Monday, January 31, 2011

Loyalty to Art, and to the State: Canada's First Exhibition of North Korean Art Now up at UTAC

Sometimes you learn a heckuva lot from researching just one article. Actually, this is often the case.

But I feel I learned more than I usually do in researching Canada's first-ever exhibition of North Korean art, which opened at the University of Toronto Art Centre this month. My resulting article was published yesterday in the Toronto Star, with an expanded version online at Here's an excerpt:

With its reputation for Stalinist repression, North Korea's image in the West tends to be an ugly one. But a current Toronto exhibition is offering a rare look at this mysterious nation's more beautiful and artistic side.

“North Korean Images at Utopia's Edge,” on display at the University of Toronto Art Centre, is the first exhibition of North Korean art in Canada. Its 24 linocut prints are drawn from the collection of Nicholas Bonner, a U.K.-born, Beijing-based architect, tour operator and filmmaker who's visited North Korea monthly since 1992.

“The problem in the West is we have our own preconceptions of what North Korea is like,” Bonner says over the phone from his Beijing home. “I know how strongly the North Korean public wants to have exposure to the West, and it's just as important for us to get a sense of where they're coming from. That's what drives me.”

“Utopia's Edge” is just the latest instance of Bonner's aim to bridge cultural gaps between North Korea and the rest of the world. He's created award-winning documentaries on North Korea's soccer teams and U.S.-military defectors, and amassed more than 1,000 pieces of North Korean art in demand for exhibitions overseas.

Bonner, a kind of unofficial cultural liason between North Korea and the West, has also worked the cultural-exchange equation the other way, helping bring screenings of Bend it Like Beckham and performances by the New York Philharmonic to North Korea's capital city, Pyongyang.

Another thing I wanted to include in the article, but which was trimmed, addresses the difficulty of facilitating these kinds of exchanges given the sanctions that many Western countries maintain against North Korea. For example, Bonner tried to bring six North Korean artists to Australia last year for the Asia Pacific Triennial, where he had co-coordinated an exhibition of their art with the Queensland Art Gallery. Though the artists were given the go-ahead to travel by the North Korean government, Australia's government barred them from entering. (Their art was still exhibited, however.) There's some fascinating coverage of this issue here and here.

Bonner also told me over the phone that he had, in the past few years, been trying to arrange a visit by a North Korean artist to Canada, a proposal that was ixnayed by the feds, whose current engagement policies with North Korea forbid "cultural exchange."

In any case, one of the upshots of the Asia Pacific Triennial exhibition is that Bonner and his co-curator, Suhanya Raffel, managed to get the North Korean artists to try some different approaches to their subject matter--approaches that are more "humble" than "glorifying" of North Korean life. Bonner discusses these works in part 3 of his triennial talk, embedded below and also viewable at the Queensland Art Gallery's Youtube Channel. (Can more Canadian galleries facilitate posting artist and curator talks this way, please?)

I have no idea what drives Bonner so strongly in regard to North Korea, but you can find out more about him (and about the country) at his Koryo Tours site or this interview with the Beijinger.

Also, if you want to know more about the way art is produced in North Korea--ie. in state-run factory/studios of up to 1,000 artists--check out Adrian Dannatt's 2009 article from the Art Newspaper or go to the UTAC symposium on Thursday... it features Jane Portal, who's currently based in Boston but who basically built the Korean art collection at the British Museum and who's also authored a key text on North Korean art, "Art Under Control."

Given all the news of famines, missiles and warship attacks, I can see why North Korea has a bad reputation among many states. But I'm glad there's this opportunity to consider what art and beauty might mean over there too.

(Image of Jong Gwan-Su's Propaganda Van Girl "2.7 Times More than Planned", 1988 courtesy Nicholas Bonner, the Korea Society and UTAC)

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