held a seminar with the participation of many people. As such, we always find ourselves learning from the audience and making new discoveries as our project progresses.
In your depiction of the future there is a social system which features the ideals of both capitalism and socialism. Would you describe yourselves as political artists and do you think art has a duty to critique politics?
We personally do not think that artists are obliged to criticise politics, but it is important to carry an attitude of doubt and reflection towards various social phenomena that tend to become reduced to a fixed system and singular value.
In writing the scenario for El Fin Del Mundo, we tried to reflect the current social, economic, and political situations in our society as much as possible. Had we not done so, our intention to question and discuss discourses in contemporary art through a fictional, futuristic setting would have been ineffectual.
While money, the medium of current Capitalist economies, has disappeared in the future world of our creation, another medium emerges to replace its function.
TEMPUS, one of the multinational corporations which replace the current government system, utilises Aquaria, a candy-like capsule merging essential nutrients and water, as a medium of exchange and compensation for labour like today’s money.
We would like to emphasise the importance of a practical attitude to reflect the present and envision new possibilities through the power of artistic imaginations. This is the pursuit of our project.
Why was the collaborative element of News From Nowhere – in which you have worked with experts from the fields of humanities, sciences, religion and culture – important?
One of the most central factors in proceeding with this project was to go forth together. The initial motive for the project was to escape the current field of art that has been secluded both by internal and external wills, seeking alternatives by listening and collaborating with others. That is why we endeavoured to create borderless conversations and questions with people from different fields as much as possible.
You have stated that your work is designed ‘to pose questions about the social function and role of contemporary art.’ Do you have your own views of this role?
Our aim is not to envision an interesting image of future society, nor to suggest another utopia or dystopia. It is definitely not to propose an art form of the future or to set an ideal example.
Instead, we resist against problems of the art world in the present day, breathing amongst society to seek meanings and possibilities centred on practice beyond mere theory. This is to reflect not only art but our own selves, through which we ask ourselves broader questions about the general state of mankind in society.
The role of sci-fi to ask questions of society is a long-standing tradition. Have you always worked within the genre and do you think the current fraught political landscape explains the popularity of such pop cultural works as the series Black Mirror and the films of Alex Garland?
Yes. We believe science fiction is an allegory of reality that illustrates various questions about today’s society – in other words, a mirror to the present. People take a liking to the science fiction genre probably because they are aware that it depicts an alternate view of today that is not so different from actuality. Now, we would like to explain this through our video work.
The film El Fin Del Mundo is a two-channel movie that introduces a future where the survival of humanity is threatened by cataclysmic climate change. Through two survivors of the apocalypse, portrayed by male and female actors, it poses questions surrounding human life as it adapts to a new environment: Would the current social system still remain valid? What are the values that sustain human life? Is art alive? What do people eat and wear? Would the sunset still be beautiful?
The film also asks the meaning and disposition of the last art of an artist in the face of death, and what the meaning of art would be in the process of newborn humanity coming to the realization of aesthetic awareness and artistic perception. Ultimately, El Fin Del Mundo inquires how the artist would verify and practice his own existence under the premise of an apocalypse. It is not a fantasy, but the picture of another “now” that mirrors the woes of today.
You have described News from Nowhere as ‘an open platform for discussing society at large’. How has this manifested itself in the Liverpool phase of the project?
As we were preparing for this exhibition, we met movie directors based in Liverpool as well as people working with scrap iron at the shipyards and local residents. Of course, these were people we met to produce our work, but in the process of collaborating, we were very impressed by their love towards Liverpool and pride of the cultural diversity and artistic value they have preserved, which they poured in the utmost effort to protect. They were also aware of the history and scars that their hometown carries and how to share hope for a new beginning. This was apparent in the fact that they assisted and supported us, foreigners who were essentially trying to take a peek at their lives, without any hesitation. Touring with them through the corners of Liverpool that shelter traces of the city’s history, we realised that this was the image of a world surpassing the limits of locality, the image of all of us inhabiting the present.
Choosing the post-industrial cities of Busan in South Korea and Liverpool as locations for your films, you seem to focus on the decline of industry in your work. Pairing this with questions over art’s role in society, do you worry about a similar decline or at least see parallels?
These works are the amalgamation of a sculptural form made of collected and reconstructed scrap iron from the ships of both cities with a video conveying themes of absence and anonymity. They are presented as temporary conditions in which human life, alienated and volatile under today’s materialistic civilization, are released, collided, and combined alongside our repressed desires. Through these pieces, we peer into portraits of our own selves who have become completely externalised from the era we live in. This is the question art extends to society and its function.
The sculpture and image of metal scraps of a ship from Busan shows the pain of suffering and change of this life. It collects the scars and history of the two cities and tells the audience. This is the story of these two cities as well as the stories of the world around us.
Busan is the second largest city in Korea, a port town like Liverpool. In this city where about 3,500,000 people live, the shipbuilding industry and steel industry are shrinking. Now, in the rapidly changing paradigm where life and values change, how will you look at our existence between uneasy reality, fading past, and unexpected future?
Our new film communicates the story of these two cities sharing commonality as a port city and sharing the common decline of the shipbuilding industry and the steel industry’s economic centre at a new stage.
Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho: News From Nowhere is on display at Tate Liverpool from 23 November 2018 – 17 March 2019.