Lost In Translation

Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng’s English as a Second Language exhibition explores cultural identity through the lens of fashion photography

For many of us in the Western world, we accept the near ubiquitous use of English as a given. This imposition and expectation carries complex post-colonial connotations – who decides what is worthy of discussion and what is worth seeing? In an increasingly interconnected but divided world, how we communicate with images – a largely universal language – has never been more important. Celebrating the importance of alternative perspectives is a new exhibition at Somerset House, Hanna Moon & Joyce Ng: English as a Second Language, which explores cultural identity through the lens of fashion photography.

Rising stars Hanna and Joyce, from South Korea and formerly-colonised Hong Kong respectively, use the neo-classical architectural setting of Somerset House to challenge and reinterpret cultural signifiers, Western aesthetics and assumptions about beauty. Bespoke sets, personal props like Hanna’s mothers wedding dress, as well as street-cast models with no prior experience, all contribute to a vibrant and disarming series of portraits. Capturing the alienation of living in a foreign city whilst navigating a multitude of languages – of being ‘lost in translation’ – curator Shonagh Marshall has carefully created a space that showcases often unseen narratives. Hanna and Joyce’s work over the past four years for publications such as Dazed, i-D and Centrefold is also displayed, demonstrating an eclectic range of work in print. 

Port spoke to Shonagh, Hanna and Joyce about our shifting definition of beauty, the hustle of London and the meaning of home.   

Why is fashion photography an interesting medium to explore Western aesthetics?

SM: Fashion with a capital F, and the system that surrounds it, is a Western construct due to its history and inception. For that reason it has always been a representation of Western aesthetics. With Hanna and Joyce’s work what I noticed that although they were operating amongst the Western fashion system, initially studying at Central Saint Matins and then upon graduating staying and working in London producing work for Western fashion publications, they incorporated signs and symbols from their heritage into their work.

How do Western and Eastern ideas on aesthetic beauty differ? Where do they agree?

JN: I grew up looking at Olay and SK-II adverts, of which either Asian celebrities or models with “white features” or pale, mixed-raced beauties front the TV and billboards. This flood of commercial and “lowbrow images” informs my visual language today and without this background, I wouldn’t have the questions I want to raise and try to answer through my photography now. I take full advantage of the privileged position of a photographer, to have a say in casting and allow my heritage to naturally speak through my images.

HM: As they are two very different cultures I think its fundamentally, also unavoidably, different. We also can’t really separate Western versus Eastern as there are so many different cultures within. It’s hard to generalise and say specifically what Western is like and Eastern is like, however Eastern beauty aesthetics have shifted ever since they opened the door to Western culture. In a way, beauty aesthetics are always changing, moving along with the times and different trends. 

Hanna Moon, Moffy with earrings, 2018 © Hanna Moon

Why has our definition of ‘what is beautiful’ expanded in the last 30 years? 

SM: What is considered beautiful is constantly evolving and shifting. Throughout history there have been many different approaches to beauty. Over the past 30 years there has been an increase in globalisation due to innovation in technology, as a product there is increased migration, border trade and foreign investment. Our world is more connected than ever before and we have access to different corners of the world and their cultures, therefore this has had an impact on our current view of what is beautiful.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

HM: Home is somewhere always there for you to go back, which I feel would be my parent’s place in Korea, even though I only go back around once a year.

JN: I grew up, moving homes every one to three years. Looking back, that’s probably why I get really restless and almost depressed when I’m in one place for too long (a month). Sometimes it’s an advantage to be the outsider, observing. I still don’t get that fuzzy warm feeling when my plane lands in London. Whenever I go back to Hong Kong, nothing ever feels the same, other than the existence of my parents. London is essential to my growing right now, but the longer I’m in the UK, the more I yearn for ways to get in touch with my roots. It wasn’t until I went home after I graduated Saint Martins that I wanted so badly a jade bangle, which is thought to be quite a mid-age woman accessory to wear. 

What are the cultural consequences of English being such a ubiquitous language? 

SM: It is a signifier of historic power and might. I am not entirely sure I can answer fluently on the cultural consequences of this however with China now the second largest world economy one might wonder if this may shift over the next several decades.

How did Somerset House influence the work?

JN: In the beginning it was a bit difficult to use such a recognisable British establishment as a starting point. Street casting is an important element of my work, because it pushes my introvert self to fake some confidence and speak to strangers. I casted directly from Somerset House’s visitors and community over the course of six weeks. They were all unrelated people found at dances, exhibitions, art shows and parties. I wanted them to literally journey through the series of images. The Chinese novel Journey to the West came to mind halfway through the project, because it’s a tale about four characters who lived very different lives, coming together for the same goal of finding the Buddhist scripts in the West (in their case, India or Central Asia). I wanted to highlight the shifting definition of the West, which is completely dependent on context, but usually assumed to be North America and most of Europe these days. It’s about the spirit journeying through Somerset House, this Western establishment. 

Why are artists attracted to London?

JN: It’s a place where people are both holding on to the past and also open to moving forward. It’s not an easy city – it’s a hustle, but it has so much to give as long as you’re are giving as well. 

HM: I feel like London is very open minded and nursing for new artists, even though they aren’t so helpful when it comes to visas for artists from abroad! There are so many galleries and museum for artists to exhibit in or be inspired by. I feel like I am encouraged to be myself living in London.

Hanna Moon & Joyce Ng: English as a Second Language is exhibiting at Somerset House until the 28th April 2019

Photo London 2018

Photo London is back at Somerset House for its fourth year and the many galleries exhibiting are more international than ever. Port joined the bustle of photographers and art enthusiasts to pick out some highlights from the fair.

© courtesy of Christophe Guye Galerie

Erik Madigan Heck – Junya Watanabe (Honeycomb) at Christophe Guye

Erik Madigan Heck is bringing fashion photography to the contemporary art world by blurring the boundaries between the two. His compositions have a sharp, polished edge to which he adds a feeling of fantasy through his vivid palette. It shows the clothes to their best advantage, but his treatment of the models is more intriguing, sublimating their human aspects into still, semi-robotic shadows of a high fashion concept. The look is pure and cohesive.

© Evgenia Arbugaeva. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Evgenia Arbugaeva – Untitled #51, 2016 at The Photographers Gallery London

Taking the surreal in a totally different direction, Siberian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva’s Amani series is an unsettling narrative feast focused on the semi-abandoned Amani Malaria Research Station in east Africa. Set up by German colonists in the late 19th century, the centre was originally intended for botanical research but was eventually taken over by the British and converted into a lab that explored new solutions to the spread of malaria. The images, filled with dusty old insect specimens, shelves of discarded bottles and aging piles of paper, reanimate a deserted site beset with allusions to its past.

© Alexander Gronsky / Courtesy Polka Galerie

Alexander Gronsky – Norilsk #5, Russia, 2013 at Polka Galerie

Alexander Gronsky has spent a lifetime studying the Russian landscape, however bleak it can be, with his interest lying in the power of our environment to shape emotions and behaviour. Norilsk is a northern industrial city that lies inside the Arctic Circle. In his muted and monotonous study of its outskirts, Gronsky highlights the ways we articulate our landscapes with man-made infrastructure, leaving an imprint that becomes inseparable from its surroundings.

Susan Derges, c/o Purdy Hicks Gallery

Susan Derges – Kingswood Bluebell No. 14 at Purdy Hicks Gallery

London-based photographer Susan Derges studies natural phenomena with an eye for its intricacy or more minute moments. Inspired by the way light reaches through a forest and illuminates its flora, she exposed the plants she gathered onto photographic paper in a makeshift darkroom hut in the woods. The result is a stark contrast between the luminous semi-translucent plant forms and a vacant black background. Once divorced from its original context, the plant is magnified for a more imposing sculptural presence. 

© Christian Tagliavini / Courtesy of CAMERA WORK

Christian Tagliavini – Plator at Camera Work

Best known for his elegant portraits, styled with all the austerity of the Northern Renaissance, Tagliavini has embraced the absurd with a sinister collection of masked figures with protruding beaks. Fully anthropomorphised, the models nonetheless appear stiff and lifeless like ancient taxidermies dressed up for a perverse joke.


A Journey Through Scent

Explore five fragrances featured in an immersive exhibition, which allows you to see, hear and feel scents from pioneering perfumers

© Laziz Hamani

The Japanese tradition of todo – translating to ‘the way of fragrance’ – has for centuries encouraged an unusual interchange: to listen to smell. Of the other senses, as early as 1928, the scientist and surface physicist H. Devaux had ‘The First Photographs of Smell’ published as a visualisation of camphor and lily. Now, an exhibition at London’s Somerset House, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, invites audiences to take part in an olfactory journey allowing you to see, hear and feel scents.

In the East Wing Galleries, installations in this exhibition highlight ten pioneering perfumers and a respective fragrance from each, drawing on their inspirations and core ideas. Carefully chosen by coordinators Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House, and fragrance writer Lizzie Ostrom, these scents have been much celebrated over the past two decades. Here, we look at five fragrances featured in the show. 

Comme des Garçons 2 – Mark Buxton

After entering perfumery through an unusual route (a game show) Derby-born perfumer Mark Buxton has established himself as a leader in creating iconoclastic fragrance. His 1999 scent Comme des Garçons 2 is one of these. Intended to capture the smell of Japanese calligraphy ink, called sumi, and counterbalanced with more natural notes including magnolia and cedarwood, Buxton’s eau de parfum would become a signature scent for Rei Kawakubo’s fashion label.

© Kim Keever, Courtesy Waterhouse & Dodd

Dark Ride – Killian Wells

In 2015, perfumer Killian Wells modelled a scent on a commonplace smell: chlorinated water. In doing so, he created a fragrance for Los Angeles-based perfumery Xyrena that would be underscored by hints of mildew that nodded at one of its original inspirations, the Pirates of the Caribbean log flume. Dark Ride – a sensory simulation of a water theme park – was born.

L’Air du Désert Marocain – Andy Tauer

Cumin, coriander, petitgrain, rock rose, jasmine. These are the notes at the centre of Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer’s L’Air du Désert Marocain, developed in 2005 for Tauer perfumes. Thinking fondly of a night in Marrakech, Morroco, Tauer imagined this unisex eau de toilette as something that resonated with the Sahara Desert – dry and heady.

Iris © Givaudan

 Charcoal – Lyn Harris

Placing importance on raw materials and sourcing her ingredients from places including the Island of Reunion and Haiti, British perfumer Lyn Harris developed her 2016 fragrance, Charcoal, with the earth in mind. A training background in the traditional methods of perfume making, Harris, founder of fragrance atelier Perfumer H, matches notes of cade with juniper, patchouli and frankincense, to name a few. The result is a composition remnant of hot smoke and time spent in Scotland with her grandfather.

Molecule 01 – Geza Schoen

In Geza Schoen’s Molecule 01 is focused on a single aroma-molecule, called Iso E Super. The success of the fragrance – launched in 2007 for the Berlin-based perfumer’s label Escentric Molecules – has been its ability not to dominate its wearer but to meld with their natural pheromones, taking on its own identity. Simple in its make-up and widely known for its subtly, Molecule 01 is defiantly contemporary. 

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on show at Somerset House until 23 September