“The monkey king was misbehaving and so the Buddha imprisoned him under the Five Finger Mountains.” – Joyce Ng
Despite becoming more and more international, in the worlds of art and fashion, the dominant language is English. While new markets continue to thrive outside of the West, major-players across the globe are still expected to communicate principally to an English-speaking audience. In English as a Second Language at Somerset House, photographers Hanna Moon – from South Korea – and Joyce Ng – from Hong Kong, respond to their experience as foreigners navigating the world of fashion photography in the UK amidst the setting of the history and architecture of London’s Somerset House.
Both Moon and Ng studied at Central Saint Martins. As foreign students, they not only had to navigate London in a second language, but also had to become accustomed to a culture very different to their own. Since graduating, both artists have been extremely successful in their careers, working in what is essentially a Western, Eurocentric industry. At Somerset House, curator Shonagh Marshall invited both Moon and Ng to individually reflect on British identity within the framework of fashion, and the site-specific context of Somerset House.
Somerset House was designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776. A large Georgian building, Victorian wings were added to the east and west in 1831 and 1856. Historically, the building has always been a setting for the arts. The Royal Academy first took up residence in 1779, with the annual Summer Exhibition taking place there until 1836 when it moved out. The building has also been used by the government, and as navy, tax and stamp offices. In 1837, the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths set up office at Somerset house, so it seems fitting therefore that Moon has photographed her friend Heejin in the Seamen’s Hall, wearing her mothers wedding dress.
Across her contribution to the exhibition, Moon chose to photograph her two best friends and muses – Heejin from South Korea and Moffy from London – within the building’s neoclassical architecture. The pair were dressed in clothes by British designers, from Vivienne Westwood to Philip Treacy, and together with Moon, the three of them invaded Somerset House by night to take photographs. Perhaps the most striking of these images sees Heejin and Moffy running around a barely-lit courtyard half-undressed. “And then I just shot my two best friends”, explains Moon in a video accompanying the exhibition, “Like they’re running naked.” In another image, Moon photographs Moffy in the position of a traditional nude painting pose, with the addition of an Asian surgical mask. The mask is commonly worn in Asia, and here represents an Asian woman navigating Western spaces.
Ng’s photographs are more obviously “fashion” than Moon’s. While the influence of fashion photography is evident in Moon’s images, the architecture, combined with the classical poses and garments of her models, gives the images a less contemporary feel. For her images, Ng cast models from Somerset House’s vibrant resident community over a six-week period to create site-specific photo-shoots that consist of moody black and white portraits of models with high-fashion hair styles, and vibrant colour close-ups of women adorning extreme make-up.
That said, Ng’s ties to her heritage do run deep throughout her work. In one image, an Asian model is photographed on the top of Somerset House, clasping a red heart with the words “with love” embroidered onto its surface. The accompanying caption reads: “‘Safe in London! With Love, Guan-Yin’: she climbs to the top of Somerset House, snaps herself with the London Eye and sends her parents in China an e-Postcard.” The image is clearly a comment on Ng’s own London experience. While, another distinctly Chinese photograph comments on Journey to the West’s Sun Wukong – also known as the Monkey King. The image titled Five Finger Mountain is based on a classic sixteenth-century text and shows an exaggerated papier mache prop – designed to be the mountain – in which a face innocently peaks out.
In the exhibition’s final room, images of both Moon’s and Ng’s work over the past four years are on display. Excerpts from magazines and fashion brands include snippets from Numero China and Dazed and Confused. A particularly memorable image is You Are My Lucky Baby Pear from a spread in Modern Weekly by Ng in 2017. In the image an Asian woman rests her ahead above a series of seven pears, with faces indented into their skins.
English as a Second Language beautifully shows us how cultures collide and interact with one another. In an exhibition all about language, words are barely present at all within the work, yet this lack of the need for the addition of vocabulary illustrates just how similar we all are, despite seemingly very different uses of lexicon.
English as a Second Language is on display at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA until 28 April 2019