We are used to disruptions in travel to North Korea. Perhaps the most unusual one was for Ebola in 2015 – the fact that no cases had been heard of in Asia did not stop the DPRK from closing its border for 4 months. Just like the SARS epidemic in 2003, we thought Coronavirus would disappear in a few months and it was just a question of sitting it out until June.
How wrong we were.
Koryo Tours’ last tour to North Korea was in January 2020, perhaps the last tourist group in North Korea for… However long it is. And then with a crash, the border was closed.
Koryo Studio, together with a North Korean artist, decided to create something embracing the events of the strange and unprecedented year that 2020 has become, and re-interpret the North Korean propaganda poster.
North Korean propaganda posters traditionally deliver messages such as value electricity, pay respects to your elders, keep fit, save water…
교통질서를 자각적으로 지키자!
Let’s Abide by Traffic Laws!
중소형 발전소를 대대적으로 건설하여 공장과 마을에 더많은 전기를 보내주자!
Let’s Build Small and Medium-sized Power Plants and Send More Electricity to Factories and Villages!
대중 률동체조를 정상화하자!
Let’s Practice Mass Gymnastics!
We were already engaged in a graphic project with a North Korean graphic studio, and we asked one artist who specialised in posters to create an image depicting the hygiene measures to be taken during COVID-19. It should be something as relevant as an instructional propaganda poster, but that would also be seen as an artwork.
We were shown various stages of the work and as an instructional piece it functioned as a propaganda poster should, to deliver a clear, unambiguous message. The work was intended as something light, to be actually of use, perhaps to be hung in the bathroom, however, as the virus took hold around the world we realised the brief should change. We asked for a re-draw and the year 2020 added to make the poster a commemorative item of a lost year.
We had expected the numerals to be painted in bold but the artist painted them in a subtle lighter shade, seeping into the image.
Whether intentionally or not, the result is an art piece where 2020 appears as a malevolent presence hanging above the somewhat joyful image of a woman simply washing her hands – this is clearly no ordinary year.
1) Initial sketch
2) First colour piece – uncluttered background, no year showing
3) Email showing where Koryo Studio wanted date
4) Artist integrates year date into the art in subtle elongated year
5) Artists delivers final artwork
There was no access to the artist because of the lockdown and a formal contract could not be signed. The artist therefore used a pen name ‘Kim Yong’ chosen by the artist.
North Korea was the first country to close its borders and likely will be the last to open, we are not sure what changes will have been wrought during this time.
What was intended initially as a simple instructional hand poster has now become tied to 2020, something of a Memento mori; a reminder of just how fragile we are.
COMMENT ON THE DESIGN ITSELF
In email conversation we were given the artists ideas. It was to include the backdrop of recognisable architectural elements in Pyongyang from the Juche Tower, to the Schoolchildren’s Palace as well as apartment blocks. This montage using both public buildings and housing is a technique often used in North Korean posters to fill the background not with emptiness but to emphasise progression, the building of a bright future for the people under the leadership and party.
DOVES: Typically used as motifs to signify peace in this 2005 printed poster for the Spring Friendship Festival
In ‘Let’s wash our hands!’ the artist used the popular method of making the font not only clearly depict the message but to add to the vibrancy of the poster and become a part of the artwork. The first characters are in green in a more instructional style: 손을 (hands), 깨끗이 (clean), whereas 씻읍시다(wash) is in a blue more active style. This is similar to the early poster above- the text 빛나는 성과를! (Bring brilliant achievements) is in red font and uses perspective to emphasise the call for action whilst the text 민주 수도건설은 우리의 영예 (It is Our Honour to Build a Democratic Capital) is in a more repressed soft blue giving further information.