AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 600

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Session 600: Picturing National Narratives of North Korea

Organizer: Marsha S. Haufler, University of Kansas, USA

Discussant: Jane V. Portal, British Museum, USA

This panel is designed to complement the exhibition "Works on Paper: The Human Spirit in North Korea," which will be on view at the East-West Center Gallery during the annual meeting. The panel presentations will illuminate the exhibition by offering a broader range of images and mediums and by exploring political and cultural issues raised by specific types of art as well by the whole enterprise of exhibiting North Korean art. Koen De Ceuster sets the stage with a provocative discussion of the challenges facing organizers of exhibitions of North Korean art outside of North Korea, from selecting and securing the objects to anticipating local responses. The remaining three papers situate specific subjects and mediums in their original contexts of production and use. Min-Kyung Yoon uses paintings of historical themes as a window on the North Korean re-creation, dramatization and mobilization of history to revolutionize society and to effect a socialist transformation of the people. Uta Lauer crosses the Sino-Korean border in analyzing North Korean and Chinese images of Mt. Paektu used to promote contending accounts of origins and ownership of the spiritually charged peak. Marsha Haufler’s paper moves onto the streets of Pyongyang in the 1970s and ‘80s with a close examination of mosaics murals that represent the heyday of North Korea’s unique development of the western art of making large-scale pictures of out of colored-glass tiles. Jane Portal, author of Art Under Control in North Korea, will draw on her broad knowledge of Korean art in commenting on the presentations.

On the Challenges of Exhibiting North Korean Art
Koen De Ceuster, Leiden University, Netherlands

North Korea fascinates, even if this fascination is tinged with fear and/or loathing. To many, the attraction of North Korea is its seclusion; the country is surrounded by an aura of exoticism. This fascination is both fed and hampered by the growing number of exhibitions of North Korean art. In 2004 I was involved with the exhibition of a private collection of socialist realist oil paintings and posters from North Korea at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, and since then have been studying North Korean art theory and practice and watching how North Korean art has been introduced both in South Korea and in Western Europe. While the number of North Korean art exhibitions and sales may have steadily increased, knowledge about North Korean art remains very shallow. This has inevitably affected the appreciation of North Korean art. In this paper I address the various challenges in exhibiting North Korean art. This starts with the procurement of the art works and the problem of access to the North Korean art market. Even if there is direct access to that market, there is the issue of North Korean art practices. Does one deal with the North Korean (cultural) authorities, and if so, how does one justify such dealings to a critical press back home? How does one rise above the reiteration of stereotypes when presenting the artwork? How does one anticipate the potential political fallout? How does one do justice to the art in North Korean art?

Staying on Top-The Construction of the Kim Family Myth
Uta Lauer, Stockholm University, Germany

Mount Paektu on the border of North Korea and China has long been hailed as the cradle of the Korean people. Early written sources mention Tangun as the divine progenitor who resided on Mount Paektu. San-shin or in Chinese, feng-shui specialists regard the mountain range running all across the Korean peninsula, from north to south, as the spine, the spiritual backbone of Korea. The ruling Kim family, beginning with Kim Il Sung and his wife Kim Jong Suk used the propaganda apparatus of the newly founded Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to carefully construct a line of legitimization. Mount Paektu was the very place where the pair had resisted Japanese colonial troops and where their son, the current ruler Kim Jong Il is said to have been born in a log cabin. Currently, soldiers and schoolchildren sing the praise of Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong-il, as the morning star general, who inherits the bloodline of Peaktu, indicating that he might become the next ruler of the DPRK. This paper will focus on the claim and creation of a legitimate lineage of the Kim family against the backdrop of Chinese claims for Mount Paektu/Changbaishan as an ancestral place of worship and a potential site of conflict between the DPRK and China. An analysis of images employed by both sides will highlight the different strategies.

Historical Representations in North Korean Paintings during the 1980s and 1990s
Min-Kyung Yoon, EFEO, USA

This paper examines North Korea’s politics of culture through an analysis of historical representations in various forms of North Korean paintings, such as Chosŏnhwa, Yuhwa, and Posŏkhwa. Culture is an important medium for political mobilization in North Korea. It revolutionizes society to materialize the socialist transformation of the people. The prevalence of historical themes in North Korean cultural production is striking and compelling. In fact, it is not wrong to talk about the dramatization of history in North Korean culture. Within culture, the dramatization of history underscores the nexus between culture and history—the recreation of history in cultural production. In effect, history is used to establish and legitimate a post-revolutionized (socialist) society over a pre-revolutionized (non-socialist) society. To gain insights in this process of mobilization and dramatization of history, newspaper articles from the Munhak Shinmun on cultural policies are studied. In addition, art reviews and critiques published in specialized yearbooks, such as Chosŏn Misul Yŏn’gam and Chosŏn Yesul, reveal how cultural policies are applied to actual paintings. Art textbooks will show how North Korean art and history are taught, adding to the larger theoretical framework of this paper. An analysis of historical representations in paintings allows determining the emotional effectiveness of mobilizing and dramatizing history.

Mosaic Murals of Pyongyang in the Time of Kim Il Sung
Marsha S. Haufler, University of Kansas, USA

Since the 1960s, mosaic murals have been part of the vast cultural project of creating socialism with national characteristics in accordance with the Juche Idea in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea received the art of making colored-glass tile murals from the Soviet Union, where the ancient tradition of furnishing churches with glittering mosaics was adapted to serve the modern socialist state. Glass-tile mosaics, with their refined craftsmanship, brilliant colors, and shimmering surfaces, proved to be ideal vehicles for celebrating the fruits of collective labor and idolizing revolutionary personalities. North Korean artists combined Soviet mosaic technology, themes, and applications with subjects and styles drawn from the art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and domesticated these elements to create an art form unique in East Asia. In recent years, mosaic production has been ramped up, with more and larger mosaics, to support leadership succession and also for export, with a resulting decline in the quality of the murals. The new mosaics have a cold, mechanical quality that sets them apart from the mosaics that are the subject of this paper, the architectural mosaics of the 1970s and 80s, arguably the heyday of mosaic art in the DPRK. This study distinguishes the works produced in Kim Il Sung’s lifetime from those produced over the last decade, illustrating the artistry and craftsmanship of the former with selected examples on major buildings and in the metro stations of Pyongyang.