Art

The Mesmerizing Mundane Objects of Ordinary North Korean Life

With North Korea so often discussed only in terms of extremes, this exhibit’s focus on the mundane is what makes it so fascinating.

Installation view of Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at House of Illustration (image courtesy the House of Illustration)

LONDON — Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK, a new exhibit at London’s House of Illustration, shows that interesting graphic design can be showcased in utterly prosaic objects, from cigarette boxes to bottled water labels and wrapping paper.

This focus on the mundane is, paradoxically enough, what makes the exhibit so fascinating. North Korea is so often discussed only in terms of extremes. Thus, this show’s attention to the ephemera of everyday life allows for different stories to be told about the country.

Performance ticket for a Schoolchildren’s Palace (centers of extracurricular excellence for local children) (collection of Nicholas Bonner, photograph courtesy Phaidon)

For instance, commemorative stamps featuring British royalty are a surprise. Also unexpected is the well-crafted timelapse video showing a cross-section of Pyongyang life. This depicts a pleasant capital whose people and routines (a crossing guard guiding pedestrians along, skateboarding kids mugging for the camera) feel familiar — although there were restrictions on what could be filmed, such as military sites.

Wrapping paper featuring Pyongyang’s architectural highlights (collection of Nicholas Bonner photograph courtesy Phaidon)

Also surprising and instructive are the contradictions of North Korean cultural and political life on display. Many product labels bear English text, which manufacturers hoped would lend their products a mark of international quality. These packages of “canned flatfish” and “sweet-smelling drops” sit in the same room as notepaper extolling Korean superiority and comics demonizing American savages. The objects point to an interesting tension in North Korean attitudes toward foreigners: alternately venerating and denigrating them.

The ephemera on display here was collected by Nicholas Bonner, a British tour guide and expert on North Korean art, since 1993. Photos of his collection are gathered in the Phaidon book Graphics from Everyday Life in North Korea, the basis for the current exhibit. The display, however, is a bit too focused on objects for the tourists ― even hotel “Do Not Disturb” signs and safety instructions for air passengers are included, though they aren’t the most visually interesting of objects. But overall, Made in North Korea packs a wide-ranging and well-curated set of items into just a few rooms.

Installation view of Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at House of Illustration (image courtesy the House of Illustration)

These few rooms are just as cleverly and strikingly designed as the objects on display. The bright colors of the propaganda posters, which have stirring socialist messages like “Let’s take good care of the People’s assets!” pop against the vivid blue, yellow, and orange walls. One room has turned North Korean food packaging and other items into a wallpaper pattern, so that the walls themselves become part of the exhibit. And the captions and explanations are helpful without being obtrusive or, as is so often the case with exhibits of North Korean culture, well-meaning but condescending.

Hand-painted poster saying “More consumer goods for the people” (collection Nicholas Bonner, photograph by Justin Piperger)

One gallery label explains that the nation’s cultural isolation and use of recurring motifs have made for a distinctive aesthetic. This shines through especially in the posters ― the ones produced this decade are almost indistinguishable from those made in the 1970s. From the blaring text to the fresh-cheeked North Koreans in workplace settings, the centralization of standards and training practices have created a unified look.

It’s also fascinating to see so many examples of an advertising and popular culture that doesn’t depend on sex ― unlike the heavy reliance, in modern Western marketing images, on the erotic. The modest dress of the performers and characters pictured in these objects is notable. It’s also clearly part of a government-sanctioned effort to cultivate a socialist ideal of wholesomeness.

Made in North Korea at House of Illustration (image © Paul Grover)

It’s a sign of how little is known about North Korean art culture that all these ordinary objects are being displayed in a gallery setting. While it’s impossible for non-North Koreans to discuss the country without discussing politics, Made in North Korea makes for a welcome change from overheated political rhetoric that does little to illuminate the country’s everyday lives.

Made in North Korea at House of Illustration (image © Paul Grover)
Hand-painted poster saying “Everything for the full achievement of the 1979’s People’s economic plan” (collection of Nicholas Bonner, photograph by Justin Piperger)

Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK continues at the House of Illustration (2 Granary Square, Kings Cross, London) through May 13.

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