Staged Scenes From North Korea

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Staged Scenes From North Korea

Let's admit it. All art is staged. Even the fruit in Cezanne's still-life paintings were arranged and painted in the most attractive way on the canvas, not necessarily the way the fruit was found.

Once an image is created on canvas, it loses its original context and takes on a new meaning of its own. Perhaps this is why many contemporary artists agree that art, even photography, is "constructed." Because the artist controls the medium, images are never faithful reproductions of reality.

The "Special North Korean Exhibition," which opened Wednesday at the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the North-South Joint Declaration, is a triumph of a propaganda art in that sense. The artists compromise their political stance in order to satisfy some of the formal elements necessary to make strong artwork.

Many of the works on display have been staged and contain fictional elements with no basis in real life.

"The Post-woman" by Park Young-sam is one such example. The painting features familiar symbols repeatedly used in North Korean art to affirm the country's well being, such as ripening rice plants, the pioneers in the backdrop, and of course, the hardworking civilian who is beaming from ear to ear. The woman's optimistic face and her mail carriage attached to the back of her bicycle awaiting eager recipients are symbols of North Korea's bright future.

This painting portrays an idealized vision of the communist country. But Mr. Park has chosen to create the scene in a subtle and playful way, leaving plenty of room for alternate interpretations and even a glimpse of ambiguity. This is a sophisticated strategy practiced by many contemporary artists from other countries who deal with socio-political issues.

The artist Lee Chul-ho takes a similar approach in his "Railroad Man." By depicting a worker standing amidst the snowfall to keep his railroad track safe, the artist creates an exemplary figure who is faithful to his job despite turbulent conditions.

This show is a grand departure from the first North Korean exhibition, which was presented at last year's Kwangju Biennale. That exhibition primarily focused on traditional landscape paintings, mainly to avoid causing any controversy. Even then, some of the art was removed from the exhibition because of political censorship, according to Shim Byeong-moon, the program coordinator of the Mansu Project Corporation, who organized both of the exhibitions. One of the pieces was cancelled because there was a red roof in the painting, which the juries decided might have represented the site where Kim Il-sung staged his revolution.

"Even a tip of a red flag can cause problems during a jury process," Mr. Shim says. Censorship has relaxed since the last exhibition at Kwangju and the juries from the Ministry of Unification were more permissive this time. In fact, they were so lax that Mr. Shim believes the juries hurried through and didn't allow enough time to examine the works in detail.

The exhibition at the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation dedicates an entire section to "theme paintings," a style of painting which accounts for 60 percent of all North Korean art. These works praise the government and present an idealized image of "good civilians." Among these, paintings with a minimal use of political symbols have been chosen for the exhibition.

"Many artists don't want to paint commissioned portraits of Kim Il-sung or create works depicting major political events," says Mr. Shim. He explains that the artists feel a burden, because these paintings have to be exceptionally good, or the artists may upset government chiefs who often collect these historical paintings.

According to Mr. Shim, some paintings bore slogans that were later removed by the North Korean government before they were shipped to China, where this exhibition originated, in Yeomhwang Art Museum, Beijing, last September. However a detailed look at the works reveals profound details that make various cultural references. The writings on arm bands and different-colored uniforms signify a variance of social positions in the country, whereas the brightly-colored scarves most North Korean women wear on their heads seems to serve as a rare fashion statement.

Most important, the exhibition contradicts our common conceptions about North Korean art. For one thing, they are not as didactic as many of the Communist posters that appear in art books at local libraries. But perhaps this subtlety explains the very reason why many artists featured in the exhibition are not considered mainstream artists back home. According to Mr. Shim, most of the artists in the exhibition are failed contestants from the National Art Competition. In the realm of mainstream North Korean art, works lacking a political message are considered "incomplete."

by Park Soo-mee

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