‘The whole thing was very Lost in Translation (2003)’ explains the South Korean photographer, Hanna Moon, describing her early experience of navigating London as a student of Fashion Communication at Central St. Martins. That phrase ‘lost in translation’ recurs in the notes to ‘English as a Second Language’, a new show at London’s Somerset House which showcases the work of Moon and fellow fashion photographer, Joyce Ng. The analogy to the Sofia Coppola film is nicely wry, indicative of the sly wit visible in their photographic work too. And yet, it isn’t quite right either, since the evidence of this exhibition proves how capably Moon and Ng navigate the cultural landscape of London with much greater daring and aplomb than the bewildered Bill Murray does Tokyo.
Moon and Ng have been given the run of the elegant Terrace Rooms at the gallery this spring with a joint show. It’s an adventurous project, composed of new site-specific commissions, as well as an archive of magazine work, apparently announcing Moon and Ng as ‘two of the most exciting photographers working in fashion today’. If that’s a challenge to live up to, Moon and Ng take it in their stride with an impressive show, composed in its vision. Their youthful, ultra contemporary style sits with such dauntless confidence against the serene neoclassicism of the building, that it’s impossible to imagine Moon or Ng ever being lost anywhere.
Ng, originally from Hong Kong, is the more serious of the two, her process more quietly considered. Taking up a residency at Somerset House, she ‘street-cast’ her models, selecting them from the passing traffic of people working or walking through the complex. Building stories around them, her concise photographs suggest entire, elliptical worlds. A young Chinese woman is posed rather precariously, fashion shoot style, on the rooftop of Somerset House. Her blue oriental style culottes billow in the English wind. She has one arm nonchalantly propped against a statue, while the edge of the London Eye peeps into the frame and a grey Thames ripples far beneath her feet. The shot is imagined as a reassuring ‘postcard’ home to worried parents overseas. Ng charmingly titles it: Safe in London! With love, Guan Yin.
The experience of cultural adjustment is Ng’s recurrent concern, and thoughtful juxtaposition is her way of making sense of it. Her series of fashion images loosely take inspiration from a popular Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en, Journey to the West (1592), which tells the story of a monk and the disciples he gathers on his route to enlightenment. The resulting photographs have both the familiar cool stylishness of a fashion magazine shoot, and something else in addition: the candour of a confession.
Moon’s work, by contrast, is immediate and enthusiastic – large, bold photographs, often featuring her friends, Heejin from South Korea, and Moffy from Britain, running bare breasted through the corridors and basements of Somerset House. The standout piece of the show is Moon’s enormous, glossy digital print of Moffy, who lies draped across the length of a red velvet chaise longue. She is a version of Titian’s oil painting Venus d’Urbino (1538) – open, coquettish sexuality posed for inspection – and also Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814), except that Moffy’s whiteness inverts the usual dynamics of colonial power. Under Moon’s direction, the beautiful European concubine is subject to the gaze of the South Korean photographer who directs her.
Adjacent to the large image, is a smaller reproduction of it, but taken with a wider lens this time, revealing the model’s set as a built structure. You see the artificial lights, the tripod, even the uninterested desk clerk in the foyer just a few feet away. It pointedly exposes the conventions of the fashion shoot as an artifice, but it does so with a sense of mischievous questioning. Similarly, a photograph of Heejin in a gauzy cream gown deliberately positions her sprawled across the top of a vitrine, as though she were an unruly exhibit, breaking free. In another image, she wears a ball-gown and leans idly next to a chaise longue. She could be a society beauty, captured by the nineteenth-century portraitist John Singer Sargent, the grammar of the painting insistently European even with an Asian girl called Heejin in it.
This is a show that directs its visitors to reflect on the conventions that underpin the fashion industry – its whiteness, its exploitation of sexuality, its conventions of male gaze and female exposure. It asks us, too, to imagine a different way of occupying the orderly, polite spaces of establishment institutions like Somerset House – running amok and climbing roofs instead. Moon and Ng tackle this without fear. Nor do they allow themselves to fall into glib assertions of decoloniality, choosing to pursue, instead, their own idiosyncratic visions. A brief film interview with Moon and Ng, accompanies the show. In it, you sense their ambition and their coolly indifferent independence. They won’t be seized for any agenda. They are entirely, incorrigibly themselves.
Shahidha Bari teaches visual culture and philosophy at Queen Mary University of London, UK, and is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme, Free Thinking. Her book Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes will be published in June 2019.