Kim In Sok, “Rain Shower at the Bus Stop (unfinished)” (2018), Chosunhwa (all images courtesy the Gwangju Biennale Foundation)

GWANGJU — My father was an inter-Korean relations expert. The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official daily newspaper, was always piled on his desk. The main photos in their first pages were mostly propaganda images, for example, when a government leader held a groundbreaking ceremony with construction workers. For those who see North Korea only from the outside, it is natural to think of these propaganda images when hearing of the visual art of North Korea. By contrast, the 12th Gwangju Biennale allows us to take one step further in understanding the contemporary art of North Korea.

Since 1995, the Gwangju Biennale has focused on artworks that represent the pervading issues and feel of the time period, especially the political climate — Gwangju is innately politicized, as the city where South Korea’s democratic movement began in the 1980s. This year, the biennale is titled Imagined Borders. Work by 163 artists from 42 countries, organized by multiple curators, opens a discussion on the true meaning of borders in today’s global society.

Asia Culture Center building

Un Bong, “Un Bong Portfolio” (2015), Chosunhwa

Among the seven main exhibitions, North Korean Art: Paradoxical Realism, caught media attention. Curator BG Muhn introduces 22 works by contemporary North Korean artists in the sixth gallery of the Asia Culture Center. From the beginning of 2018 on, political relations between the two Koreas have been dramatically improving. In his New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un unexpectedly showed his intention to attend the Pyeong Chang 2018 Olympic Winter Games held in South Korea. With continuing effort, the inter-Korean summit finally took place last April, after an 11-year break. Moreover, at the third summit held in Pyongyang in last September, the world anticipated the possibility of North Korean nuclear disarmament.

At the North Korean Art show, Muhn aimed “to find out and confirm the current divided status of the Korean peninsula through North Korea’s Chosunhwa.” With the collapse of socialism in the 1990s, the art of Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe has disappeared, yet North Korea has developed its own unique genre called Chosunhwa. The ideological paintings in the first section realize Muhn’s ambition. Like other socialist nations, North Korea has sanctioned ideological paintings primarily for publicity purposes, and sometimes multiple artists work on a single large-scale painting. However, Chosunhwa techniques have become unique over last three decades. In the collective work, “Self-reliance With On Our Own Effort” (2014), the Chosunhwa artists maximize the illusion of three-dimensionality and the composition’s dynamics by using Sumuk-Color Painting, a traditional Korean watercolor method. Choe Chang Ho’s portrait, “A Worker” (2014), supports Muhn’s thought with realistic depiction of a blue-collar worker. In this Chosunhwa painting, the nuanced color palette and lack of an outline add visual depth to the character. This technique distinguishes Chosunhwa from contemporary Hangukwha — traditional South Korean painting — in which artists use outlines to define figures emphasizing flatness of the scene.

Choe Chang Ho, “A Worker” (2014), Chosunhwa

Kim Dong Hwan, “At the Kangson Smelting Company” (2012), Chosunhwa

Kim Sung Gun, Kim Chol, Cha Yong Ho, Ri Ki Song, “Brave Men in Gajin” (1999), Chosunhwa

In addition to ideological paintings, we can find landscape, “literati,” and animal genres. The literati class, called Sadaebu, spent its leisure time by creating landscape paintings accompanied by short poems expressing emotions, while the North Korean government considered enjoying leisure time as antithetical to proletarian values. In the past it was commonly thought that the North Korean government denigrated literati paintings. However, the work of Un Bong, an art historian and artist, debunks this belief. In his technique, he adds abstract forms, colors, and writing to differentiate his work from traditional literati paintings. In addition, apparent differences between landscape paintings of Mt. Kumgang by two artists, Choe Chang Ho and Jong Yong Man, suggest that North Korean society has embraced artistic individualism.

Un Bong, “Yon Tan Shim Won Temple” (2010), Chosunhwa

Jong Yong Man, “Mt. Kumgang” (1998), Chosunhwa

Choe Chang Ho, “Mt. Kumgang” (2010), Chosunhwa

It is hard to call the North Korean Art exhibition a complete success. Due to the lack of information about the artworks and artists, viewers of this exhibition hardly have a chance to fully understand the meaning of North Korean art; the wall labels and the exhibition catalogue only include titles, artists’ names, and dates. While this may be inevitable, due to confidentiality protocols in this sensitive political climate, even the authenticity and provenance of some of the featured works has been questioned by the media in Korea. While entire artworks in this show were claimed to have been created in the Mansudae Art Studio in North Korea, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation has not provided sufficient explanation on how they sourced the artworks.

The next step following the first North Korean Art exhibition would be to promote interpersonal communication between North Korean artists and others from the outside world. Although the Gwangju Biennale invited three participating North Korean artists to the openings, they could not cross the border. Communication is necessary to deepen the understanding of contemporary art in North Korea. Ironically, South Korean citizens are unable to access the art scene in North Korea for political reasons, although they share a border. Thus, even the Gwangju Biennale, one of the most significant art events in Korea, can only rely on information from partial sources. Like the title of the first edition of the Gwangju Biennale, it is time to go “beyond the borders.”

Kim Nam Hun, Kang Yu Song, Kang Yun Hyok, “Self-reliance With On Our Own Effort” (2014), Chosunhwa

Kim Chol, “Tiger Dashing in Winter” (2014), Chosunhwa

The 2018 Gwangju Biennale continues at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall (111 Biennale-ro, yongbong-dong, Buk-gu, Gwangju , 500-845, Republic of Korea) and Asia Culture Center (399-3 Maegok-dong, Buk-gu, Gwangju, 500-845, Republic of Korea) through November 11.

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Hayoung Chung

Born in Seoul. Living and writing about art in New York. She can be found on Instagram @hayoungchung