Hanna Moon & Joyce Ng

English as a Second Language 

words Ellie Brown

Somerset House’s latest exhibition English as a Second Language is an exploration of fashion photography that uses the building’s cultural legacy and physical structure as its backdrop. The show focuses on Hanna Moon and Joyce Ng, who were approached by curator Shonagh Marshall to produce a body of work in response to the site. Moon, from South Korea, and Ng, from Hong Kong, both moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins; neither had previously lived in England, nor experienced ‘English culture’ first-hand. Having graduated in 2014, Moon and Ng have made their marks on the world of fashion photography, working with publications including British Vogue, i-D, Dazed and The Gentlewoman

Spread out over three rooms, English as a Second Language allows space to explore Moon and Ng’s work made specifically for the show, before going on to document their personal projects and published editorial work in the final room. Curated in this way, the exhibition situates Moon and Ng at the centre of a changing (Western) fashion industry; the prevalence of their distinct visual styles is representative of an increasingly international fashion language. That this exhibition is focused on two young, Asian female photographers is a testament to a wider shift, where an influx of fresh perspectives and new voices are calling the shots. Using the rich and varied fashion-led compositions that Moon and Ng showcase in their work as the starting point, the exhibition seeks to tease out more complicated elements of human experience. Just as English as a Second Language is an exploration of Moon and Ng’s impact on fashion photography in London, it documents their experience of moving to a foreign city, as they attempt to capture the formative (and sometimes trivial) moments that define it. 

For Hanna Moon, English as a Second Language presented the opportunity to take over Somerset House, in what she has described as a rebellious invasion of the space. Turning to her two friends, Moffy from London and Heejin from South Korea, as her models who take on different guises, Moon showcases a body of work that plays with notions of English splendour and neoclassical motifs. Poised like an artist’s muse for the preliminary sketches of an oil portrait, Heejin is shown leaning against a chaise-longue; on the opposite wall of the room, Moffy is seen reclining nude against dark, velvety drapery. Wider shots reveal the location of these images to be Seaman’s Hall in Somerset House. The same member of staff sits at the reception desk in the background, seemingly oblivious to Moon’s takeover of the space, as photographic equipment triumphs over the grandeur of the building’s interior. In this sense, Moon takes the premise of English as a Second Language head on, as she presents an imagining of English culture from her perspective, adding a discernible twist of her own. In the image of a reclining Moffy, she’s shown wearing a surgical mask – a commonplace item in Moon’s home country South Korea, but one that is often met with confusion and a lack of understanding in London. The presence of this otherwise insignificant mask undermines the possibility that the image could be a scene from something straight out of the Renaissance, thus allowing Moon to firmly situate herself within the picture. That Moon chose to cast her friends, Moffy and Heejin, in these photos gives them an indirectly personal quality, which is most visibly manifested in the dress that Heejin wears as she leans against the chaise-longue: it is her mother’s wedding dress. 

Joyce Ng’s approach, meanwhile, marks a departure from the immutable bond of friendship, opting instead to street-casting her eight models from around Somerset House over a period of weeks – none of whom had any formal modelling experience. Ng imbues her work with narratives that, at times, verge on the surreal. In one image, Karen Guan-Yin, a King’s College student who had only recently moved to London from China, appears a top of Somerset House, with an ‘e-postcard’ to let her parents know she’s arrived okay: “Safe in London: With Love, Guan Yin <3”. It’s not far from reality though; as Ng remarks in the short film by Raf Fellner that accompanies the show, she herself sent a postcard to let her parents know when she’d made it to London from Hong Kong. Ng’s images engage less with Somerset House’s historical significance than with the place it is today. Ng responds to the building as a central student hangout, where some of London’s biggest cultural events now take place (including the Big Skate, London Fashion Week, and the Film4 Summer Screen). Into this environment, Ng situates a refashioning of The Journey to the West. One of the founding stories of Chinese literature, it details the westerly expedition of the Monkey King to India. In English as a Second Language, the journey’s end is Somerset House. The Mountain of Five Fingers, within which the Monkey King is imprisoned by Buddha for misbehaving, is recrafted by Ng as a papier-mâché structure, with Guan-Yin’s face peering out of one the mountain’s appendages, as she ‘catches a breath’. There is a playfulness that pervades in Ng’s work, as elements of humour and performance emerge from within a carefully-curated vision. As Ng herself remarks, it is through photography that she is able to control the different components that make up the image. 

Under the creative direction of Studio Veronica Ditting (of The Gentlewoman), English as a Second Language subtly complements the work of Moon and Ng, as the neoclassical interior spaces of Somerset House are transformed accordingly. Walls of deep blue and red reflect the reimagined grandeur of an international visual culture that emerges in Moon’s work; a bold, clean intervention of the interior with splices of red underlines the, at times humorous, exploration of fashion and culture through Ng’s narrative. Done this way, Somerset House’s Terrace Rooms become inextricably woven into fabric of the exhibition experience. 

English as a Second Language runs at Somerset House from 25 January - 28 April 2019