Reconciling the Past / Remediating the Future    

Bruce Jenkins

Radio-TV is a point to space communication system. . . . Ultimate goal of video revolution is the establishment of space to space, or plain to plain communication without confusion and interference each other.

                                                                                                           —Nam June Paik[1]

News from Nowhere: Freedom Village (2021) represents an impressive new chapter in an ongoing, decade-long project by the artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho based on a powerful form of moving-image installation, optimized as a mode of both discovery and recovery. After the extraordinary breakthrough of their first major work, the two-channel film installation El Fin del Mundo (2012), the pair have continued to allegorize a profound sense of cultural loss through aesthetic strategies and formal pathways that attempt to elaborate the conditions for reconciliation and closure between seemingly disparate realms. The means they deploy are narratives that are fundamentally ghost stories, replete with elements of the folktale and classic science fiction, in which images of the natural world and the built environment become visible evidence of past traumas and future catastrophes.

Both the characters that emerge within these works—a contemporary artist and a futuristic female lab technician in the earlier work, an amateur botanist and a male lab technician in the new one—and we, the viewers, must engage in various forms of decoding and interpretation that rely upon collecting, cataloguing, and assembling the remnants of a now-lost past. Moon and Jeon, in turn, utilize their medium’s own rich past, not only as a means of visual expressivity (through a subtle weave of cinematic citations) but equally to suggest the epistemic limits of their artform, which has become a dominant mode of artistic practice in the 21st century. Beyond this, in a reconfiguration of the inherently collaborative process of filmmaking, they have treated each of the requisite design elements for a studio-based production as an opportunity to work with leading experts in the realms of science and technology, art and architecture, fashion and music.[2]

In the Beginning

In the opening images on one of the screens of El Fin del Mundo, Moon and Jeon remind us that for an earlier generation, the hearth was a central feature of the home. And while their depiction of a roaring wood fire that warms the artist’s studio can be read as a meticulous recreation of such bygone interiors, it simultaneously references an early work of televisual art: TV as a Fireplace (1969), the landmark German television work by Gerry Schum and Jan Dibbets. There is a remarkable similarity between the close-up of the wood-burning stove in the artist’s studio and the fireplace seen in that earlier work. Moon and Jeon also indirectly suggest that the television screen would eventually displace the hearth as the locus of domestic life. What emerges adjacent to this imagery on the adjoining screen is a minimalist laboratory radiating an icy blue aura, a futuristic space with a clear cinematic past—evoking both the technocratic dystopia of Fritz Lang’s monumental film Metropolis (1926) and Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).[3] Here a female protagonist, aptly described by Jeon as “part patient, part nun, and part nurse,” begins what will become her daily tasks: conducting laboratory tests on artifacts from the artist’s studio, cataloguing and arraying specimens, following a mandated set of protocols. Meanwhile, the artist, the subject of her scientific ministrations, is buffeted by an earthquake-like shockwave and retreats to his desk to contemplate an uncertain future.  

These two depicted realms, one warm, the other cool, are contrastive spaces—distinguished by both formal differences (in palette, finishes, and textures) and narrative divergences (at minimum, a past and a future). But there is an even more fundamental division at work in the installation’s shift away from the traditional anthropomorphic framing of the artist’s studio. As Giles Deleuze notes in referencing Kubrick’s film, “The screen itself, even if it keeps a vertical position by convention, no longer seems to refer to human postures like a window or a painting, but rather constitutes a table of information, an opaque surface on which are inscribed ‘data,’ information replacing nature.”[4] Likewise, the future within Moon and Jeon’s narrative diptych is composed to accentuate its visual elements as data sets and to reconfigure the causal components of plot into a set of simple repetitive activities.

But we are not experiencing this arresting imagery in exactly this bifurcated manner. Rather, we engage with it through a form of visual adjacency that radically shifts the scale of our encounter and the spatial-temporal norms that govern our habitual relationship with moving-image depictions on screens. There is a gap or, more poetically, a spatial caesura between these two screens, creating a space that the viewer squarely occupies. Some might read this as completing a temporal triad, with the artist’s studio representing an analogue past, the exhibition space hosting this installation laying claim to the present, and the laboratory technician residing in a post-human future. But we can equally acknowledge that this rupture assumes a certain semantic weight, as if the traumatic events that separated the two depicted realms had acted directly onto the elements of the installation itself, creating a physical divide—a liminal zone that represents an inexpressible chasm that both binds and severs the paired moving-image realms.

Populating the Liminal  

Each of Moon and Jeon’s subsequent films seems addressed to this fissured arena and in turn fleshes out discrete aspects of the historical record that serve as potent backstories to their unfolding narratives. MYOHYANGSANGWAN (2014–2017) is a single-channel work set in the present that appears at first to depict a tale of male comradery as five young men walk the streets of an entertainment district in Beijing, one of them already showing the ill effects from ritual alcohol consumption. But a second, more spectral tale gradually emerges in the form of a female figure in flight at night through misty woods. Meanwhile, the young men have arrived at their next destination, a North Korean restaurant that we later learn is a safe zone operated by the North to earn foreign currency and that permits North and South Koreans to meet. This social arrangement allows a romance to develop between one of the men, a painter, and a North Korean waitress. The film’s title refers to Mount Myohyang, a sacred site in the North that emerges, at the end of the film, as a possible destination when the couple discuss their imaginary future together.

With Freedom Village (2017), another single-channel film, Moon and Jeon return to the realm of science fiction. The narrative revolves around two male protagonists: a shamanic figure who ritually sweeps temple grounds and a white-haired scientist with a lab filled with bubbling liquids coursing through glass tubes, optical apparatuses, and scale models of houses set on a terraced landscape. It is the experiments with massive electrical voltages conducted by the latter that trigger a barrage of archival imagery appearing on vintage television sets, which depict the horrors of the Korean War: canon blasts, burning buildings, fleeing civilians, mass casualties, and refugee camps. The only respite from these unremitting images of human suffering comes from newsreel footage of the opening ceremony (ribbon-cutting celebrations and scenes of families moving into new houses) for the eponymous Freedom Village, situated on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone. Shifting back to the lab, a second effect of the experiment finds the scientist shrunken to the size of the model housing and climbing up the miniature hilly landscape. Color footage in the background reveals the contemporary state of Freedom Village now in ruins, another experiment gone awry.

Reconciling the Past

News from Nowhere: Freedom Village functions as the coda for the project, recapitulating key formal and thematic elements, incorporating historical details from the intervening single-channel films, and addressing directly the source of the catastrophe that had divided the screens in El Fin del Mundo—the partitioning of Korea into two nations. Here the narrative coheres around two male protagonists: Village Man, who resides in the DMZ’s Freedom Village, working in a rice mill and in his spare time collecting, cataloguing, and illustrating plants that he forages in the mountainous countryside; and Laboratory Man, from the post-apocalyptic future, who lives and works in a cylindrical capsule under constant surveillance as he investigates the plants and drawings left by the village man. Despite this temporal divide, the two men seem to share the same experience when the muffled sound of an explosion outside the rice mill is heard by both. Similar moments of uncanny confluence occurred in El Fin del Mundo, and the parallel tales follow similar arcs, with the futurist researchers in each discovering by the end a life-changing concept—personal freedom.

In contrast to the artist from the earlier film, the village man takes an active role in recording and disseminating the information that he feels will be essential for future generations, beginning with his own location (“Our village stands on a plain near a river that flows to the West Sea”). He has been surreptitiously gathering documents (including vintage black-and-white photographs of village life—children at play, a musical combo performing for students) along with his botanical illustrations and plant specimens. His method of sharing this material leads to one of the most poignant scenes in the film as he packs up this material, along with a small packet of seeds, into a plastic bag and heads outdoors to a bare farm field, where he attaches the bag to a simple inflated tube and launches his archive into the air. The aerial image taken from the ascending inflatable captures him as a small figure standing on one side of a bisected field—a vivid metaphor for this politically divided land. Equally, Moon and Jeon have created a low-tech mode of air-borne transmission, suggesting a form of satellite communication avant la lettre.

What distinguishes News from Nowhere: Freedom Village from its predecessors can be seen both within the individual filmed components and perhaps more notably in the new screen configuration that Moon and Jeon have deployed—placing the two channels back-to-back and activating the soundtrack through a freestanding sonic component. Within each screen, we can view the maturation of their cinematic vision—a robust mise-en-scène that vividly portrays the isolation of the village man’s environment, on the one hand, and a full immersion into Deleuze’s “opaque surface” inscribed with data that increasingly envelops the laboratory man, on the other. This divided mode of two-sided projection accentuates the fissured worldviews while making the screens literally inseparable. Gallery viewers here become physically inscribed in the work, for they now must join both characters in a diasporic journey around the screens in order to access and fully comprehend the profound lessons from a troubled past and the possibilities that await us in an uncertain future. It is we, the viewers, who must negotiate the chasm, bear witness to the divide, and reconcile these fragments into a whole.

Epilogue: A Friendly Ghost

There is no more revered figure in the history of gallery-based media than the South Korean­­–born artist Nam June Paik (1932–2006). His life and his art were directly impacted by the Korean War, which sent a teenaged Paik and his family into exile first to Hong Kong and then Japan; on to Germany to study music composition; and finally to the United States, where he pioneered the medium of video art. Every contemporary artist who has successfully navigated the passage from the black box of cinema to the white cube of the gallery is indebted to Paik. And yet what drove his work was less this ambition to succeed as a contemporary artist, and more to use his adopted medium to connect the world (McLuhan’s “global village”), to restore a balance between nature and culture (“humanizing technology”), and to combat prejudice by freely sharing the cultural achievements of each nation with the rest of the world. His most ambitious projects were direct attempts to create cultural rapprochement through live international satellite broadcasts, starting with Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984) and continuing with his Seoul-basedBye Bye Kipling (1986). Paik’s spirit, vision, and aspirations continue to live on in successive generations of artists working with this technology, including most especially Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho.

[1] “Binghamton Letter,” dated January 8, 1972, in Nam June Paik: Video ’n’ Videology 1959–1973 (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1974; reprint New York: Tova Press, 1997), n.p.

[2] The impressive group of Moon and Jeon’s collaborators includes the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV, the Japanese design and engineering group Takram, the Pritzger Prize–winning architect Toyo Ito, Japanese avant-garde musician Toshi Ichiyanagi, the Korean evolutionary biologist Choe Jae Chun, and the brain scientist Jeong Jaeseung. The duo’s production process resembles the platform mode of research and cultural inquiry that has come to define 21st-century international exhibitions such as Documenta.   

[3] Like the Kubrick film, Lang’s Metropolis also has a subtitle: Das Schicksal einer Menscheit im jahre 2000 (The Fate of the Human Race in 2000). Annette Michelson’s “Bodies in Space: Film as ‘Carnal Knowledge’” remains a definitive reading of Kubrick’s innovations both within the genre of science-fiction filmmaking and more broadly at the experiential level of film viewing. See Artforum 7, no. 6 (February 1969).

[4] Giles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 265.