The September Issues

Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng:

English as a Second Language

WRITER MAISIE SKIDMORE INTERVIEWS BOTH OF THE ARTISTS AND THE EXHIBITION’S CURATOR SHONAGH MARSHALL TO DISCUSS GLOBALIZATION, THE MELDING OF EAST AND WEST, AND SHIFTING THE NARRATIVE OF “OTHERNESS.”
“HANNA MOON & JOYCE NG: ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE” OPENS FRIDAY JANUARY 25TH AT SOMERSET HOUSE IN LONDON.

HEEJIN IN SEAMEN'S HALL, 2018 © Hanna Moon, Somerset House

words MAISIE SKIDMORE

Joyce Ng and Hanna Moon spent several years studying side by side in the Fashion Communications and Promotion course at London’s Central Saint Martin’s before they finally became friends. Their reticence was deliberate; newly arrived from South Korea and with very little English, Hanna had resolved to stay away from her Asian peers, at least for the first six months or so, so she could master her newly adopted language as quickly as possible.

“I basically walked into an entirely new world, knowing nothing, and not speaking the language,” she tells me, from her place across the table and next to Joyce, deep inside the neoclassical structure of Somerset House. Joyce, then only 17 years old and transplanted from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, was timid and somewhat sleepy when she first met Hanna, staying up all night drawing and then nodding off in her lectures by day. “I was so tired,” she adds, sheepishly. Hanna laughs: “She was really tired, and I was really the opposite!” So when, in the middle of their third year studying together, the pair at last spent some time together in New York, where Joyce was working for Dis magazine, they found in one another a willing and likeminded collaborator. It was the start of a fruitful and dynamic rapport.

MOFFY WITH EARRINGS, 2018 © Hanna Moon

Now, their work – bold, playful, boundary-pushing photographs which incorporate fashion as a means to their conceptual end, rather than as a subject in and of itself – shares a common language. It has been hard-won, they explain; the demands placed on foreign students working in the UK, from the sheer cost of university fees (which are often as much as four times higher than for native students), to the prolific amount of work and finger-crossing required in order to secure a visa year after year, are a heavy weight. And yet, they’ve each succeeded in making a name for themselves within the new realms of fashion photography, shooting characterful and bold images that have been featured in publications from Re-Edition to Dazed.

In her own sphere, working at the intersection of fashion and photography to create exhibitions, curator Shonagh Marshall was familiar with both of their practices, and had visited Hong Kong with Joyce early in 2018 for an earlier project. She became fascinated by the small but powerful space their vision occupied within mainstream fashion media. "Hanna and Joyce are a clear product of globalization in our times,” she explains. “I was thinking about Asian students propping up, not only art schools, but Western universities. Did we assume our aesthetics would not therefore shift to include perspectives from that cultural background?”

BONNIEMARIA DOESN'T CARE WHERE HER TUNNEL LEADS #ITSTHEJOURNEYTHATMATTERS
© Joyce Ng, Somerset House

“I WAS THINKING ABOUT ASIAN STUDENTS PROPPING UP, NOT ONLY ART SCHOOLS, BUT WESTERN UNIVERSITIES. DID WE ASSUME OUR AESTHETICS WOULD NOT THEREFORE SHIFT TO INCLUDE PERSPECTIVES FROM THAT CULTURAL BACKGROUND?”

Beginning there, Marshall became intrigued by the Western world’s borrowing of Otherness. "Take Araki – our Western world borrows these artists and pronounces this new discovery of them," she says. "What is that melding of worlds? Where does it draw the line?” She adds: “It was really important for me to provide individual perspectives, because I don't have the answers on the future of diversity within mainstream media, or the fashion editorial system." Instead, she posed a question, and provided a powerful platform for Hanna and Joyce to answer it.

With Somerset House, Shonagh commissioned a new body of work from each of the photographers respectively, seeking to shine a light on the intersection of cultures. "We invited Joyce and Hanna to think about Britishness, and to think about that within the parameters of Somerset House architecturally. But a big thing for me was to to look at their ideas of beauty, and what they found beautiful. I think that often we don't realise the power we wield; it's in our hands! Let's do something! I acknowledge the past, but I wanted to move forwards to the future, to so I like that idea of inviting them to touch upon beauty."

Joyce, though shy, found her voice casting characters for her stories on the street. “I’m naturally an introvert,” she explains. “I grew up as an only child. I don't like to talk much.” But casting, which necessitates approaching people out of the blue, became an outlet for her. Before long, placing kindred spirits – the understated and the unexpected characters, who would never believe they could feature in a fashion shoot – became a strong and recurring motif in her work, She adds: “It was my excuse to talk to people.” 

IN HER FIVE ELEMENTS, 2018 © Joyce Ng, Somerset House

 "Joyce is really a storyteller,” Shonagh adds. “She spent a month and a half skulking around Somerset House looking for the beauties that she wanted to cast in her shoot. And Somerset House has such a bizarre community: King's College students, the Courtauld students, the Courtauld Gallery visitors and tourists, the babies in the fountains, the mummies, the passers-by, the restaurant-goers, the Somerset House studios... It's such a transient community.” 

The classic Chinese text Journey to the West had its part to play in Joyce’s images too. In the book, the ‘West’ refers to the west of Asia, which is to say, India – not to Britain or America. This decentering becomes a poignant reminder of how insular so-called ‘Western’ culture can be. The text, which has a mythical undertone, shaped the scenes Joyce built and the way her subjects posed within them; she worked with her cast to create characters who could travel through time. “She melds these worlds in such a surreal way,” Shonagh says. 

SAFE IN LONDON! WITH LOVE, GUAN YIN 3, 2018 © Joyce Ng, Somerset House

Hanna, on the other hand, took her brief and subverted it, just as she did when she created A Nice Magazine, the now-renowned publication she founded in response to a final project brief in her last year at CSM. She visited by night with two of her best-loved muses, Heejin, from South Korea, and Moffy, from West London, interpreting Western signatures of lighting and pose and injecting her own less-recognized ones within modern reimaginings of classical tableaus. 

The photographer’s relationship to her subject is more complex, and more fascinating, than it might appear at first glance, however – there is a powerful introspection to Hanna's work, Shonagh suggests. "She depicts the female, but they are very much mirrors of herself, so there is this back-and-forth exchange between Hanna and her sitter.” Somerset House to her was a playground, she continues. “It's not anarchic, it's very subversive – her tongue is firmly in her cheek.”

MOFFY ON VITRINE, EAST WING GALLERIES, 2018 © Hanna Moon, Somerset House

"SHE DEPICTS THE FEMALE, BUT THEY ARE VERY MUCH MIRRORS OF HERSELF, SO THERE IS THIS BACK-AND-FORTH EXCHANGE BETWEEN HANNA AND HER SITTER."

For one, Hanna has long shot nude photographs with her subjects – which became a talking point with the museum. “We had a discussion about using nude images in the exhibition. Because I have quite a lot of nudes…” Any concerns that the museum’s broad audiences would respond negatively to such images were eventually quashed. They are a signifier of the personal relationship that she and her subjects share, she continues: “I first started doing it because I find it instantly provocative – in a way, it gives you that excitement and sensation. But in what I do now, it’s mainly my friends’ bodies. It’s not like, ‘oh let’s get naked now!’ It is a more natural set-up, and it’s more to show the intimacy between us.”

Where clothes do come in, Somerset House’s British grandeur had its part to play in fashion editor Agata Belcen’s styling, too. “She chose brands to work with who have real significance within British cultural history: Philip Treacy, Stephen Jones, Vivienne Westwood, Elizabeth Emanuel, who designed Princess Diana's wedding dress,” Shonagh explains – all of whom add a rich undercurrent to the images, and nod to new ideas of beauty. “How do we read these designs, when placed on Moffy and Heejin? Isn't that the fantastic thing about a fashion photo – that everybody can have an opinion? It's so democratic."

Shonagh adds: “I think it’s interesting to make the obvious point. Joyce and Hanna are from very, very, very different countries! They don’t speak the same language, either.” Their two perspectives are powerfully individual, and their practices mirror this. 

Shown altogether, the resulting works are rich and fresh, and joyful, certainly – a pleasure to see within what can be a foreboding space, all neoclassical columns and stone floors. But more importantly, they are a nod towards things to come. English as a Second Language suggests that London's power comes from the colorful and chaotic amalgamation of ideas clamoring within it, emerging from those who have arrived from all over the world. It is an artist’s city, and an ex-pat’s one. The more varied the voices, the more interesting the conversation.

MIDNIGHT GLO (HANNA MOON)
© Joyce Ng 

SENDING LOVE FROM THE TOP OF THE WORLD (JOYCE NG)
© Hanna Moon