I went to the North Korean embassy in London to see an art exhibition.
Fourteen words I never thought I’d type, there. I’ve been fascinated by the DPRK for a while, amazed that such a place could even exist in the 21st century; a time-travelling state notable for total autocracy, almost comical diplomatic belligerence, and the cult of personality around its plump leader. At one point I was actually considering going there for a stage-managed holiday, where you are carefully shown the glories of the empire, and nothing else. I changed my mind after I started reading about the truly appalling human rights record and found out that the money from such a (very expensive) holiday would be directly supporting the regime – although there remains an argument that visiting Westerners will continue the process of gradually opening up the country, and such visits are ultimately going to be necessary in order to speed any reunification.
But when I read about a free art exhibition of DPRK artists at their London embassy this morning, I decided I had to go. North Korea’s UK outpost isn’t anything like most embassies in London, which tend to be 18th and 19th century marble piles in upmarket central districts. It’s a seven bedroom, semi-detached house in the drab suburb of Acton Town, a long way out west near Ealing.
Apart from the DPRK flag up a pole and the black Merc with the ‘PRK 1’ plate, it looks exactly like every other house round here, down to the double glazing. Axis Of Evil? More like the banality of evil.
I get there as it opens, with just a small handful of curious visitors after a mobbed press launch yesterday. A handful of polite gentlemen in black suits usher me in and eye me suspiciously.
The exhibition is limited to just two rooms on the ground floor, decorated in ornate, moneyed 1980s style: cream paint, black piano-finish cabinetry, crystal light fittings. The portraits of a smiling Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il beam on us all. The British curator and instigator of the exhibition, David Heather, is already there and explaining away. Yesterday he told the Guardian:
… he had proposed the idea of an exhibition to North Korean officials in August, and was surprised at how quickly his suggestion had become a reality.
He said he had visited North Korea several times, and had become a collector of state-endorsed art. One of his conditions for holding the show was that North Korean artists were given the opportunity to paint real-life scenes in London, and for those pieces to be part of the exhibition, he said.
Asked about criticisms that the exhibition would bolster the North Korean government, which has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, Heather replied that that “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”… He said he hoped the art would “transcend politics” and build positive relationships between residents of the two countries, and said he is even hoping to launch a competition for British artists to visit North Korea as part of an exchange programme next year.
The artwork on display is all state-approved, a group show of comrades from the Mansudae studio in Pyongyang, the state entity responsible for the majority of the DPRK’s art needs, from scenic oils to socialist murals. It ranges from traditional Korean ‘one-brushstroke’ watercolours on cloth:
…with the artist himself explaining the laborious process which has no margin for error – apparently four paintings are thrown away for every one that makes it to a wall.
Choe Gyong Mi makes oils which strongly remind me of Thomas Kinkade, the vastly successful American artist whose idealistic, cutesy kitsch is designed to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings of “everything’s alright at home”. Little wonder she was selected to represent her country overseas.
There are London street scenes too, which seem to have been painted from photographs, as well as some better woodcuts, a near-photo-realistic work or two and a variety of impressionistic fashions. A lot of it shows reasonable technical skill, albeit in a severely limited range of styles.
The overall impression is cheery, organised and resolute, with very little aesthetic range. The artists themselves have even had a say, although they naturally have perfected the art of saying nothing at all.
Of course, I’m not really here for the art, and I suspect not that many of the visitors over the five days this exhibition is open are either. I’m here to stand on what is (almost) North Korean soil, and gawp. The real attraction on display is the embassy being open at all; the Hermit Kingdom briefly, cautiously pulling back the curtain for a handful of nosy Londoners. David Heather is unfortunately wrong. When the art is merely product, carefully filtered and selected to express the values of a state; it’s all about the politics. The quality of the (perfectly charming) art is unfortunately irrelevant – the real show is nevertheless, right here. Incidentally, Britain appears to be more welcoming than most Western states to engage with the North.
So finally, and briefly, back to archery. Shortly before this year’s Incheon Asian Games, there was a plan for the DPRK’s archers to train with their Southern counterparts. Kim Jong-Un had taken a particular interest in the team and apparently ordered the sport’s officials to develop new equipment. You fear slightly for the squad though, with the Great Successor taking an interest in their progress – particularly as they failed to bring home a medal this year. Unfortunately, something snapped along the line and the project never happened, although the KAA apparently remains open to the idea happening again; in an atmosphere where a North v South Korea football match at the Asian Games saw the home crowd chanting “we are one” at all players on the pitch.
Art in the West, Olympic sports in the East. These carefully managed opportunities still seem like tiny nuggets of gestural politics, and it is possible they are nothing more than that. But if reunification does happen, and I think it may happen in my lifetime, it is going to involve many, many crossings of the border like this in all fields of life, all around the world. If peaceful reunification is eventually going to come to pass, as the DPRK claims to intend, then I suppose you have to start somewhere. There might be a lot of seedlings needed, but eventually you hope that mighty oaks might grow.
Short TV news piece here.
The DPRK fine art exhibition will be open from 11am to 5pm from 4–7 November, 73 Gunnersbury Avenue, Ealing, London W5 4LP
Breathtaking summary. Your writing always impresses – this piece soars.