Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Utopian Love from the DPRK

What happened to the future? It was practically here already. The noble workers of North Korea were building it at a rate of 207 percent to plan, yet it still has not arrived. As arguably the most closed society on Earth, visuals from the DPRK are scarce and those that do seep out are much more reflective of the image the government wishes to project, rather than reflecting living conditions as they actually are. Such is the case with North Korean Images at Utopia’s Edge, a new exhibit which opened in the Korea Society’s gallery last night.

The exhibit’s twenty-four wood-cut prints depict almost exclusively scenes of happy workers building their socialist paradise, or the fruits of those labors. Many of the renderings include signs or banners with propaganda slogans, like “2.7 Times More Than Planned” seen in the background of Jong Gwan-Su’s Propaganda Van Girl. Many portray what might be called extreme labor, always performed with a smile, like the underwater welders in Kim Yong’s Builders of the West Sea Dam and the “Speed Campaign Youth Brigade” suspended halfway up the face of a mountain in Hwang Byong Gyun’s North Railroad Building Site (which seems like an intuitively dubious construction strategy).

Although not considered Socialist Realism according to the exhibition signage, they certainly seem to share many of the same motifs. However, the figures are less stylized, more realistic and easier to identify with. According to Society President Evans Revere, seeing the prints brought back feelings of nostalgia for visiting Chinese diplomats. They also seemed reminiscent of some of the books from my childhood illustrating our future lives in space, cheerfully jet-packing around our Moon colony communities. (I suppose that vision of the future is running a bit late as well.)

The art of Utopia’s Edge is most certainly propaganda, but it has a strange aesthetic appeal. Any halfway informed individual should understand the tremendous gap between the idealized visions of North Korea projected by the artists, and the brutal reality, which included mass starvation in recent years. It was culled from the collection of documentary filmmaker Nicholas Bonner, who is considered the most frequent western visitor to the DPRK.

Bonner co-produced Crossing the Line, which will screen at the Society next month. A profile of James Joseph Dresnok, an American who defected to the DPRK regime, Line opens an often fascinating window into the overwhelmingly oppressive environment above the 38th Parallel, but is problematic for never directly challenging the party-line parroted by the treasonous Dresnok. It is recommended to viewers savvy enough to parse through the propaganda, as is Utopia’s Edge. It is on display at the Korea Society through December 12th.