[KS] North Korea as Communist Chic: a review of 'North Korean Posters', ed. D Heather

Afostercarter at aol.com Afostercarter at aol.com
Tue Dec 15 07:43:20 EST 2009

Dear friends and colleagues,
On the assumption (perhaps erroneous) that few  Koreanists
are also subscribers to the fine arts journal  Print Quarterly, 
published in London, I hope I may share  the review below.
This ventures somewhat beyond my usual furrow. It is also 
the first piece I've co-written  with my fiancée, Dr Kate Hext. 
It is unexpectedly topical too, in that the Australian  government
recently denied visas to six DPRK artists whose work is  currently
on show in Brisbane, as mentioned briefly below. (For  details, see:
(http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2009/12/07/australian-govt-denies-visas-to-dprk-artists/) )
This seems to me a petty-minded, pointless and deplorable  action.
Best wishes
Aidan FC
Aidan Foster-Carter 
Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology  & Modern Korea, Leeds 
University, UK   
Flat 1, 40 Magdalen Road,  Exeter, Devon, EX2 4TE, England, UK 
T: (+44, no 0)    07970 741307 (mobile);   01392 257753       Skype: 
E: _afostercarter at aol.com_ (mailto:afostercarter at aol.com) ,     
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_www.aidanfc.net_ (http://www.aidanfc.net/)  
Merry Christmas, and here's hoping (malgré  tout) 
for a peaceful, healthy  and prosperous New Year!
Review commissioned by Print Quarterly. Completed 20 August  2009. Lightly 
edited version published in the December 2009 issue (Vol XXVI no  4), pp 
429-31.   _www.printquarterly.com_ (http://www.printquarterly.com/)  

North Korea as Communist  Chic 

Aidan Foster-Carter and Kate  Hext 

David Heather (editor), North Korean Posters, Munich, Prestel  Verlag, 
288 pp., 250 col. ills., £12.99,  $25. 
North Korean art is hardly well-known, but  it has recently seen something 
of a surge. For this David Heather can claim some  credit, and does. As he 
boasts in his brief (just one page) preface to this  block of a book, “I held 
the largest exhibition of North Korean Contemporary Art  in the West in 
June 2007 in the heart of London and managed to fly the North  Korean Flag in 
Pall Mall for probably the first time ever” (p.7, capitals in  original). 
That militant tone, here tongue in cheek, is  deadly serious in North 
Korean  Posters. On page after gaudy page angry Korean heroes curse and smite the 
 foe, mostly Americans with hook noses. Fists, tanks and sledgehammers 
crush;  bayonets lunge and stab; rockets rain down – including on a shattered US 
Capitol  (p. 138), in blithe disregard of post-9/11  sensitivities. 
In a year when North Korea has been censured  by the UN for testing a 
nuclear device and a long-range missile, such images can  only reinforce 
stereotypes of what Koen De Ceuster in his introduction calls a  country “often 
misrepresented and largely misunderstood” (p.9). Yet there is  more to North 
Korean art than this, as anyone who attended David Heather’s shows  at La 
Galleria can attest. (For those who missed out, images and comment can  still be 
found by searching Philip Gowman’s LondonKoreanLinks website, an  
indispensable resource.) 
Here one finds a  commercial tie-in modestly unadvertised in North Korean 
Posters. The said posters,  plus a range of other artworks – various genres 
of painting, tapestry and  ceramics – may be purchased via 
www.northkoreanart.org, which proclaims that:  “La Galleria Pall Mall has the privilege to be  
the only Gallery outside DPR Korea to be permitted to sell art and 
represent  individual artists from North Korea. We can certify that all the works 
are  original and authentic, made and signed by the artists themselves in 
Pyongyang.”  These posters, here described as “Propaganda Popart” (sic), can be 
yours for  £250 each (unframed) plus postage. 
“Individual artists”? Not one is named in  the book under review. Nor are 
the pieces dated; so one cannot trace the  evolution of styles or themes, 
let alone particular artists. By contrast, the  first volume in this series by 
Prestel – Soviet Posters, featuring Sergo  Grigorian’s collection (2007) – 
is divided into six periods; each work is dated,  with notes on artists and 
other detail. The absence of such basic data in North Korean Posters is a 
serious  omission. De Ceuster’s useful Introduction gives the broad context, 
yet is oddly  free-standing. With few exceptions the posters are left to 
shout for themselves,  with no information except basic translations of the 
slogans – which, bizarrely  and inconveniently, are printed sideways rather 
than  below. 
Furthermore, when is a North Korean poster  “original and authentic”? De 
Ceuster notes that “hand-painted reproductions find  ready buyers abroad.” 
Northkoreanart.org is silent on this key question for  collectors: what 
exactly does your £250 buy, an original or a copy? (Also its  comments on the 
actual art are trite, even illiterate: gouache and propaganda  are misspelled.) 
The ambiguities go on. Curiously,  Northkoreanart does not say who exactly 
is its partner in Pyongyang, but its  sister site LaGalleria.org reveals 
this as the Mansudae Art Studio. Yet a search  swiftly brings up 
mansudaeartstudio.com, based in Italy and claiming to be “the  only official web-site of 
the Mansudae Art Studio in the West,” which pipped  Heather to the post with 
an exhibition in Genoa in May 2007. Will the real  Mansudae reps please 
stand up? The Italian site is far more educative. Through  it one can buy The 
Hermit Country,  which despite a clichéd title (it must have miffed the 
comrades) is a much  better, broader book on modern North Korean art, not limited 
to posters. The  moving spirits here are a pair of Pier Luigis: Cecioni, a 
collector who owns 600  works; and Tazzi, an idiosyncratic but insightful  
For a serious academic survey, Jane Portal’s  aptly titled Art Under 
Control in North  Korea (Reaktion/British Museum, 2005), with its fully integrated 
text and  illustrations, is essential. The current art scene in Pyongyang 
was recently  described in an excellent piece by Adrian Dannatt in March’s 
Art Newspaper (http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=17096). This is 
big business,  on an industrial scale. Mansudae has a thousand artists 
producing “at least  4,000 top level original works a year [and] a factory-style 
section producing  copies for western hotels;” while abroad it claims to have 
held over 100 shows  in some 70 countries.  
Perhaps there are yet more ‘sole agents’ out  there? North Korea lends 
itself to a Columbus complex. People who happen upon it  often imagine they are 
the first ever to do so, and even when disabused they  like to claim a 
special niche. Scepticism is in order, on many  counts. 
As Dannatt says: “it could not be easier to  assemble a collection of 
contemporary DPRK art … but it could not be harder to  source the originals.” He 
quotes Nicholas Bonner, the doyen of collectors in  this area – he began in 
1993, and is curating a major exhibition in Brisbane in  December – on how 
many ‘original’ works are in fact copies, and how to tell the  difference. 
Bonner’s website Pyongyangartstudio.com, showcasing his gallery in  Beijing, 
makes no monopoly claims but focuses on the actual art. Interestingly  
Bonner eschews the propaganda genre, but has a fascinating selection of film  
posters: a far less aggressive variant, ignored by Heather. He is also  
scrupulous in specifying that what he offers are “hand painted  copies.” 
But back to the book. North Korean Posters is a sadly missed  opportunity. 
It reiterates visual cliché, but gives almost no context –  historical, 
political, artistic – for these specific works. It is just a picture  book to 
flick through: no dates, no dimensions, no artists. For a publisher of  Prestel
’s stature these are shameful lapses. Is the image somehow meant to speak  
for itself? 
Absent such essentials, this is just another  twist on commie chic – like 
Che Guevara T-shirts. It is all very postmodern and  cynical. Once upon a 
time North Korea was communist. Some of these posters are  about ideals people 
believed in, as they strove to build a better society. In  today’s DPRK, a 
half-starved neo-feudal tyranny, one of the few ways to earn  hard cash is 
factories of well-trained draughtsmen flogging second-hand images –  bilious 
or kitsch, take your pick – to gullible, exoticizing Westerners. (Here  as in 
all else, the contrast with South Korea’s brilliant and original art scene  
is acutely painful.) The laugh is on us too, if we just gawp at these 
admittedly  striking visuals. Have we lost our minds? Do we care to know what we 
are we  looking at? Neither Heather nor Prestel seem bothered. Caveat lector 
– et  emptor. 
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in  sociology and 
modern Korea at Leeds University. Kate Hext recently completed a PhD in  
aesthetics (on Walter Pater) at Exeter University, 
and is an  associate lecturer at the University of the West of England.  

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