Connect, BTS: Hans Ulrich Obrist on the K-pop group’s groundbreaking London exhibition

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis, 2019-20 © Hugo Glenndinning

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This month, we were blessed with the news that K-pop superstars BTS are set to return with their next album, Map of the Soul: 7.

In the lead-up to the album’s release on 21 February, the group have teased a mysterious project entitled Connect, BTS. Pinned to each Army member’s calendar, the group have – finally – revealed what the big project is: a global art series spanning five cities and involving 22 artists – including some of the world’s leading names, such as Antony Gormley. Whilst the group have consistently fused their music with YouTube-dominating and chart-topping videos, Connect, BTS sees the seven-member boy band step into the world of contemporary art. The project marks a watershed moment for pop artists; it’s the first time a collective of musicians have headed up a visual project of such magnitude. Working closely with art institutions across the world, BTS have commissioned a series of works in London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul and New York, designed to spread their message of connection and solidarity.

Launched in London yesterday (14 January), Connect, BTS opened with Jakob Kudst Steensen’s Catharsis: a digital reimagining of a centuries-old forest at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. Today (15 January), the worldwide series continues at Berlin’s Gropius Bau, where curators Stephanie Rosenthal and Noémie Solomon have launched their performance programme Rituals of Care, which also features artist Pan Daijing. Coming up next is Tomás Saraceno’s Fly with Aerocene Pacha installation in Buenos Aires (21 January), and on 28 January Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza will host works by Ann Veronica Janssens and Yiyun Kang. The global initiative will culminate with a wire sculpture by Gormley at New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 3 in February.

Threading through each project is BTS’ guiding philosophy, and their intention to “return the great amount of love and support from our fans”. As the London exhibition is well underway, we catch up with Serpentine star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Over the phone, we talk references within BTS’ music, the message of Steensen’s Catharsis installation, and what he thinks makes BTS’ Army so special.

How did this project come about?

We’re very excited about this collaboration with BTS because we believe that we can only understand the forces in visual arts if we also look at music, literature and architecture. The link to music has been very important to us through our programmes and soundtracks to exhibitions. So when BTS approached us, and their curator Daehyung – who we’ve known for several years (he curated the Korean Pavilion in Venice which is where we met) – wanted to involve several institutions in the process, we said that was a really good idea. We love the work of BTS and we think it’s particularly interesting how the seven-member band have, in the last seven years, done so much. We were interested in their connection to the different art forms because not only do they have a great passion for contemporary art but BTS also, as a K-pop band, want to send out a positive message to the world, to create more solidarity. We felt that was very urgent and important.

“The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.” We feel that that motto of Etel Adnan is also what the music of BTS is doing, and their references seem so interesting. They often refer to literature and an alternative universe in their storylines. They’re interested in Ursula le Guin, and they think about disparate realities. It’s not just world-making too, it very often involves personal and socially related content. They address issues of youth, mental health, and there’s a link to psychology, namely Carl Jung’s The Red Book.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis, 2019-20 © Hugo Glenndinning

Why did you choose to work with Jakob Kudsk Steensen for this project?

The Ursula le Guin and Jung references resonate wonderfully with the work of Jakob Steensen. The ideas and references of BTS connect them. Kim Nam-joon (also known as RM) is obsessed with galleries and museums. He sees art as a portal into other worlds, which is similar to how Jakob sees his forest as a portal.

We also felt that we’ve worked with Jakob but we never did an exhibition with him. We worked with him on a project in a park which was our first augmented reality architecture competition with David Adjaye last summer. We always thought it’d be interesting to have a digital pavilion and that Jakob could build us this augmented reality digital pavilion on several locations in the park. In addition to him being the perfect match with BTS, we felt it would be wonderful to push [Connect, BTS] a step further because he had this idea of a forest which was unrealised, and we’re always into making unrealised artist projects happen.

Steensen said in a video with BTS that Catharsis works with its architecture. Can you tell me more about the relationship between Catharsis and the architecture of the Serpentine gallery itself?

The audience is immersed in a digital simulation of a very old, reimagined forest that’s grown – maybe over centuries – undisturbed. We thought it would be amazing to connect it to the Sackler Gallery; that the idea of the forest would be very beautiful here in Kensington Gardens because we are surrounded by trees. As we always say, a day without seeing a tree is a waste of a day. Not only can we now see the trees in the park but we can also see Jakob’s trees. It’s interesting because together with Matt McCorkle, his collaborator, he matched this virtual ecosystem and the sound is synchronised. You, as a viewer, are immersed in the forest and you can emerge from the watery, wet underground, from the roots to a viewpoint of the canopy. You make that movement – that’s the catharsis. It’s also interesting that it’s a rather slow experience, so it’s also about slowness in a way. It’s slowing the viewer down.

Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Catharsis, 2019-20 © Hugo Glenndinning

Did you work with the other curators of Connect, BTS at all?

Yesterday, we had a press conference with all the artists. Yiyun Kang created a work called Beyond the Scene, a reimagining of BTS’ signature dance moves that was projected onto the walls of the Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul, where she started the choreography of the band.

It is interesting that not only are BTS into the idea of solidarity and community, but they are also building these communities. There is the BTS Army and all these groups and collectives which the fans talk about. Then there was a dialogue yesterday with Tomás Saraceno with whom we are working with on a short project for the Serpentine Gallery for 2021. Tomás spoke about slower, more sustainable ways of flying. We had Stephanie Rosenthal here, who is the curator of the Gropius Bau, and she’s going to do a performance series as part of the BTS collaboration. And Sir Anthony Gormley presented his experimental immersive installation.

It’s all about bridge building and connecting people through countries, energies and generations. All of that was orchestrated by Daehyung Lee. We are all in touch and continue to exchange.

“The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation”
– Etel Adnan

How does the installation link to where we are now with culture and technology?

There is a new art form emerging through visual media. Moving image has often been trapped in this idea of a loop; whenever you show a film or video installation there are moments where it repeats. Two experiences of Jakob’s work are never the same. They are not moving images that have a loop, like where the video reboots or restarts, but they are digitally living organisms similar to a tree. I think that produces a completely new art form. We call them new experiments in art and technology – that’s also why we have a whole digital department and a chief technology officer. The project is curated by our digital curator Kay Watson.

Another important dimension is ecology. We are the first to have an ecology curator for the programme, looking to reduce extinction and so many artists are working within this theme. A third theme is inequality; this work started back in Dagenham and the London boroughs with the biggest unemployment rate. We are working closely with people like the Mayor to ensure we have artists in residence. We should fight for neutrality and not have a world where it’s fast for people who pay and slow for people who don’t pay. We believe the same for art, and that’s the generosity of BTS: that they support these commissions and institutions as art patrons that help us to produce these works. These projects are all freely accessible for everyone. Art for all is very important.

After Jungkook spoke to the artists, he said, “What was meaningful for me was how the artworks were completed through the experience of the people who see them.” What does Catharsis mean to you?

Catharsis is also about the experience we make here, and we hope [the audience] are going to make extraordinary experiences with this work. It has a lot to do with providing relief from strong emotions and I think there is an emotional relationship between us and the environment: things that are becoming endangered, so many trees are dying. So the work also has a lot to do with this empathy, with the trees.

What makes BTS fans special?

BTS really did it for the fans, to connect them with contemporary art. There is this bridge between the circle of K-pop and BTS fans, and at the same time everyone who is interested in contemporary art. BTS’ curiosity and their alternative universe involves so many interests – sci-fi, psychology, contemporary art – it’s extremely interdisciplinary. We had many fans coming yesterday and it was interesting to see that they come from lots of different backgrounds. I think that’s the incredible thing about BTS, they broach so many interests. Someone who is into music, pop or K-pop can be interested in their work, while someone who’s into art can be interested in their work. Someone who’s into psychology, social issues and inequality can appreciate their work as BTS touch on social themes. They wonder about the social construct of art. Their fans are diverse. It’s been a very exciting and unexpected encounter, which has made us very happy.

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