An installation view of the exhibition “MMCA Hyundai Motor Series 2021: Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho ― News from Nowhere, Freedom Village” at the MMCA Seoul / Courtesy of the MMCA
By Park Han-sol
The 250-km-long and 4-km-wide strip that has divided the two warring Koreas since the signing of the 1953 Armistice Agreement ― better known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) ― is material and visual proof of the seemingly unending political tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
But in recent years, contemporary Korean artists have begun to look at this landscape beyond the ideological conflict that it represents, creatively reinterpreting it as a new stage for ecological and cultural dialogue.
In 2021 alone, a series of art projects were made rediscovering the DMZ. Jun So-jung’s short film, “Green Screen,” which showed how the war-ravaged strip of land ironically became a utopian wildlife sanctuary, was screened daily on gigantic digital billboards in central Seoul, Tokyo and London throughout August, as part of a global art project called CIRCA.
The artist duo, Jung Yeon-doo and Surya, turned their eyes to relatively unknown micro-narratives ― either inspired by modern folktales, myths or historical events ― associated with the border region, and reimagined them through staged photography and a live performance called “DMZ Theater.”
Artists Jeon Joon-ho, front, and Moon Kyung-won / Courtesy of the MMCA
This month, another project continuing this spirit of reexamining the DMZ beyond its geopolitical implications has opened at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), Seoul: “News from Nowhere, Freedom Village” by Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho, which peers into the only civilian settlement tucked in the middle of the southern part of the DMZ.
Daesung-dong, also referred to in Korean as “Freedom Village,” has remained the most secluded community across the entire peninsula for nearly seven decades since the armistice agreement, fortified with heavily-armed soldiers and barbed-wire fences, due to its proximity to its northern neighbors.?
Despite the name of the village, the lives of some 200 people near the borderline are far from being free. Midnight curfews and roll calls are in place. Every trip residents make outside of their homes, even en route to their rice fields, must be accompanied by a military escort. Their choice of jobs is limited ― mostly farming or livestock rearing ― as no commercial facilities exist within the settlement.
In return, the villagers are exempt from South Korea’s compulsory military service and the national income tax. When they reach the age of 32, they are faced with the decision of whether to stay or leave Daesung-dong.
A scene from the two-channel video installation “News from Nowhere, Freedom Village” (2021) / Courtesy of the artists
Upon witnessing this peculiar way of existence, Moon and Jeon, who have continued their signature global project “News from Nowhere” ― inspired by the utopian novel of the same title by British writer William Morris (1834-1896) ― since 2012, decided to make Freedom Village into the centerpiece of this exhibition, so as to explore the larger themes of confrontation and isolation.
While the two never had a chance to personally visit Daesung-dong due to the strained relationship between North and South Korea, the artists focused on presenting the settlement as a work of art that sits somewhere between fiction and reality, instead of as a simple testament to Korea’s modern history.
“We’re not trying to view the village as the sensational result of the unique political situation of the Korean Peninsula, but rather use the settlement as a window to reflect on the ironic, institutionalized conflicts and tensions that beset human history in general,” Jeon said during a recent press preview held at the gallery.
At the same time, by looking at this village, which is defined by an extreme sense of isolation, the pair comments on the reality that the world faces today, as we grapple with the global COVID-19 pandemic, marked by social distancing measures and quarantine procedures. In other words, the isolated way in which Freedom Village exists is not necessarily limited to a particular period in Korea’s past, but is being repeated to this day across the globe in many forms, the two explained.
The artist duo portrays this situation through combining different media, including video works, installations, archival photography and large-scale painting. Among them, the videos, played via two screens that stand back to back, are the most noteworthy.
The two 15-minute-long videos show the lives of two characters, respectively, who have remained secluded from the rest of the world for years: a 32-year-old man, A, in Freedom Village, who has made the decision to stay in the community, and another man, B, who is stuck alone in a futuristic, high-tech facility.
Although they seem to exist along disparate timelines, they become spiritually connected through a balloon A releases into the sky ― which contains a collection of plant specimens that he has gathered and researched in his free time, as well as notes recording his daily life in order to prove his existence. The collection, after reaching the hands of B, ultimately becomes the catalyst to help him take a step outside of the facility that has confined him all his life for the first time.
The atmosphere of the gallery space is organically connected to the video works, as the exhibition’s lighting and sound from the installed speakers, as well as the ventilation system, are synched up to the video narrative ― thus enabling the audiences to feel as if they are part of the cinematic journey to discover the meaning of isolation and human connection.
The exhibition, “News from Nowhere, Freedom Village,” runs through Feb. 20, 2022 at the MMCA, and will continue from April 29 at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan.
“Landscape” (2021) by Moon Kyung-won / Courtesy of the artistInternet Explorer Channel Network