Korean art on display, with protests from north and south


BERN, Switzerland – In a fiery sky, former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il smile beamingly as the missiles whistle above them in bursts of light and clouds of smoke. The painting – “The Missiles”, by Pak Yong-chol – is one of the precious possessions of collector Uli Sigg, acquired through the perseverance, persuasion and contacts forged during his tenure as Swiss Ambassador to Korea. North in the 1990s.

Sigg said he used to visit the National Museum of North Korean Art in the capital, Pyongyang, whose works glorify the strength of the country. He was already familiar with the socialist realist art style favored by the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union, he added – but he was struck by the more emotional variant of North Korea.

“That’s when I decided I needed to acquire a work of art,” he said in a recent video interview. “You can buy paintings showing happy workers with rosy cheeks. But I wanted one with the leaders.

Credit…Dan Leung

His initial representations to North Korean officials were rejected, he said. Images of dictators “were not allowed to be shown outside of North Korea, except in embassies – and they are certainly not in private hands,” he said. “It was unimaginable.”

Instead, Sigg was offered a portrait of himself, which would be painted by one of the regime’s leading artists. “I said, ‘I don’t want a portrait of myself, I want a portrait of the leaders,” he said.

Sigg eventually persuaded officials, he said, and built one of the largest collections of North Korean art outside the country. Pieces from the collection were recently exhibited at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, in a rare display of North Korean art in the West. Even more unusual, the exhibition presents the works alongside the art of the country’s neighbor and enemy, South Korea.

Until September 5, the exhibit, titled “Border Crossings,” was “sensitive” on both sides, Sigg said. Exhibiting South Korean art is illegal in the north, and for many years North Korean art was also banned in the south. Even before the exhibition opened at the end of April, it sparked protests from both Koreas. Sigg, who left Switzerland’s foreign service in 1998, again needs his diplomatic skills.

Technically still at war, the two countries are separated by the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone walled on both sides with barbed wire and anti-tank defenses. No one is allowed to cross the border. Although the artists of the Divided Peninsula share a common cultural tradition, they work in different worlds.

Those in the South enjoy creative freedom in a society whose pop music has spread throughout the world; Seoul, the capital, is a major Asian art center with a vibrant and diverse gallery scene. In the North, all professional artists are organized in two official studios which work under the strict control of the Communist dictatorship, isolated from international influences.

The only paintings exhibited to the public in North Korea are official commissions from these studios. With dramatic theatricality, but in a realistic style, the country’s rulers are portrayed almost as religious icons, while the workers appear as heroes, and the landscapes accentuate the power and grandeur of its natural landscapes.

Sigg said he hopes the exhibition will shed light on the contrasts between the two companies. “The main interest for me was this tension between the two Koreas which once formed a single cultural space,” said Sigg. “This exhibition makes this tension more concrete.”

The Kunstmuseum issued invitations for private visits to officials of the Swiss embassies in North and South Korea before the official opening. Neither accepted. A spokesperson for the South Korean embassy said that the ambassador’s schedule prevented him from attending; the North Korean Embassy did not respond.

But this year, Pyongyang representatives in Bern complained to Sigg about a piece of art the museum was using to promote the exhibit on its website, he said. Adapted from a photograph, the watercolor “Two Great White Sharks” shows the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, surrounded by military personnel and peering into a reservoir where deadly creatures glide beneath the surface. (Kathleen Bühler, the exhibit’s curator, said the museum removed the work from the website, but not from the exhibit.)

While a North Korean defensive stance was to be expected, Sigg said, he had not relied on objections from the democratic and liberal South Korea. The exhibition received a grant of $ 77,000 from the Korean Government Foundation, which supports South Korean arts abroad. But weeks before the opening, lawmakers accused the foundation of promoting North Korean propaganda in Switzerland. The South Korean Foreign Ministry asked Sigg to prove that none of the North Korean works of art were purchased in violation of international sanctions against the North, he said.

As a neutral country, Switzerland enjoys exceptionally good relations with North Korea. When Sigg became Ambassador in 1995, the North was in the throes of a severe famine, and it was his responsibility to inspect the fallout and report to the United Nations. (Swiss aid agencies then taught North Korean farmers new potato growing and farming techniques.) Kim Jong-un even attended school in Bern around the same time.

Although he visited North Korea several times during his tenure, Sigg was based in Beijing, where he was also the Swiss Ambassador to China. There, he and his wife socialized with many artists, he said, and contemporary Chinese art is at the center of his huge collection. A Sigg donation of more than 1,400 Chinese works forms the basis of the new M + Museum in Hong Kong, which is slated to open later this year.

Sigg said he started collecting South Korean art in 2008, noting that the works he acquired were all from the Korea division. The pain of the rupture immediately confronts visitors to the Bern museum with a painting of the demilitarized zone in the entrance hall.

“Between Red,” by Southern artist Sea Hyun-lee, is painted entirely in this color. Devoid of people, it echoes traditional Korean landscape painting with an elevated view of curving rivers, jagged mountains, clusters of abandoned houses, and blossoming orchards whose fruits may not have been harvested since. that the area between the two Koreas was sealed off in 1953.

Another type of pain is visible above eye level in the same space, where a vast North Korean web hangs. Called “The Year of Bitter Tears,” the work depicts Kim Il-sung’s funeral in 1994. In a crowd of distraught spectators, a man collapsed, his head almost on the sidewalk; another holds his hand to his heart in anguish. Kneeling women in uniform sob into their hands and handkerchiefs. Even the sky is crying dark storm clouds.

Less melodramatic, but more moving, are the works in which South Korean artists attempt to make connections across the border. In an operation befitting a Cold War spy thriller, Kyungah Ham used Chinese middlemen to smuggle her textile designs and instructions to North Korean embroiderers, whom she paid to produce the works. .

One of these, “Hiroshima & Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud,” is based on a black and white aerial photograph taken after an atomic bomb exploded at the end of World War II. “For those of us who live in a divided country under the threat of nuclear weapons, the work is not simply a tale of the past,” the artist says in an interview in the catalog. The embroidery, beautifully executed in long and uniform stitches, is a testament to North Korean craftsmanship.

Sojung Jun’s video work “Early Arrival of the Future” explores the shared heritage of North Koreans and South Koreans. She invited two pianists – Kim Cheol-woong, who defected from the North, and Uhm Eun-kyung, from the South – to arrange and perform a duet combining traditional melodies of a North Korean folk song and a nursery rhyme. South Korean. In the filmed performance, they face each other through two grand pianos, and close-ups show their subtle coordination through eye contact and facial expression.

But art can divide as well as connect – as Sigg knows all too well. He said he hesitated for a long time before deciding to stage the exhibition in Bern, acknowledging that it risked destroying his relations with North Korea. He said he could now be denied entry if he applied for a visa.

“What’s new this time is that I’m facing protests from two states – usually it’s only one,” he said. “But I’m relatively relaxed. You have to have a thick skin when it comes to contemporary art. “

Border Crossings: North Korean and South Korean Art from the Sigg Collection
Until September 5 at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland; kunstmuseumbern.ch.

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