Madlab, Asia Triennial Manchester and North Korea

I worked at  Madlab (Manchester Digital Laboratory)  – which has an arts space on the ground floor – on two exhibitions of Korean art: ‘On the Other Side of the Globe’, displayed in autumn 2010 and ’38 Degrees of Separations: Korea, Time and Generation’, displayed in autumn 2011. Here is the blog post I wrote about the latter (you may notice it’s a blog post within a blog post within a blog post!)

To see a video about the exhibition:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Curating the Everyday

Co-curating an exhibition of art addressing North Korean everyday life was both a fascinating and fastiduous task. It took more than a year from its initial ideation for Hwa Young Jung and myself to install the exhibition at Madlab arts space.  The exhibition: ‘Korea, Time and Generation’ is part of Asia Triennial Manchester 2011 festival, although sometimes some of the smaller gallery spaces can get lost in the media coverage of the big event. Here is my blog article accompanying the exhibition, previously published on the madlab website:

HyoJung Seo‘s commissioned installation piece, Two Koreas by Words & Image Korea, Time, Generation and the EverydayKorea – Time, Generation and the Everyday: Contextualising the exhibition in relation to art in North Korea.

‘The formality of everyday practices is indicated in these tales, which frequently reverse the relationships of power and, like the stories of miracles, ensure the victory of the unfortunate in a fabulous, utopian space. This space protects the weapons of the weak against the reality of the established order. It also hides them from the social categories which “make history” because they dominate it.’[1]

‘We have read the propaganda, combining revolutionary fervour, the vocabulary of 30s potboilers and accounts of Kim’s visits to potato-starch factories…But who knew that… the mass performances are not only a tribute to the leadership and motherland, but the way that many young people find partners?’[2]

North Korea – the world’s most secret society and the last authentic vestige of Bolshevik Communism – contains individuals who are making art. Most of this art is in the form of state monitored socialist realist propaganda posters, containing references to the Socialist work ethic and the cult personalities of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Some of North Korean art is in the form of oil paintings which tend to depict lush, floral landscapes and wild, jungle animals – neither of which can be found in the drought ridden terrain of North Korea. There are also some of those perhaps familiar looking East Asian style ink paintings of peonies and other blossoms accompanied by Chinese or Korean calligraphy down one corner. Whilst not all these artistic genres shout ‘long live Communism’ in tones of red from banners held by rosy cheeked, uniformed factory workers, they all share a nationalist sentiment of enforced pride. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is different and seemingly proud to be so. But just how ‘different’ it really is, is somewhat unknown and continually questioned by its neighbouring countries, by its nuclear, polar opposites – such as the US, the UK and South Korea  – and by human rights organisations worldwide. Arguably, it is impossible to address the notion of art and culture in North Korea without being shocked by it raw naivety or without being tempted to critique its intrinsic relationship to its strict political, totalitarian rule – now lead by Kim Jong-Un. However, there are other ways of thinking about culture in North Korea and they come from beyond the border.

Firstly, there are North Korean refugees who have escaped the regime and who are living in China, Russia, South Korea and other countries, depending on how far they migrate. Most of these migrants have changed their names so that the North Korean authorities cannot discover them – which could result in any remaining family back in DPRK being brutally punished and/or being sent to concentration camps. Whilst statements about the tribulations of living in North Korea are spoken anonymously to human rights agencies and charities such as Amnesty International or, more specifically, Helping Hands Korea, some migrants have chosen to express their experiences artistically. The pop artist who goes by the name of Sun Mu is unusual in that he doesn’t document his experiences of life in North Korea literally but he tends to parody them, using the same realist style propaganda which is applied to North Korean posters but in order to protest against the strict political ideologies. North Korean émigré artists do, however, tend to be rare. One reason for this is that if a former DPRK citizen wasn’t an artist when they lived there, why would they choose to take it up when escaping to foreign lands – particularly when earning a living may be top of their list? Also, and in relation to this, artists in training in North Korea tend to lead comparatively desirable lives. The main art studio – the state owned Mansudae art Studio in Pyongyang – trains its artists in how to produce hand painted propaganda posters using Socialist Realist style designs and the appropriate politicised emblems. Purportedly, this kind of labour is more satisfactory than most manual work in DPRK, whilst the artists tend to work under better working conditions as they are working to fulfil an important function in Communist society. Artists are perhaps the least likely citizens to try to escape from North Korea. However, there are some North Korean émigrés who do choose art to convey their memories once they are living outside of the country. Kang Chun Hyok’s corpus of illustrations depict everyday life in North Korea, from when he attended school and endured the banalities of everyday socialism, to the difficulties of escaping the North Korean borders by precariously crossing the Mekong River, to work illegally in China while fleeing unexpectedly from police and other arduous parts of his journey in the nearby countries of China, Thailand and Laos. Now, finally living in South Korea, Kang studies Fine Arts: Painting at Hongik University and reflects on his life as a North Korean while trying to fit into South Korean culture. Although the differences in political ideologies between the two Koreas are bound to emerge from Kang’s illustrations, his personal perspectives on his crowded, harrowing everyday experiences are what provide the audience with a fresh insight into North Korea, without the partisan prerogatives of macro organisations or policy making activities.

The exhibition endeavours to provide an alternative to the more typical international exhibitions of art from North Korea which contain samples of hand painted Communist propaganda posters. Arguably, the dealing by artists in, and the consumption of, posters created under an oppressive Communist regime in the capitalist nations of the UK and the USA – where they are popular with ‘pop art’ collectors – is both morally and politically troubling or, at least, ironic. Either way, the cultural and economic dynamics of North Korean communism was not something which 38 Degrees of Separations intended to broach. At least not directly or as a focal point. Politics matters – but the personal is political – and the concerns of refugees forms an important part of identity politics in the twenty first century.

Kang Chun Hyuk – pencil drawing.‘On my birthday I didn’t have presents or songs. But to mark the occasion my mother cooked rice rather than maize porridge.’ – Kang Chun Hyuk, from This is Paradise.Another way of thinking about art in North Korea is to consider the notion of Korea as temporarily divided and where both sides are still ‘Korea’. There are South Korean artists who may have never lived in North Korea but who are likely to have family or ancestors there and who have grown up with at least some of the same national characteristics, such as Hangul – the Korean language and basic traditions of cuisine, such as kimchi and bib bim bap. As against this, people living in South Korea, especially during the military coup, have been fed anti-communist propaganda about the North which may or may not be an exaggeration of the ways things really are there. In a sense, South Koreans have a view of North Korean culture which is both conflicted and harmonious. The official division of Korea in 1948, as decided by the USA and the USSR was supposed to be a temporary measure until political conflicts – and not just within Korea itself – had been resolved. The Korean war, between these two forces forged a cease fire in 1953 and the countries have since remained separate but it tends to be assumed (but not necessarily true) that they both harbour the deep rooted hope that they will again be unified. To people living in North Korea, they live in Korea; to people living in South Korea, they live in Korea, but it is a Korea which is temporarily divided. So, arguably, North Korean art and culture can just be deemed as Korean. With this in mind, the exhibition offers a South Korean artist’s perceptions of North Korean life, based on her knowledge of this other half of the nation in which she grew up.Digital installation artist, HyoJung Seo, is part of what has become known as the 20/30 generation of Koreans who were born into a time when South Korea had established itself as a separate country, already being industrialised and modernised, hence losing its identity as an ‘under developed nation,’ which North Korea still holds. Another observation of this generation of 20 and 30 somethings is that they are not old enough to have experienced being separated from loved ones who are now living in North Korea. The degree to which younger generations are separated from North Korean life is ever growing. Yet, with time and generation comes both insight and myth – and Seo broaches the antagonism between the two with her installation which addresses the use of everyday words in the two sides of the country.‘
Guy Delisle, from ‘Pyongyang.’

‘Buried 90 metres underground, the Pyongyang subway station can double as a bomb shelter in case of nuclear attack. What better way to cultivate a constant state of threat? Marble floors, chandeliers, sculpted columns. It’s a subterrenean palace to the glory of public transit. Everywhere, garish murals transfigure a reality which just seems drab to me.’ – Guy Delisle, from Pyongyang.

Finally, there are some, but very few, people who have simply visited DPRK. Guy Delisle, the Quebec born illustrator/animator is one of them. Delisle was hired by the North Korean authorities to work on an animation project in Pyongyang for a short period. He was accompanied by a guard at all times and, here, in his illustrations documents these offbeat, humourous and shocking experiences which address vividly the minutiae of everyday objects, and behavioural patterns in North Korea – or what de Certeau may refer to as ‘tactics’(de Certeau distinguished between the everyday tactics of street and workplace subversion through which the powerless mock, evade or derail the strategies of capitalist elites – which could equally be applied to totalitarian state elites). Delisle develops his own tactics; seeing and being in DPRK culture first hand, responding to it as an outsider, inside.None of the pieces at the exhibition are examples of Communist propaganda art because as much as such visual culture is a part of everyday life in North Korea, the posters themselves would not be drawn from the hearts and minds of individuals who are considered as individuals by their own society. The curators of 38 Degrees of Separation wanted to show how the separate lives of North and South Koreans are managed, viewed and migrated or retold, in terms of the missed and micro dynamics of time and generation; how the practical becomes personal for everyday people.

For paintings from North Korea, including hand painted propaganda posters, oil landscape and ink drawing see

Blogpost on Sun Mu, including a biog and BBC video:

Further Reading
Cumings, Bruce (2004) North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, USA.
Delisle, Guy, (2004) Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal, Canada.
Demick, Barbara (2009) NOTHING TO ENVY: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Spiegel & Grau, New York, USA.
Heather, D. & De Ceuster, K., (2008) North Korean Posters, Prestel Publishing Ltd, London, Munich, New York, USA.
Hyŏk Kang & Philippe Grangereau (2007) This Is Paradise!: My North Korean Childhood, Little Brown Book Group, London.
Lanʹkov, Andreĭ Nikolaevich (2007) North of the DMZ: essays on daily life in North Korea, McFarland & Company, Jefferson, MC, USA. M
artin, Bradley (2006) Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Griffin, St Martin’s Press, New York, USA.
Portal, Jane, (2005) Art Under Control in North Korea, Reaktion Books, London.DPRKCOOL [online] Page on Mansudae arts studio, Beijing branch 

[1] De Certeau, Michel (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life, Volume 1, University of California Press, CA, USA, p 23.
[2] Branigan, Tania, ‘The Cultural Life of North Korea’, The Guardian, Friday 15 October, 2010,
Posted by Beccy 

About Art Theory and Practice

BA Contemporary Art History Manchester School of Art

One comment

  1. Wow! amazing paintings and drawings. Visit the upcoming exhibitions and expos from various countries through the best web portal called today.

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