GIORGIA CESTARO [art historian | PhD student in the history of architecture]
GIORGIA CESTARO [art historian | PhD student in the history of architecture]
What does it mean to be an artist in a country like North Korea, which considers even the haircut of one’s own citizens a state affair? As you can easily guess, art in these parts does not represent a personal reflection or an artist’s response to social demands or to an inner feeling; the figurative arts represent the means by which to educate and instill revolutionary values in the community. It should not be surprising, therefore, to see in the symbol of the Workers’ Party a curious calligraphy brush, representing the category of artists and intellectuals placed in between the traditional hammer and sickle.
As Nicholas Bonner – founder of Koryo Tours and Studio, writer and curator with a base in Beijing and one foot in Pyongyang – tells us, artists in the country enjoy great social recognition, structured in an authentic ranking that can lead them to become celebrities.
On a scale ranging from 5, considered the lowest value, to 1, artists are evaluated every three years on the basis of their creative production, both from a qualitative and quantitative point of view. The criterion of participation and selection of works at national exhibitions has a positive influence on the judgment, whilst art judged not to fit the morals or virtues of the state can weigh negatively and the artists position demoted. At the peak of their career, artists can aspire to the titles of Meritorious Artist, and finally to that of People’s Artist, aiming to win the prestigious Kim Il Sung Award, considered the highest artistic recognition in the country.
However, fame does not correspond to a high standard of living. The benefits of being a recognized artist lie in having access to a larger studio and the possibility, in fact denied to the rest of the population, to travel for exhibitions (although travel is limited almost exclusively to China). Beyond these aspects, the real privilege of being a successful artist lies in the conquest of greater autonomy over the stylistic and iconographic choices of one’s works.
As with any other “public” career – needless to specify, since the concept of “private” does not exist here – aspiring artists have to pass a tough selection at national level. Excellent candidates will be given a place at the prestigious Pyongyang University of Fine Art, deserving students will be able to access other academies in the capital, while the remainder maybe attached to provincial colleges which, unlike the renowned school of the capital, are not real academies, but art institutes where painting and sculpture find a place together with other disciplines such as dance.
Regardless of the school, the training of an artist in the field of visual arts is strictly centered on academic learning, based on the mastery of traditional techniques such as chosonhwa, on the knowledge of materials and local aesthetic values. The curriculum of Pyongyang University includes sections dedicated specifically to traditional ink painting, oil painting, sculpture, ceramics, mural painting, as well as visual arts linked to industrial design and graphics.
The entire career of a North Korean artist is dictated by competition and selection, so much so that having obtained a degree from an institute in the capital does not always ensure a coveted job in Pyongyang. Only the best artists are selected by the studios of the capital – authentic state art enterprises – while the others are assigned to provincial art departments.
What unites all artists, regardless of their training, ranking or work unit they are intended for, is that in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no artistic expression is an end in itself.
The artist Im Hyok portrayed in front of his work created for the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art
Graduated in Landscape Architecture and a tutor at Leeds Metropolitan University, during his first study trip to China, Nicholas Bonner visited North Korea, later deciding to move to Beijing and found Koryo Tours, the most authoritative and long-lived travel company that works with the DPRK, from which Koryo Studio was born. Author of numerous publications, he has co-directed several films, including the three award-winning documentaries on the country: The Game of Their Lives (2002), A State of Mind (2004) and Crossing the Line(2006). He has also curated several exhibitions, instigated commissions and collects North Korean art.
In 1993 we founded Koryo Tour based in Beijing. I moved here from the UK because Beijing was the only direct access to North Korea. Founding the travel company was the prerogative both to obtain a visa to enter the country and to have some funds to pay for the trips. Right from the start we dedicated ourselves to artistic projects, films, documentaries and cultural exchange programs. The first major art projects were films: in 1996 we shot our first travel documentary in North Korea. From 2002 to 2006, together with VeryMuchSo Productions and the BBC, we produced three documentaries, and later the feature film Comrade Kim goes Flying,which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival and became the first North Korean film to be shown to South Korean public audience. The earliest documentary The Game of Their Lives, is about the North Korean soccer team that beat Italy in 1966 in what became known as the greatest shock in World Cup history.
By accompanying tourists visiting the various studios, I immediately appreciated the artistic expression of the country. So I started to get an idea of the artists I wanted to find to try to work with. One of the first I met was Son U Yong, who was already very famous at the time, having achieved the highest recognition as a People’s Artist. An artist with enormous talent, whose skill can be appreciated above all in the paintings of mountain landscapes, in which one can distinguish his personal style. I must say that I was rather in awe of the idea of meeting him. Unfortunately he died relatively young, but his memory and fame have already been immortalized in the new chapters of the country’s art history.
Like every country, North Korea also has its emerging artists, gifted with talent and audacity, palpable even beyond the rigid rules of the regime. Among these, Choe Chang Ho stands out for his incredible ability to represent the topics dictated by protocol, but managing to create a composition and theme in a personal way. He grew up in the north of the country and I was told that his style of drawing reflects all the energy and noise of the factory where his father worked and where he practiced drawing as a boy. He is one of the most gifted artists and I hope that we will soon see his work also outside the national borders.
Towards the end of the 1990s, I started proposing small-scale commissions to local artists, working with the main art studios in Pyongyang. Over time I have managed to build relationships based on mutual trust with the studio managers, so much so that today I can negotiate commissions directly with the artists. Rather than buying already made works from the studios, Koryo’s policy is to cooperate with the artists and design ad hoc commissions, with the aim of creating programs that give margins of freedom of expression and experimentation for the artists.
The most interesting part of my work consists in developing projects with local artists and seeing their interpretations based on our brief. The results are not always guaranteed, but in many cases, as happened for The Beautiful Future, Utopian Tours, and Heroines and Villains projects, the works have exceeded expectations, revealing all the depth of the artists’ interpretation. Our commissions never contain themes considered politically sensitive, rather we try to create projects that push artists to get out, as far as possible, from the rigid frameworks within which they usually work. For more sensitive projects, we ask the artist to use a pseudonym, protecting the provenance of the work of art with the stamp of Koryo Studio.
In August 2012, I visited Kim Kwang Nam, an artist specialising in linocut engraving, with whom I had previously worked. On his desk there was a cartoon book, probably his sons, which told a story of space exploration. This projected both of us into the past, to when we were two children in the 1960s and 1970s on opposite sides of the Cold War. But we had something in common: like all children of the time, we were fascinated by the theme of space travel. We then created a portfolio of 17 linocuts that would reinterpret these feelings of nostalgic fascination. Kim has clearly avoided any political content, portraying the theme in the broader conceptual framework of human work in a vast, hostile but fascinating environment.
This work is the result of a discussion between myself and the designer Dominic Johnson-Hill. We had lived through China’s exponential economic growth, experiencing it first hand as Beijing residents since 1993, and we wondered how North Korean artists would interpret this Chinese growth and how they would reconcile it with their communist ideals. Starting from the visual inputs provided by us, a group of North Korean artists (to whom China was only a vague concept) worked on the realisation of their image of China which in turn gave the Chinese a new vision of their country. The Beautiful Future consists of eight works that portray places decontextualized by time, in which the celebration of socialism clashes with the comforts of modern life. The exhibition was inaugurated during the Beijing Design Week in 2013, and then moved to the Art Labor Gallery in Shanghai and the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan. The images of the works went viral, enjoying enormous success especially in China, where they were the trendiest content on social media for three consecutive days, registering over 300 million viewers interested in the topic.
To tell you the truth, there were no more difficulties than cultural ones. Firstly you have to understand that one is working with artists who have almost no experience of the outside world and who are comfortable only with their own aesthetic sensibility. Secondly, you have to understand the limits within which it is possible to act. With this established, ways can be found to try to get artists to work outside their comfort zone. Despite my long experience, I ran into two major problems that compromised some projects. On both occasions the criticisms manifested themselves at the last minute, after years of work and always arose from the studio managers, never from individual artists. The first problem arose on a question of prices: an art studio suddenly raised the price of the works that I had already paid, causing the entire exhibition project to fail. A few years after this failure, I was offered to purchase a number of works despite the works being mine already, which irritated me quite a bit. The other “incident” is a little more delicate and I prefer to postpone the story for another time.