• Nina Hanz

English as a Second Language

Smog on the Central line often reminds me of that one summer in Singapore. When I left the tube station the streets were empty, blocked-off for some charity race that had just finished, leaving the roads from Holborn for the most part empty. Noon on a Saturday, but London was still empty.

It was a brisk ten minutes’walk to Somerset House; the courtyard, the stairwell, the exhibition spaces were likewise vacant. Adorned with Neoclassical fixtures, the first room was painted an imperial aubergine. Hanna Moon’s photography clung tightly to the walls like the sides of a swimming pool. The images were large, needed to be viewed from far away. The deep end. The following room was cut by a meandering white panel. Upon this partition, Joyce Ng’s smaller photographs mix with her larger ones, as if by osmosis. They looked like out-takes, photos you would usually delete before downloading. Photos you otherwise wouldn't see. I went round twice, they were brilliant in their composition, their mood, their diction. A red-framed photograph lent against the back wall. It was all a bit clumsy, like the first sentences of a new language. Accents I have grown to adore.

The warning signs spoke in four different languages. I think it was August 2015, maybe ‘16. Pre-fall football practice was cancelled because of the PSA rates. Radios warned runners to stop jogging. Nobody went outside and Singapore, the city-state with a population over 5.6 million, seemed brusquely deserted.

The Hong Kong native Hanna Moon chose to photograph her two friend, Heejin and Moffy, using Somerset House's architectural features to reconsider Classical portraiture. These photos were featured at the entrance of the exhibition. In one of the largest painting, Moffy lays on a chaiselounge like a traditional nude painting. There is nothing to indicate Moon is a fashion photographer besides a single surgical mask that covers Moffy’s mouth and nose. A cultural artefact, smog couture. Next to the print was a smaller version, the same photo zoomed out, exposing the beams that held up the red velvet backdrop, the photography lights and the security guard sitting at his desk on the right-hand side. They were suddenly all exposed through dialogue, a second account of the event.

I didn’t find it unusual: everyone wearing surgical masks. I had grown accustomed to seeing them around – occasionally – when someone seemed ill on the MRT or when Ebola featured again on the BBC. But when my family was given them that summer, by government officials, they suddenly seemed more serious. And how the woven-cloth masks felt uncomfortable on my chin, on the bridge of my nose. Little zits soon followed. I knew better than to complain; the worst PSA levels in Singapore were moderate levels in Shanghai.

There is a certain attitude to Moon’s work. Hong Kong, like Singapore, was once a British colony; presenting a show at the former military-base-turned-art-centre and making one’s own photographic reimagining produces an interesting dichotomy between the artist and the institution. Joyce Ng’s work, though, is more fluid, more abstract in its subversion. But subversive of what? Western beauty standards? The South Korean/London-based photographer’s work is like the cocaine-blue orchid my flatmate welcomed into our apartment a few months ago – somewhat artificial, but still emanating authenticity. For her room at the Somerset House exhibition, Joyce Ng decided to exclusively cast non-model visitors. Maybe this is why it is so unexpected, so undisciplined, dare-I-say-rebellious. The images are bizarrely sensual, like Singapore's nation flowers, exorcised by the Western gaze. 

English as a Second Language. The title seems more like a joke than an artistic exploration. Their language is not simply of the spoken, but of the seen and unseen. It is an aesthetic language. And though their unique visual dialects, both very different from each other, their collaborative show becomes a barefaced interjection to the English-speaking Corinthian columns and Georgian façade. A satire of the dominant language of colonial-era design.

I never did learn Malay, Mandarin or even Tamil. There was no need to challenge my tongue; in Singapore everyone understood my English. English, ever the surpassing language.