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Looking Beyond Disaster for Clues to Contemporary Life

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Looking Beyond Disaster for Clues to Contemporary Life

Seoul – At a time when artists can sell massive amounts of paintings and sculptures, Jeon Junho and Moon Kyungwon take a somewhat opposite approach.

“We don’t just want to create artwork, which was designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito in Seoul’s Sicheon area,” Ms. Moon said in an interview at her studio. “We look forward to hearing other voices to reconsider our position. Let’s try.”

Over the past decade, Ms. Moon and Mr. Jeon – or Moon and Jean, as they are widely known – have established a diverse artistic partnership that often includes collaborations with architects, fashion designers, actors and scientists. .

Dreamy, carefully crafted short videos are his trademark, and he sometimes creates discrete objects, but his efforts have also taken the form of discussion series, books, and designs. Both 52, they have become stars on the international art circuit, and represented their native South Korea at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

His latest show kicks off in May at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, and includes video installations as well as an ongoing urban regeneration project in the nearby seaside village of Kanewa. That project included a redesign with architect Yuji Nakae of a dilapidated wall, which shields the area from wind, sand and marine debris. A new video will follow a man searching for survivors on a lifeboat in a post-apocalyptic virtual reality world.

Such futuristic, post-disaster settings have become a recurring interest for the pair, as a means of addressing contemporary issues from oblique angles. “Moon and I don’t like to convey certain messages to the audience,” said Mr. Jean. “We want to give a key -“

“—or a clue to our thoughts,” said Ms. Moon, completing her sentence, as they often do to one another.

William Morris’s 1890 novel, “News from Nowhere”, served as an inspiration and a title for his work. In Morris’ universe, a man falls asleep and wakes up more than a century later in a socialist utopia. Ms. Moon and Mr. Jean’s setting is much darker. Civilization has crashed; Man is trying to move forward.

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The centerpiece of his recent show at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) was a two-screen video born out of his research on Taesung Freedom Village, which is in the Demilitarized Zone and protected by the United Nations Command. About 200 of its residents get special tax exemptions, but they are under curfew and closely monitored. (The pair were not allowed to shoot there.)

On one screen, a local man walks through the forest, cataloging plants and sending samples via balloons. Mysteriously, its contents appear on a second screen in a hermetically sealed high-tech chamber that houses a single person. He is under video surveillance and fed by pouches that his computerized home delivers. He examines the samples, secretly sows a seed and decides to don a mask and venture out.

Planned before the pandemic, the piece has taken on new resonance. “Freedom Village presents itself to us now,” said MMCA curator Jovan Park, who organized the show. “We are completely isolated – physically, because we are wearing masks every day, but also mentally.”

Decades-old photographs of Taesung that the artists subtly altered, protecting people’s identities, hung near the video, and Ms. Park said that many young people who came here were “confused that this village real or not.” Its 70-year isolation is a result of the Korean War, but “stories like this are everywhere in the world,” she said, analogous to Kabul, Hong Kong and Taiwan, all places with borders or disrupted movement.

The Freedom Village video will take place in Kanazawa with the duo’s debut, “El fin del Mundo (2012)”, which also uses a dual structure that spans time. On one screen, a man in a stalled studio is working on a dilapidated sculpture; In another, a woman in a vicious commercial future visits the room, studies its contents—now artifacts—and becomes fascinated.

It is a “philosophical-social Korean reflection on the future – or the present as a past in the future”, said Caroline Kristov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli art museum in Turin, Italy, who invited her to participate. His 2012 edition of the Important Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

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One can take the piece as a metaphor for his enduring belief in experimental art making. Mr Jean said his aim was to ask, “What is the meaning of contemporary art?” They demonstrate that it can be a platform to unite disparate creative forces.

At the 2013 Chicago Show by Ms Moon and Mr Jean, Dutch architecture firm MVRDV offered a rendering of habitable, biodegradable “bubbles” responding to a dystopic landscape from artists. For the 2015 Zurich Show, the two worked with the Swiss design group Urban-Think Tank to create a “mobile agora,” a movable seating area for discussion between people in various fields.

Because of the pandemic, “the social role of art requires a rethinking of their philosophies as artists,” Kanazawa Museum senior curator Koichi Nakata said in an email.

His focus on such core issues is his first meeting in 2007, showing his work at a biennale on an airplane. Intense discussions eventually led to their partnership, although they both continue to work solo. “We talked a lot about surviving as an artist in the art market,” said Ms. Moon.

Surviving as artists today – making your own ambitious films – means attracting funding from sources such as museums, foundations and businesses. “You can’t imagine how many presentations we do for corporations,” said Mr. Jean.

Oh Jung-wan, a veteran of the Korean film industry, serves as his producer, and major galleries in Seoul and Tokyo sell his works, including his videos, in limited editions. Nevertheless, it is not always an easy process.

“We are dreamers,” said Mr. Jean emphatically at one point. “We are dreamers.” There was a brief pause and Ms. Moon let out a contented laugh.

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