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How five South Korean contemporary artists envision North Korea

By Kim Young-in

Despite occasional fluctuations in the political climate, the division of South and North Korea has remained the status quo since 1953, when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed three years into the Korean War, bringing the war to an official stalemate.

This condition often motivates contemporary artists in South Korea to incorporate the subject of North Korea into their works. Depending on the amount of direct experience with North Korea, their artistic engagement falls into three categories.

The majority of the artists, as South Korean citizens, are not allowed to visit the North. This restriction forces them to picture the impenetrable country with their artistic imagination.

There are, however, a few artists who have had exceptional opportunities to visit North Korea, when the two Koreas were on amicable terms. The works by these artists reflect their individualized understanding of what they observed in the country, of which many aspects are veiled otherwise.

Although extremely rare, artists who defected from North Korea consist of the other category. Their works are distinctive in that they often reveal the artists' mixed emotions about North Korea, based on their real-life experiences in the country.


Kwon Ha-youn's "Model Village" (2014)

Artist Kwon Ha-youn, who experiments with new media including 3D, animation and virtual reality (VR), employs these technologies to render an imagined territory of North Korea in an unprecedented way.

Inspired by Kijong-dong, the North Korean propaganda village, Kwon created a black-and-white video titled "Model Village" (2014). Located on the northern side of the Demarcation Line in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, Kijong-dong is an uninhabited village that is viewable from the South but beyond reach.

With the painted windows of vacant buildings, the place is reminiscent of a movie set. Kwon's "Model Village" features a small-scale plastic model of this ghost town. The transparency of the model emphasizes its emptiness. Light penetrates the walls and ceilings, creating mutating shadows, which add to the sense of intangibility of the model village.

Cinematic features, including the image of rolling cameras and the soundtrack of a conversation taken from a North Korean movie, underscore the fiction of the whole scene and the imagined entity of North Korea.

The model village reconstructed with Kwon's imagination seems to synecdochically epitomize North Korea, an unknowable entity to many South Koreans.


Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho's "MYOHYANGSANGWAN" (2014-2017)

In their short film "MYOHYANGSANGWAN" (2014-7), artist duo Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho present an imaginary situation in which people from both Koreas have an encounter and interact with each other.

The film is set in a virtual place called Myohyangsangwan, a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, providing an environment where customers can experience music and dance performed by North Koreans.

As a group of artists from South Korea visit Myohyangsangwan, a sequence of dream-like events unfold. What starts as a traditional dance performance suddenly switches to an act of modern dance.

The private room in the restaurant transforms into a theater stage. While the drunk and distressed artist narrates, the scene is dubbed with esoteric music, arousing the viewer's curiosity.

These experimental scenes give audiences the impression that they are looking at someone's dream or an illusion. In the last scene, the South Korean artist asks the North Korean waitress to visit a Chinese garden together.

Although she initially appears to be inclined, the waitress declines the offer, suggesting that even in a foreign place, distant from both Koreas, there still is a rigid restriction on the interaction between people from the South and North.

Back Seung-woo's "Blow Up #009" (2006)

Back Seung-woo's "Blow Up #011" (2006)

Back Seung-woo, who explores the possibilities of photography, is one of the few artists who had a chance to witness life in North Korea.

In a cultural exchange made possible by the diplomatic thaw between South and North Korea in the early 2000s, the photographer had an opportunity to visit Pyongyang in 2001.

Back, however, had been allowed to take pictures of only certain areas and people, and the North Korean authorities censored every image he captured. The restriction and censorship made Back's photographs not much different from those taken by other foreign visitors to the country.

Years later, upon revisiting the pictures, Back enlarged them to create his "Blow Up" (2005-6) series. In the enlarging process, the images were cropped and framed to become a unique set of photographs that provided varying perspectives of looking at North Korea.

The photos, which are open to multiple interpretations, now differ from the stereotypical images approved and sometimes promoted by the North Korean government.

The fine line between the real and unreal becomes even more blurry in these grainy, processed photographs.

Sun Mu's "Happiness" (2016)

Living and working in South Korea after he defected from North Korea, artist Sun Mu creates paintings that are similar to propaganda posters in style. As reflected in his pseudonym, Sun Mu, which means "no lines" or "no boundaries," the artist is wary of the strict dichotomy between South and North Korea.

Hence, it is often ambivalent how the artist truly regards the North. A variety of motifs that symbolize the North in his artworks further cloud the ambiguity. The image of North Korean children, recurring in Sun Mu's oeuvre, is one of these examples.

In "Happiness" (2016), three girls are singing with huge smiles on their faces against a stark red background, which represents North Korea. The girls look nearly identical while their garments, commonly worn by North Korean children, depersonalize any sense of character.

At the bottom of the image, the phrase "We are happy" is written in Korean in bold. This juxtaposition provokes audiences to question whether the artist is making a satirical comment on harsh living situations in North Korea, or he is nostalgically glorifying a particular aspect of the country.

In the Korean Peninsula, the continuing demarcation of the nation is a reality difficult to overlook. The notion of North Korea, real or imagined, constantly inspires contemporary artists in South Korea to create works on the subject.

Nevertheless, the task is highly challenging due to the reclusive nature of North Korea and the regular shifting of its political moods. To work around these obstacles, artists in the South capitalize on their creativity to imagine, reinterpret or re-evoke the country.

In their works, North Korea appears in varying guises, reflecting how each artist subjectively and differently envisions the elusive country. The way each artist portrays the real and unreal adds multiple layers of meaning beyond just South and North ― political, personal, imaginary and re-collective, resulting in a remarkable amalgamation of actuality and fantasy.


Kim Young-in is a research assistant at the Korean Art Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She can be reached at arialkim0716@gmail.com


By Kim Young-in

Despite occasional fluctuations in the political climate, the division of South and North Korea has remained the status quo since 1953, when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed three years into the Korean War, bringing the war to an official stalemate.

This condition often motivates contemporary artists in South Korea to incorporate the subject of North Korea into their works. Depending on the amount of direct experience with North Korea, their artistic engagement falls into three categories.

The majority of the artists, as South Korean citizens, are not allowed to visit the North. This restriction forces them to picture the impenetrable country with their artistic imagination.

There are, however, a few artists who have had exceptional opportunities to visit North Korea, when the two Koreas were on amicable terms. The works by these artists reflect their individualized understanding of what they observed in the country, of which many aspects are veiled otherwise.

Although extremely rare, artists who defected from North Korea consist of the other category. Their works are distinctive in that they often reveal the artists' mixed emotions about North Korea, based on their real-life experiences in the country.


Kwon Ha-youn's "Model Village" (2014)

Artist Kwon Ha-youn, who experiments with new media including 3D, animation and virtual reality (VR), employs these technologies to render an imagined territory of North Korea in an unprecedented way.

Inspired by Kijong-dong, the North Korean propaganda village, Kwon created a black-and-white video titled "Model Village" (2014). Located on the northern side of the Demarcation Line in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, Kijong-dong is an uninhabited village that is viewable from the South but beyond reach.

With the painted windows of vacant buildings, the place is reminiscent of a movie set. Kwon's "Model Village" features a small-scale plastic model of this ghost town. The transparency of the model emphasizes its emptiness. Light penetrates the walls and ceilings, creating mutating shadows, which add to the sense of intangibility of the model village.

Cinematic features, including the image of rolling cameras and the soundtrack of a conversation taken from a North Korean movie, underscore the fiction of the whole scene and the imagined entity of North Korea.

The model village reconstructed with Kwon's imagination seems to synecdochically epitomize North Korea, an unknowable entity to many South Koreans.


Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho's "MYOHYANGSANGWAN" (2014-2017)

In their short film "MYOHYANGSANGWAN" (2014-7), artist duo Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho present an imaginary situation in which people from both Koreas have an encounter and interact with each other.

The film is set in a virtual place called Myohyangsangwan, a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, providing an environment where customers can experience music and dance performed by North Koreans.

As a group of artists from South Korea visit Myohyangsangwan, a sequence of dream-like events unfold. What starts as a traditional dance performance suddenly switches to an act of modern dance.

The private room in the restaurant transforms into a theater stage. While the drunk and distressed artist narrates, the scene is dubbed with esoteric music, arousing the viewer's curiosity.

These experimental scenes give audiences the impression that they are looking at someone's dream or an illusion. In the last scene, the South Korean artist asks the North Korean waitress to visit a Chinese garden together.

Although she initially appears to be inclined, the waitress declines the offer, suggesting that even in a foreign place, distant from both Koreas, there still is a rigid restriction on the interaction between people from the South and North.

Back Seung-woo's "Blow Up #009" (2006)

Back Seung-woo's "Blow Up #011" (2006)

Back Seung-woo, who explores the possibilities of photography, is one of the few artists who had a chance to witness life in North Korea.

In a cultural exchange made possible by the diplomatic thaw between South and North Korea in the early 2000s, the photographer had an opportunity to visit Pyongyang in 2001.

Back, however, had been allowed to take pictures of only certain areas and people, and the North Korean authorities censored every image he captured. The restriction and censorship made Back's photographs not much different from those taken by other foreign visitors to the country.

Years later, upon revisiting the pictures, Back enlarged them to create his "Blow Up" (2005-6) series. In the enlarging process, the images were cropped and framed to become a unique set of photographs that provided varying perspectives of looking at North Korea.

The photos, which are open to multiple interpretations, now differ from the stereotypical images approved and sometimes promoted by the North Korean government.

The fine line between the real and unreal becomes even more blurry in these grainy, processed photographs.

Sun Mu's "Happiness" (2016)

Living and working in South Korea after he defected from North Korea, artist Sun Mu creates paintings that are similar to propaganda posters in style. As reflected in his pseudonym, Sun Mu, which means "no lines" or "no boundaries," the artist is wary of the strict dichotomy between South and North Korea.

Hence, it is often ambivalent how the artist truly regards the North. A variety of motifs that symbolize the North in his artworks further cloud the ambiguity. The image of North Korean children, recurring in Sun Mu's oeuvre, is one of these examples.

In "Happiness" (2016), three girls are singing with huge smiles on their faces against a stark red background, which represents North Korea. The girls look nearly identical while their garments, commonly worn by North Korean children, depersonalize any sense of character.

At the bottom of the image, the phrase "We are happy" is written in Korean in bold. This juxtaposition provokes audiences to question whether the artist is making a satirical comment on harsh living situations in North Korea, or he is nostalgically glorifying a particular aspect of the country.

In the Korean Peninsula, the continuing demarcation of the nation is a reality difficult to overlook. The notion of North Korea, real or imagined, constantly inspires contemporary artists in South Korea to create works on the subject.

Nevertheless, the task is highly challenging due to the reclusive nature of North Korea and the regular shifting of its political moods. To work around these obstacles, artists in the South capitalize on their creativity to imagine, reinterpret or re-evoke the country.

In their works, North Korea appears in varying guises, reflecting how each artist subjectively and differently envisions the elusive country. The way each artist portrays the real and unreal adds multiple layers of meaning beyond just South and North ― political, personal, imaginary and re-collective, resulting in a remarkable amalgamation of actuality and fantasy.


Kim Young-in is a research assistant at the Korean Art Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She can be reached at arialkim0716@gmail.com



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