Looking Beyond Disaster for Clues to Contemporary Life

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SEOUL — At a time when artists can sell paintings and sculptures for dizzying sums, Jeon Joonho and Moon Kyungwon embody a somewhat contrary approach.

“We don’t want to make just artwork,” Ms. Moon said in an interview at their studio, which was designed by the Japanese architect Toyo Ito in Seoul’s Seochon area. “We try to listen to other voices to rethink our position.”

Over the past decade, Ms. Moon and Mr. Jeon — or Moon and Jeon, as they are widely known — have established a multifarious artistic partnership that frequently involves collaborations with architects, fashion designers, actors and scientists, among others.

Dreamy, meticulously crafted short videos are their trademark, and they do sometimes make discrete objects, but their endeavors have also taken the form of discussion series, books and design. Both 52, they have become stars on the international art circuit, and represented their native South Korea at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Their latest show alights at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, in May, and it encompasses video installations as well as an ongoing urban regeneration project in the nearby seaside village of Kanaiwa. That project includes the redesign, with the architect Yuji Nakae, of a dilapidated wall that 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, a means for addressing contemporary issues from oblique angles. “Moon and I don’t like to give some message to the audience,” said Mr. Jeon. “We want to give a key —”

“— or a clue of our ideas,” said Ms. Moon, finishing his sentence, as they often do for each other.

William Morris’s 1890 novel, “News From Nowhere,” has served as an inspiration and a title for their work. In Morris’s universe, a man falls asleep and awakes more than a century later in a socialist utopia. The settings of Ms. Moon and Mr. Jeon tend to be far darker. Civilization has crashed; humans are trying to move forward.

The centerpiece of their recent show at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) here was a two-screen video born of their research on Taesung Freedom Village, which is in the Demilitarized Zone and guarded by the United Nations Command. Its roughly 200 residents receive special tax breaks but are subject to a curfew and closely monitored. (The pair were not able to get permission to shoot there.)

On one screen, a local man wanders through a forest, catalogs plants and sends samples aloft via balloon. Mysteriously, its contents appear on the second screen in a hermetically sealed high-tech chamber inhabited by a lone man. He is under video surveillance and fed by pouches that his computerized home delivers. He examines the specimens, secretly plants a seed and decides to don a mask and venture outside.

The piece, planned before the pandemic, has taken on new resonance. “The Freedom Village, itself, presents us now,” said the MMCA curator Joowon Park, who organized the show. “We are entirely isolated — physically, because we are wearing a mask every day, but also mentally.”

Decades-old photos of Taesung that the artists subtly altered, shielding people’s identities, hung near the videos, and Ms. Park said that many young people who visited were “confused about whether this village is real or not.” Its 70-year estrangement is a result of the Korean War, but “these kinds of stories are everywhere in the world,” she said, drawing analogies to Kabul, Hong Kong and Taiwan, all places with fraught borders or constrained movement.

The Freedom Village video will be in Kanazawa with the duo’s first film, “El Fin del Mundo (2012),” which also uses a dual structure that spans time. On one screen, a man in a rundown studio is at work on a ramshackle sculpture; in the other, a woman in a viciously commercialized future visits the room, studies his materials — now artifacts — and becomes entranced.

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

One might take the piece as an allegory for their enduring faith in making experimental art. Mr. Jeon said they aim to ask, “What is the meaning of contemporary art?” They demonstrate that it can be a forum for uniting disparate creative forces.

In a 2013 Chicago show by Ms. Moon and Mr. Jeon, the Dutch architecture firm MVRDV offered renderings of inhabitable, biodegradable “bubbles,” responding to a dystopic scenario from the artists. For a 2015 Zurich show, the two worked with the Swiss design group Urban-Think Tank to design a “Mobile Agora,” movable seating for discussions among people in various fields.

Because of the pandemic, “Their philosophy as artists, which is to rethink the social role of art, is needed,” Koichi Nakata, senior curator at the Kanazawa museum, said in an email.

Their focus on such core issues dates back to their first meeting, in 2007, on an airplane to a biennial to show their work. Intense discussions eventually led to their partnership, though they both continue to make solo works. “We talked a lot about how to survive as an artist in the art market,” Ms. Moon said.

Surviving as artists today — making their ambitious films — means attracting financing from sources like museums, foundations and businesses. “You cannot imagine how many presentations we do to corporations,” Mr. Jeon said.

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

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

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