In the seven years since they made their debut, BTS have broken down many barriers – the kind that would previously have kept a band who mainly sing and rap in Korean from occupying their current position as the biggest pop group in the world. This boundary-free existence of BTS is a lesson in how rich life can become when you stop focusing on your differences with others – be they language, gender, race or otherwise – and open yourself up to what you can learn from others’ experiences.
To be a part of BTS’ ARMY fandom is to go on a journey removing your own barriers and the band reward you for doing so by exposing you to new worlds and ideas to explore and grow from. The seven-piece themselves are curious voyagers and wide-eyed students of Earth, and they share the fruits of their studies in their songs, music videos, and social media. On their last album, 2019’s ‘Map Of The Soul: Persona’, they encouraged their fanbase to read up on Carl Jung’s theories of psychology and geek out on Greek mythology, while, in the past, songs like ‘Magic Shop’ and 2016 album ‘Wings’ have sent their followers off into the vast world of literature.
The band have already shared their love of art with their fans through social media posts from exhibitions, filmed moments like V’s gallery excursion in the latest season of their travel reality show Bon Voyage, and in references to the likes of Basquiat and Anish Kapoor in the video for their latest comeback trailer, ‘Interlude: Shadow’. Now, Connect, BTS – a global art project involving 22 artists across five cities that launched in London today (January 14) – turns those glimpses into something much bigger that will, as the name suggests, connect the band’s passion not just with ARMY’s but with other art lovers across the world with no knowledge of BTS required. It’s yet another barrier broken down.
“[BTS’] ability to speak meaningfully to people of different cultural backgrounds, social classes, ethnicities, genders, and identities speaks in turn to modern art’s long-standing goal to transcend imagined boundaries, breaking through, creating new expressive space,” says curator Daehyung Lee in a statement on the new project. For the artists and other curators involved, one of the benefits they hope to stem from Connect, BTS is about reclaiming art from the world of high-end galleries. To that end, the first piece unveiled in the series – Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Catharsis – is on display at London’s Serpentine Gallery but can also be experienced globally online.
“It really felt like a watershed moment,” the Serpentine’s Chief Technology Officer Ben Vickers tells NME as audio burbles and rushes of Catharsis echo through the venue. “In the art world, a lot of people have lost faith in the ability of art to change the world so it’s quite magical to have it reinvigorated in this way.”
Vickers was already a fan of BTS before the opportunity to be involved in Connect came about, saying he began to listen to them after learning they were using Jung’s ideas. “The idea that you can mobilise millions of people to think about their mental health – art has been trying to do things like that for a long time,” he says. “It wants to have that social impact so this opens up a lot of amazing possibilities. There are a lot of things that are embedded in artistic discourse that only get exposed to a small group of people but could be really revolutionary.”
The pieces set to be displayed as part of Connect, BTS are thought-provoking and show that art still has the potential to change the world. Catharsis immerses viewers in a digital simulation of a redwood forest, mixed with North American forests – “An imaginary world that looks real,” according to artist Steensen. Using a single continuous shot, it highlights the beauty of untouched nature and serves as a warning of what could be lost. In a video only accessible at the Serpentine, BTS’ Jin asks “Were you able to find the pure, unadulterated beauty within yourself?”, a subtle reference to the band’s ‘Love Yourself’ message.
Elsewhere, Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno will attempt to solve the “nightmare” that flying has become for the planet by making a human airborne above his home country’s Salinas Grandes salt lake, without the aid of fossil fuels, solar panels, batteries or helium. He will also attempt to fly a “self-powered” balloon made from plastic bags from London to Seoul with the help of BTS’ fans. “If we connect with the BTS ARMY of 52 million fans around the world, we can call the operation K-hop,” Saraceno says at the launch event. BTS watch on from a satellite link beamed onto a screen behind him and rapper Suga’s reaction to the attempted pun is much the same as when Jin pulls out his arsenal of dad jokes – reluctant amusement.
Over 17 artists will take part in a series of performance works called Rituals Of Care at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, something the space’s director Stephanie Rosenthal says will “engage with questions [like] ‘what can we learn from the artist?’ and how to deal with the past”. “Working with BTS and Daehyung [we have realised] we do believe in art as healing practices,” she explains.
In BTS’ home of Seoul, London-based Korean artist Yiyun Kang will present the only piece that makes its ties to the group explicit. Beyond The Scene is “a reimagining of BTS’ signature dance movements as seen through the techniques of projection mapping” and Kang used conversations with between 10 and 20 fans to understand the philosophy of the band and why they inspire such “unconditional support”. “I wanted to make some environment where the viewers can navigate and feel the philosophy of BTS and what does it mean to us now?” she says. “We need to go beyond the current scenes – we need to embrace, to be connected again, to make the world more inclusive and sustainable.”
Finally, in New York, Sir Antony Gormley will create a new version of his Clearing piece – a single line of aluminium tubing that has no beginning or end – at Brooklyn Bridge Park. He describes it as “an energy field” that is comparable to Einstein’s theory of relativity. “It will only make sense once you enter it,” he explains. “In a sense, it’s an energy field but it only becomes energised once the viewer is in there and the field becomes a space in which the viewer becomes the viewed by other viewers.”
It’s an idea that BTS’ Jungkook returns to when he briefly addresses the audience. “We had a chance to talk with the artists via video conference and what was really meaningful for us was how the art is completed through the experience of the people who see them and the people who participate,” he says through a translator. “We also communicate with our fans through our music and we also feel that our performances are completed thanks to and with our fans.”
Although Clearing is a piece Gormley has shown before, he tells NME he’s never tried to build it outside or “at this scale”. “It’s really exciting,” he says. “The whole spirit of this is experimentation – let’s do something that hasn’t been done before, let’s try things that are worth trying for their own sake. It’s a wonderful, generous act of BTS to spread their love and allow things to happen that absolutely wouldn’t otherwise. The spirit in which they’re happening is quite unique.”
Before the doors open to let the first curious ARMY members witness Connect for themselves, BTS leader RM ruminates on what the band’s latest collaborators have been discussing. “We still believe in the power of art and that it can help and change the world,” he says decisively, before drawing on his own experience of learning about fine and visual art over the last year. “I’m a very beginner and, currently, my favourite hobby is to visit galleries and museums and see all the great pieces. As I look at them, the lifelong journey and struggles of [the artists’] thoughts […] always give me a whole other world of shock and inspiration. I hope more and more people can believe in the power of art – of any kind or genre.”
Connect, BTS is now on display at London’s Serpentine Gallery before opening in Berlin (January 15-February 2), Buenos Aires (January 21-March 22), Seoul (January 28-March 20), and New York (February 4-March 27).