Terra Incognita

North Korean Art and Architecture at the MAK reveals as much by what it is not as by what it is

On The Town | Mary Albon | June 2010

The Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) prides itself on introducing Vienna to unfamiliar, even unknown art, sometimes in the face of strong criticism. Past shows have included seminal exhibits of Soviet art and architecture, Indian poster art, and Cuban architecture. In May, the MAK opened perhaps its most controversial show ever: "Flowers for Kim Il Sung: Art and Architecture from the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea."

Over 100 oil paintings, watercolors, brush and ink paintings, posters, architectural plans and models that have never before been exhibited outside North Korea are on display at the MAK through Sept. 5.  These include at least a dozen large-scale paintings of "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il.

The timing of this show couldn’t be better—or worse.  Tensions between North and South Korea are higher than they have been in decades, with Seoul accusing Pyongyang of torpedoing one of its warships in March.  The sabre-rattling along the 38th parallel seems to grow louder each day, making both regional and global powers increasingly nervous.  North Korea has nuclear weapons after all, and the capricious dictator with his finger on the button is a sick old man swaddled in a sycophantic cult of personality of absurd—and thus terrifying—proportions.

Particularly in this context, some critics here fault the MAK exhibit, officially sanctioned by Pyongyang, as an irresponsible provocation. The knives are out, and many are aimed directly at Peter Noever, the MAK’s long-time artistic director.

At the show’s May 18 opening, Noever was adamant that the exhibition had no political intentions. A 2003 visit to North Korea inspired him to organize the exhibit, which took years of negotiations. His goal, Noever insisted, was simply to give outsiders a glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom, enabling us to see how North Korea presents its ideology and culture to its own people.

But simply by exhibiting official art from North Korea, the museum is endorsing the repressive regime, critics say. Furthermore, because the art is presented without comment, viewers may not realize that they are being exposed to propaganda.

An opinion piece in Der Standard suggested that "the attention of the media is more important [for the MAK] than the responsible handling of the art of a brutal totalitarian system."  A review in Die Presse called Noever "the Austrian drum major of left-wing ‘radical chic’ " and accused him of trivializing totalitarianism. Perhaps anticipating this kind reception, the Austrian Finance Ministry, in a highly unusual move, refused to provide support for the exhibit.

However, exhibiting state-sponsored art (and in North Korea this is the only art) does not equal supporting the Pyongyang regime. And perhaps the MAK’s critics give too little credit to viewers.  The ideological content of the art on view at the MAK is so heavy-handed that it is impossible to miss. Nonetheless, the MAK’s critics are right to point out that the exhibition does not provide sufficient historical or cultural (let along political) context, and the show is the weaker for it.

Of course, the MAK could not mount a critical show; Pyongyang would never have agreed to it. But that should not have ruled out including basic historical information, such as key dates in North Korean history, like liberation from Japanese occupation (1945), the Korean War (1950-53) and the year of the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung’s birth (1912).

It would also be helpful to provide more information about how artists work in North Korea, where art is created only at the regime’s command.  North Korean artists are no dissolute bohemians; and they express no personal vision. They are salaried employees of the state with a production quota to meet; they work in large studios or even offices. They are expected to adhere to the national ideology of self-reliance, Juche, according to which art should be "national in form and socialist in content."

All art reflects the society in which it is created, including art that flies in the face of prevailing social mores. In North Korea, all art is public art; art for art’s sake does not exist. But when the content and meaning of art are mandated by the state, can it truly be considered art?

It is thus hard to assess the works on display at the MAK; their themes of heroic labor, praise of the state and people, and above all, glorification of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, are transparently driven by ideology.  So many smiling, well-fed faces, such exuberant joy in work and play—it all stands in sickening contrast to the realities of repression and starvation with which North Koreans contend.

An Austrian friend who saw the MAK show noted that some of the artists whose work is exhibited are undeniably talented, but he added, "Leni Riefenstahl was very talented too."

A surprising variety of artistic styles and techniques are on display, not just the expected Soviet-style socialist realism (though this tradition lives on in North Korean poster art). At least half the paintings in the MAK show were produced within the past decade. Some are in a style that updates traditional East Asian brush and ink painting, others are reminiscent of Impressionism. But the most striking are works of hyperrealism, saturated with sugary colors, fanfares of optimism trumpeting a future that belongs to "the happiest children in the world."

Many of the portraits of the Kims, portrayed as decisive leaders and kindly fathers to their child-like people, are painted in this style. (Because these portraits are North Korean national treasures, they are cordoned off and can only be viewed from a distance.)

There is architecture too. The centerpiece is a model of Pyongyang’s Juche Tower, which looks something like the Washington Monument topped by a 20-meter torch that is lit at night. Architectural drawings and photos make it clear that some of Pyongyang’s other architectural gems—futuristic, gigantic—could go head to head with East Bloc monstrosities like Albania’s pyramidal mausoleum to the dictator Enver Hoxha in a competition of the communist world’s worst architecture.

Expose these kitschy works of propaganda to air, as the MAK does, and they turn to dust.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the works on display at the MAK are what North Korea presents to its own people as great works of art.  North Koreans may not see them as kitsch, but do they recognize them as propaganda?

In conjunction with the exhibition, the MAK will show a series of North Korean films on Jun. 6 accompanied by a lecture about North Korean film production, and on Jun. 8, a public workshop on North Korean architecture.

On Jun. 9, there will be a screening of the 2009 documentary Hana, Dul, Sed ("One, Two, Three"), directed by Austrian Brigitte Weich, about four members of the North Korean women’s soccer team.  And in September, the MAK will host a symposium on North Korean art and architecture featuring leading experts from art institutions and universities around the world.

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