Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, On the Back Stage, 2017, ink-jet print, 24 3/4 x 33 7/8".

Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, On the Back Stage, 2017, ink-jet print, 24 3/4 x 33 7/8".

Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho

SCAI The Bathhouse

Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, On the Back Stage, 2017, ink-jet print, 24 3/4 x 33 7/8".

Since teaming up in 2009, the Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho have created a number of multimedia projects for high-profile venues such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale, dealing with utopia and dystopia in a nebular and speculative mode. Their recent exhibition, “Freedom Village,” engaged more concretely with history and the vagaries of memory. The visual centerpiece of the installation was an eponymous twelve-minute movie (all works 2017). Enigmatic and well-crafted, it opens inside a 1950s-style mad-scientist laboratory, where a frizzy-haired man is busy constructing miniature buildings upon a rocky diorama, which he then zaps with Dr. Frankenstein–type Tesla coils. Cut to shots of a similar-looking man meditatively sweeping a gravel yard in front of a temple, images of lush rice paddies, and archival clips of the Korean War and the inauguration of Freedom Village—a little-known and highly restricted settlement of two hundred civilians on the South Korea side of the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula. Later in the film, we see the scientist miniaturized inside the diorama. In another room, a video projected onto a tabletop showed a sports stadium containing a construction site, apparently administered jointly by the North and the South, since both of the giant flagpoles that stand on either side of the border near Freedom Village tower over the site. Construction didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Only people with ancestral rights to local land and personnel with the United Nations Command are allowed to stay in Freedom Village. An extensive display of photographs captures details of life in this forgotten community, showing such mundane things as farmhouses and harvested rice; everyday vignettes of kids playing, men resting, and officials monitoring. Supplemented by a few short explanatory texts, these photos were supposedly taken between the 1950s and the 1980s and sourced from the National Archives of Korea—I say “supposedly” because Moon and Jeon surrounded the presentation with an air of skepticism by lightly manipulating the images. Their silly additions include sunglasses on government visitors, superhero masks on conversing men, FedEx logos on boxes of Red Cross aid, and a ball court in place of a farm plot. Selected figures are scrubbed out, their removal reminiscent of Stalinist editing of photographic archives, perhaps with North Korean resonances. Versus an authoritarian erasure of the ideologically inessential and inconvenient, Moon and Jeon offer a jokey counterfactual of the frivolous—but to what end, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they are creatively reading the archive with the doubt that the average person brings to cryptozoology: Since the DMZ is known as a “no-man’s-land,” photographs of people living there are as unbelievable as snapshots of UFOs or Bigfoot.

As someone with no personal or professional stake in Korean history, I know that there is a lot I was missing in “Freedom Village.” Still, aside from the inherently compelling subject matter and giddy nesting of fact and fiction, I am not sure what this project has to offer. Moon and Jeon’s humor is too mild and their archival meddling too trivial (and sometimes too subtle) to make a constructive intervention into Cold War memory and its human and geographical legacies. But doing so doesn’t seem to be their battle, anyway. Their work is strongly narcissistic, as indicated by the movie, which stars a scientist/artist in the lab/studio, and the accompanying book, which is edited (like most of their many handsome publications) so that nothing seems more important than affirming the profundity of their practice. I left “Freedom Village” a little sad about those bereaved by the Korean War, a little hopeful that the DMZ will be crossable some day, and a little irritated by how artists turn to exclusion zones (think of ChimPom’s Don’t Follow the Wind, 2015–, project in Fukushima, Japan) as a way to renew old figments of their profession as a special class of visionaries and intrepid explorers of the unknown.

Ryan Holmberg