On ViewKunstmuseum Bern
April 30 – September 5, 2021
In the James Bond movie Die Another Day (2002), the eponymous hero is first captured by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK–North Korea) before escaping to Cuba—depicted as a fellow rogue-communist state—in pursuit of his dastardly foe. Even at the time of its release, this end-of-the-line Cold War spy drama was already well past its sell-by date. After decades of reforms to Cuba’s economy and those of most other communist nations, by the early 2000s only North Korea persisted in exempting itself from engagement with globalized neoliberalism. Today, in the wake of those reforms, Raúl Castro, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping cut almost reassuringly relatable figures compared to Kim Jong-un—the sole remaining real-world analogue of communist super-villains like Bond’s nemesis Blofeld.
With its hereditary dictatorship, desperate poverty, recurrent famines, and extreme human rights violations, North Korea is the last beleaguered bastion of old-school state communism. As former communist states have long since recognized, global liberal capitalism, with all its glaring inequalities, is simply a more effective way to provide viable economic conditions for the masses than authoritarian collectivism. Despite the continuing support of an often-exasperated Beijing, North Korea now finds itself profoundly isolated.
The exhibition Border Crossings mostly comprises works acquired by Uli Sigg, Swiss ambassador to North Korea between 1995 and 1998. Although exporting North Korean art is usually impossible, Sigg was in a position to collect on both sides of the demilitarized zone dividing the Korean peninsula. The show, currently on view at the Kunstmuseum Bern, presents 75 works from the Sigg Collection of North and South Korean art in addition to a selection of hand-painted North Korean posters and stamps from the collection of Katharina Zellweger. Border Crossings and its accompanying, richly illustrated catalogue highlight important issues for the reception of art across the ideological boundary between North and South Korea.
Border Crossings provides rare insights into neighboring visual cultures with a shared history and starkly contrasting present-day socio-political conditions. The Republic of Korea (ROK–South Korea), is an ally of the US and well-established as part of the global economic community. Modern and contemporary artworks produced there are widely exhibited internationally. Stand-out works by South Korean artists showcased by Border Crossings include exquisitely subtle non-figurative paintings by Chung Sang-Hwa and Park Seo-bo. Although superficially reminiscent of Minimalist paintings by Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin, those of Chung and Hwa are the product of techniques intentionally grounded in traditional Korean aesthetics; not least, the use of apparent absence to amplify resonant meaning and feeling. Also notable are ceramic pieces by Yee Sookyung that traverse the cultural boundary between post-Duchampian collage-montage and kintsugi, a technique of ceramic repair traditional to Japan and Korea.
The exhibition’s catalogue explains that, by contrast, art in North Korea is expected to “contribute to national independence, pride, unity, increasing productive power, happiness, health, prosperity, and vigilance toward enemies of the state.” In short, this means the prevalence of Soviet and Maoist-inflected Socialist Realism. Overt political critique and the abstraction and defamiliarization characteristic of Western/ized modernist, Postmodernist, and contemporary art are all notably absent from North Korea. Those roles are filled vicariously, as Border Crossings shows, by Chinese artists who have taken the political life and visual propaganda of North Korea as a subject. Feng Mengbo’s painting, Two Great White Sharks (2014), for example, appropriates a North Korean propaganda photograph of Kim Jong-un and an accompanying military entourage to telling, barely disguised satirical effect. In Border Crossings, South Korean artists are all identified by name, while those of North Korea remain in many instances anonymous team workers.
Although easily dismissible as kitsch from a lingering Greenbergian perspective, North Korean Socialist Realism is distinguished, at its best, by a highly attractive formal and stylistic vibrancy. It remains contemporary and progressive on its own ideological terms. One is nevertheless pulled up short of outright admiration by a necessary recognition of the totalitarian regime the work supports. Charles Le Brun’s painting Chancellor Séguier and his Suite (1670), which currently hangs in the Louvre, is now appreciated by most viewers without overwhelming moral angst: the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV no longer occupies living memory. By contrast, Kim Jong-un remains the dynastic ruler of North Korea. Is it possible to wholeheartedly admire visually striking works of North Korean Socialist Realism, such as Pak Yong Chol’s The Marines (1994–2004, original 1986), while deploring the existing regime whose values they represent?
Beijing’s continuing economic and political support of North Korea reflects the historical standing of pre-modern Korea as a tributary state of China. An important aspect of this relationship is the appropriation by pre-modern Korea of artistic techniques and aesthetics associated with Chinese Confucianism, notably those of traditional literati ink-and-brush landscape painting. The traces of such artistic thinking and practice are still detectable in today’s North Korea. Exemplary in this regard are paintings by the group named the North Korea Collective, which commingle the formal tropes of literati painting with those of socialist realism. An equivalent combination was also prevalent in Mao-era China.
Traces of pre-modern Confucian culture are also found in relation to North Korea’s present-day political cult of personality, which functions effectively as a stabilizing continuation of dynastic-imperial rule. As the catalogue of Border Crossings notes, “in artistic depictions, Kim Il Sung [founder and first president of North Korea] is often surrounded by children and suffused in light, which elicit comparisons to a Christ-like figure.” Across East Asia, including both Koreas, art continues to communicate complex, high-context, transcultural meanings emerging from localized histories and cultural identities. Those meanings are largely lost on uninformed audiences.
It may be tempting to dismiss North Korea’s visual culture out of hand, as simply an anachronism that can only be approached, like the Socialist Realism of Mao-era China, with substantial irony. This would, however, deny both that culture’s political relevance to the present and its much richer seams of historically compacted meaning. Myopic concentration on the seemingly categorical division between today’s North and South Korea is in some ways misleading. Although a manifestation of continuing tensions between liberal democratic and communist ideologies, the division between the two Koreas is also overwritten by a matrix of historically formative transcultural interactions, both within Asia and between the East and West. As the horizons of the Cold War recede still further, audiences may come to see a presently divided Korea as part of a more complex, multi-faceted, and shifting condition of intersecting differences. Border Crossings points in that direction.