“It was a really great experience to meet such a wide variety of artists and people from around the world through artist-in-residency programs. We could look back on our work and our lives and commit ourselves to work, which is probably why we’ve kept taking part in these programs over the last 10 years. Ever since I turned 30, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pace of life. If it’s too fast, your life may be exciting, but you often don‘t know where you’re heading. This is not the way I want to live my life, so I’m going to make sure I keep looking around.”
Mioon is the name of group the artistic couple Choi Moon-seon and Kim Min-seon formed. They have been sharing their art of notions of art with people since they made a powerful impression on the public with their spectacular media installation at their first show in Korea. Working as part of artist-in-residency programs, Mioon is keeping itself busy by expanding their areas of concern after returning from an extended stay in Germany. I met them at Gyeonggi Creation Center, and talked with them both about their work, the work process, artist-in-residency programs they have taken part in, and lots of other interesting things. They are exploring the theme of society and communication between people through the interaction of the stage and the audience. Today, they are hoping to take their next big step forward under the theme of memory.
It has been more than 10 years since Mioon made its debut in the winter of 2003. For the most part, they’ve been wandering the world like nomads, participating in different artist-in-residency programs in different countries, one of which was Germany, slowly but surely, just as Mioon works. I had to cross over a 10 km embankment and struggled around meandering mountain paths to finally meet these artists at the Gyeonggi Creation Center on Seongam Island. I thought it wouldn’t be too hard to get to, as they used to work at Paju Book City (also not very close to Seoul), and somewhere I used to work myself. I was wrong, though. It was indeed a long journey.
“It’s been less than a month since we moved here. Thanks for coming out here. It must have been a long journey. (laughs) Understandable, though, given what the building was used for. [It used to be a juvenile delinquent facility.] It takes a long time to get out here without a car. An artist here once told me it took five hours for him to get to Seoul once without a car (laughs). Still, it’s a good place to work and very quiet.”
Mioon’s domestic debut exhibition, Tourist Project, was held at Art Space Pool in 2003. It was nothing short of a shock to media installation art circles in Korea. Mioon’s two artists, Choi Moon-seon and Kim Min-seon met at an arts academy called Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, working together for a competition in 2001. They needed a name to present their group work and Mioon is a very uncommon name.
“I’ll start at the beginning. Min-seon majored in Sculpture at Hongik University. Four years as an art student was so challenging that ended up leaving school and flying to Germany, where she wanted to study besides art. As fate would have it, she’d eventually end up an artist when all was said and done. She seemed to have realized what art was by that point. Moon-seon studied civil engineering at Hongik University and upon graduation began working for a construction company. Still, something felt missing.”
“After realizing I was interested in visualization (it helped that I was a member of a photography club at university), I wanted to learn more about this. I eventually found myself on a flight to Germany, which is where I got into art. Neither one of us went to Germany to become an artist; perhaps it was just our fate. Both of us ended up being artists.”
“It took a long time for us to say we were artists by trade even after we’d been at it a while (laughs). It was probably fate that brought us together in Germany. The group name, Mioon, is a combination of ‘MIN’, from Min-seon Kim, and ‘MOON’, from Moon-seon Choi. It’s simple, but I like it. Although it’s pronounced mween in Korean, it becomes mi-oon (meaning ‘ugly’ in Korean) in other countries (laughs), probably due to some difficulty with pronouncing the diphthong.”
They chose a German university to study because some artists they liked were teaching there. Art universities in Germany often hire artists as faculty members. But Germany was perfect for them for other reasons as well. The social vibe to the country helped them develop the story they wanted to tell through their art. German society forced them to face their problems and not avoid them any longer. By studying in Germany, they were able to make their art truly complete works.
“We lived in Germany for about 8 years. We came back to Korea to make our artistic debut, then turned around and returned to Germany soon after. It wasn’t until 2005 that we finally returned to Korea to live. Still, we visit Germany and other European countries a couple of times a year for our work. It’s really special to have experienced more than one country, both working and holding exhibitions in such different places.”
“When comparing the two countries, Korea’s art world has a shorter lifecycle when it comes to trends and artists, and is very fast-paced. Germany’s art world has a slower, more careful, and stable approach to everything. Also, Germans look at artists from a long-term perspective. It’s not about which one is better, even though the German system was often better for us when we were young artists struggling to survive. A German agency once called us three years after seeing our work. Apparently that doesn’t change the fact that there’s no place in the world where life is easy for up-and-coming artists (laughs).”
Since 2001, Min-seon has been giving a lot of thought to theaters, or, more specifically, to the relationship between the stage and its audience; Moon-seon has been busy taking pictures of crowds, including audiences. The 2002 FIFA World Cup, co-hosted by Korea and Japan, really inspired the two artists. Due to its historical background, Germany tends to take a stricter precaution toward collective action. For them, tens of thousands of Koreans, all in red and cheering in front of City Hall in Seoul, was big news and quite a spectacle, aside from its social significance.
For Mioon, it came as nothing less than a shock, especially since their work revolved around the theme of audiences, crowds and groups. However, they were also very interested in the tourist component to this whole scene. They had a lot of chances to travel around Europe while studying in Germany. Numerous groups of tourists and the combination of seemingly incompatible words – “tourism” and “industry” – gave them with a clue as to how they would proceed with their first piece of work.
“Tourist Project, which we unveiled in 2003, was inspired by tourists crowding around tourist spots in Europe. We asked ourselves about the nature of tourism, industry, and crowds through that work. We questioned the meaning of the ‘tourism industry’ while looking at well-decorated tourist attractions and the tourists themselves. As a matter of fact, we thought that the combination of the words “tourism” and “industry” was a little awkward, kind of like ‘cultural industry’, or ‘human resources’.”
“Tourist groups seemed to breeze by the things displayed before them without giving them a second thought, which seemed odd. Thus, Tourist Project is the result of observations about people and the cultural exchanges that take place within the industrial system. It is media installation work, animated images of tourists projected on a screen made of feathers. The images were created from the photos they took during their travels.”
Mioon’s later works also centered around the keyword “crowds.” They examined the birth, growth, and disappearance of crowds from various perspectives, both microscopic and macroscopic. The series of works include Karaoke Project, created between 2003 and 2007, and Human Stream, in 2005. An Audience’s Stage Aside was their 2008 three-channel video installation artwork containing interviews with the public. They asked a group of ordinary people from different walks of life questions about art, and the interviewees were asked to imagine themselves as artists and express their thoughts as an artist.
Each individual was interviewed separately and then combined in one piece, making them look like a theater audience. Those who saw the work then stood on a stage to view the audience on the screen. Mioon tried to explore the relationship between the crowd and art, what ordinary people think about art, and what prejudices they hold towards art.
“I’ve tested many variations based on the theme of crowds over the last decade or so. In a broader sense, though, I’ve moved from a more macroscopic perspective to a more microscopic one, gradually, and over time. The process made me realize that audiences might look like a homogeneous group, but there exist individual viewpoints which can be interpreted in many different ways. I’ve since decided to develop a new theme, a Theater of Memory, through various media channels and stories.”
“The notion of memory embraces personal memories and collective ones. Korea, which in the modern era has perhaps changed more and at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world, is currently going through more change. That was an interesting place to connect with the theme for me. Memory can lead to a number of interpretations and be put in the context of a theater. In my case, the Theater of Memory originated from medieval Italy and is similar to a Wunderkammer, the predecessor of today’s museum. It is somewhere people store things they have collected, allowing them the chance to appreciate these objects and relive certain moments, recollecting a treasure trove of memories. This is a project that will shed new light on the culture and traditions that have existed since the Middle Ages. We are planning to work on the project over the next five years.”
Because they work together as a team, the work process is a little different from the average creative process. This is why Mioon can only present their projects at rare intervals. They coordinate their differences through endless conversations and debates.
“We work by talking and through dialogue, as each of us carries out individual research on the subject that each of us wants to pursue. Once we find a common theme in which both of us are interested and want to develop further, we begin focusing on it more intently. It takes a while to decide on the scope of the concept and figure out a way to achieve it, but we don’t rush because we know we can absorb each other’s strengths during the whole work process. It’s not uncommon for the work to be suspended over a week, but that doesn’t matter. After all, it’s art. It is not exactly something where you look for efficiency.”
Another reason we cannot see more of Mioon’s work is that artists have to eat, too. Media installation art is not easy to sell. They have to split their time between their art work and outside media projects and public works projects, work, in short, which puts food on the table. Do they feel insecure as they focus on media installation art and have to make a living together through other moneymaking projects?
“Sure, all the time. (laughs) Working as an artist, I’ve realized there’s a big circle of art, and then there’s an even bigger world of art. I want to the kind of artist I’m proud of. I think that I can be a good artist when I don’t feel ashamed of myself. If I’m too worried about reality, I can’t be happy. I try to live with anxiety, as I believe it will always be with me, whether in my 30s, or 40s or elsewhere down the road.”
Mioon’s interest in crowds and groups seems to show their affection to individual identity and freedom. As the world continues to change rapidly and technology advances, people seem to lose a certain uniqueness and become the same as the person next to them. Faced with this reality and the state of art around the world, Mioon has worked hard to lead a slow life, taking a closer look at everyone and everything around them. As a result, they’ve spent more than a decade as nomads, enjoying their own sense of “personal” time.
“We’ve been part of artist-in-residency programs in Germany, France, the U.S., and South Africa. In Korea, we’ve been a part of Changdong Art Studio, Gana Atelier, JangHeung, and Makeshop artist-in-residency programs. This year, we’re now at the Gyeonggi Creation Center. This will be our last artist-in-residency program. It’s been such an incredible experience to meet a wide variety of artists and people from around the world.”
“Of course, there were some bumps along the way, like when they were mugged in the middle of Johannesburg in broad daylight. Mostly, though, we can look back on our work and life and be happy with the things we’ve committed ourselves to, which is probably why we’ve kept doing the artist-in-residency programs for the last 10 years. From my thirties onwards, I’ve thought a lot about the pace of life. If it’s too fast, your life may be exciting, but you often don’t know where you’re heading. This isn’t the way I want to live my life, and I’m going to keep looking around. The Theater of Memory I mentioned before is a long-term project, so we aren’t going to rush it. We plan to work slowly here at the Gyeonggi Creation Center for the next two years.”
[Photo courtesy of Mioon]
Yu Tonghyun graduated from the Department of Archaeology and Art History at Seoul National University. For around ten years, he was a reporter for the art journals Art in Culture and Monthly Art. He is currently working as an art columnist. His books include Indiana Jones and Archaeology and Fiddle Fiddle: Taking Pictures with a DSLR Camera. He has also co-authored Magical Mystery Tour and A Guide to Art Walks in Seoul. He was co-translator of the Korean version of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Archaeology. He also co-planned the exhibitions Sculpture Spoken Here and Retro, and staged the solo exhibition Art Journalist Y's Hard Deadlines.