The photographers muse on their joint photography show and speak candidly about how their foreign student statuses sent their ambitions into overdrive
The neoclassical stone columns that support Somerset House have surely framed their fair share of art by old white men in the almost 250 years since they were first built on London’s Strand. But this spring, as the city grits its teeth in the face of an unwanted and likely untidy Brexit, they house an altogether different point of view – that of Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng, two fashion photographers creating some of the most vital and dynamic images emerging today.
Born in South Korea and Hong Kong respectively, these two Asian-born, London-based artists make a powerful case for the potential of a globalised and interconnected world – one in which people are free to move, to work, to create, and to start dialogues. The pair first met on Central Saint Martins’ Fashion Communications and Promotions course, and have worked alongside one another since graduating in 2014. Now, at the invitation of curator Shonagh Marshall, they have each created a new body of work with the support of Somerset House, considering their own cultural heritage, probing western ideas of beauty, and celebrating and challenging the traditional museum environment they find themselves in. In conversation for Dazed as English as a Second Language prepares to open this week, the pair discusses unconventional casting, otherness, and the perpetual pursuit of the elusive artist visa.
“I deliberately wasn’t really hanging out with Asian students – even if they weren’t Korean – because I wanted to learn English as soon as possible” – Hanna Moon
The two of you met while studying at Central Saint Martins. What was that time like?
Hanna Moon: I came to CSM as a study abroad student, so I couldn't even speak English when I first arrived. The whole thing was very Lost in Translation. I didn't really know what Fashion Communication was. I was studying Textiles in Korea at the Women’s University, and I wanted to study abroad somewhere that I could learn English. I basically walked into an entirely new world knowing nothing, and not speaking the language. I had to adjust myself to it really quickly to survive. I didn't speak to my parents for six months, because I didn't want to speak in Korean or any other language so that I would learn English quickly. That was probably the most intense year of my life.
Joyce Ng: At first, I went to a local school in Hong Kong, and then I went to International School from fifth grade onwards, where I was taught by Canadians, English people, and Americans. I would speak Chinese at home, but it was against the rules to speak it at school. In Hong Kong, everything that’s western is worshipped. When you speak English all the time, your Chinese starts to have an American accent, you start to sound like a westerner. People think that’s cool in Hong Kong – they look at you like you are one of the privileged ones – like you are more educated.
I moved to London when I was 17 for the Foundation course at CSM before I started the BA. I found the whole thing really intimidating. I was always falling asleep in class because I never really understood that I needed to sleep properly – in high school, I’d always stayed up drawing.
Hanna Moon: We weren’t really friends in the first year, because she was really timid and tired, and I was the opposite! I also deliberately wasn't really hanging out with Asian students – even if they weren't Korean – because I wanted to learn English as soon as possible.
How did you come to photography?
Hanna Moon: I never really did any pictures before I started at CSM. We had these brief photography courses – black and white printing, developing, and I was really into that. Somehow I just got into it; when we were doing the magazine-making process as a group in the second year, I was doing all the pictures. Maybe I had a bit better technical knowledge than others – I think Korean people are really good at numbers. Maybe that’s why.
Joyce Ng: In the final year of the course, I forced myself to take photos. I had thought I was interested in everything else but photography; production, styling, art direction, graphic design, all that. In the beginning I thought, being from Hong Kong, I would have been very good at producing. Hong Kong is so hectic, you’ve just got to get through the mess and make things happen. Anything is possible.
It was when I was in New York working for Dis magazine that I started street casting. I connected with New York straight away, I did not take time to warm up. It functions similarly to Hong Kong – it’s fast-paced, convenient, things are always open. I vibed off that energy straight away, and I think that’s when I broke out of my shell. The street casting thing was really giving me energy. Deep down I am an introvert, so that's kind of my way to fake that I have confidence and that I am able to talk to strangers.
When I came back, we had to make a magazine. Every project I had in mind, I was going to ask someone else to take the photos, but when I started, I realised it would take much longer to get someone else to take the images I had in my mind, with the styling, and the casting, and the actual story. I went back to Hong Kong to work on most of it, and I did everything myself.
Hanna, what influenced A Nice Magazine?
Hanna Moon: I was always a bit of a rebel. I had a basic structure which was, to take the piss out of things, which is why the magazine I made in my third year was called A Nice Magazine. I was being sarcastic about it. I was like, ‘there are so many magazines out there! I don’t think I need to add another one on top.’ I really wanted to have a strong concept as I didn't just want to spend a whole year making a nice fashion magazine. I thought, if I am making it, I want to make it a bit more interesting. I wanted to work with other people as well.
You have both been quite prolific since leaving your studies.
Hanna Moon: Foreign students who are studying in the UK have to get a job after graduating. That's the only way to stay.
Joyce Ng: You can't just hang about! We both got a working holiday visa, but only 1,000 people per year, per country, can get that visa, so there was no guarantee we would get it. It is ridiculous that England doesn’t have an artist visa. My life since the age of 18 has been governed by visas.
Hanna Moon: Luckily I got that, and my goal was then to get signed to an agency, so I could get another visa. I had to work really, really hard, and become quite famous within those two years. I knew I would have to work my ass off. Now, I have to renew my visa every year, and I can't travel. It is crazy how much money and time and effort and energy is spent, just to stay in the country. When we were studying, I was paying four times more tuition than the students from the EU, and then you basically can’t stay afterwards.
“I had to adjust myself to it really quickly to survive” – Joyce Ng
Tell me about the new work you created for English as a Second Language.
Hanna Moon: The brief was a celebration of Asian photographic culture, in Somerset House. I felt like I should subvert that and make it my own. So my idea was to ‘invade’ Somerset house and transform it; that is why I wanted to shoot at night, and build this set in the middle of the main reception room, shooting two of my best friends, Moffy and Heejin, naked. Heejin had just given birth so she didn’t have a ‘model’ figure either – she had massive boobs and came with her baby.
I had never really worked in the context of an exhibition – I mostly work for magazines and fashion advertising – so I went to all these museums that have a traditional set-up, and I was inspired by that aesthetic. I wanted to achieve that Caravaggio lighting, mixing all these elements in – it feels lost in translation.
I wanted to create different layers for the images, within these traditional set-ups; unconventional models, traditional poses, props. For example, the surgical mask. I wear them a lot when I get ill because I have a really sensitive throat, and in Asia, a lot of people wear them for their own hygiene. But if I wear them in the street in London, everybody makes fun of me, which I find it, not offensive, but funny. It is such a little thing and that mask gets such different reactions here.
Joyce, you cast all of your subjects for this body of work in Somerset House.
Joyce Ng: I am naturally an introvert. I grew up as an only child, I don't like to talk much. Conversations kind of scare me. Casting is an exercise for that, it’s an outlet. It’s my excuse to talk to people, so I started there. As I got more projects for casting, that fed into my work.
In Somerset House, I would meet people, then ask them about their background, or visit them at home. I’d build a story with that, or come in with my own story, merging the two worlds.
How did being from Hong Kong influence this approach?
Joyce Ng: In Hong Kong, everything is so mobile, different worlds overlap. You don’t really stay in one neighbourhood, there are so many. Growing up there, surrounded by different types of people, it is just natural. You’re more sensitive to it.
Where did you find the models for this series?
Joyce Ng: We went to the Design Biennale and the African Art Fair. I found this pair of unidentical twins who were here watching their mum perform at a dance. Because King’s is connected to Somerset House, I found one Chinese student there during Fresher’s week.
I build stories around them, and this one was about travelling through space in different ways. I started with Guan Yin, the Chinese student I found at Kings (College), playing with her having just arrived in London. We shot on the rooftop, in front of the London Eye, and the most obvious icons in London. It was kind of like her sending a postcard home.
The whole thing is loosely based on the title of a famous Chinese novel, Journey to the West. The ‘west’ in that novel’s context is India – it is about like a monk and the disciples he picked up along the way to find enlightenment. But, this work was about the ‘west’ in this new age. In the end, it tied into one element of the novel, which is a mountain of five fingers. I wanted to incorporate stereotypical ideas too; in one standalone image, we used this dragon that used to clasp onto a pillar in a Chinese restaurant – a really stereotypical dragon – and clasped it onto the architecture on the riverside by Somerset House.
Did you set out to challenge ideas around otherness?
Hanna Moon: At the moment, it can sometimes feel like the movement for diversity is only focused on one race. We are not black, and that’s often what is considered ‘diversity’. You have to be quite bold to talk about race in a museum context, so I think it’s really good that Somerset House is showing perspectives from different parts of the world. I think the conversation is quite one-sided at the moment.
We were also talking about having a different background, and the effect that has on our creativity. We are fundamentally different people, and that is something we can add to this industry as artists – something different will be happening in our heads, because of our different backgrounds.
How has living in London shaped your process?
Hanna Moon: I was a completely different person when I finished at CSM, compared to when I started. I remember when I was new here, when I saw anyone who didn't look like a westerner I would ask, 'oh where are you from?' just assuming that they were not from here. I didn’t even completely understand the meaning of diversity when I was living in Korea. Now I see the world with a different perspective, and that has boosted me artistically. I was opening myself up to what was outside of the world, really.
Joyce Ng: Growing up in Hong Kong, everyone is very conscious of everyone else. You are looked at differently if you have an English accent when you speak Chinese, and you are way more privileged if you know English. I started thinking that I didn't need to care so much about my Chinese, and because I left local school so young, I don't have much knowledge of Chinese history, which is a big shame. I missed out on that. I recently realised I have never tried Chinese medicine. I’m looking for ways to get more in touch with my roots.
Hanna Moon: In Korea, people tend to think about what others do too. If you are a different kind of person – for example, if I’m gay – then you’re basically not included. I feel like I am encouraged to be myself, living here. The title, English as a Second Language, feels really appropriate – the exhibition is about me being Korean, but also not being Korean. Living in London inspires what I do as an artist.
Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng: English as a Second Language runs from January 25 until April 28, 2019, at Somerset House, London