Kim Guang Nan
The Future is Bright

20th April – 21st May 2016
Anna Schwartz Gallery

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic People’s Repub­lic of Korea (DPRK) holds deeply to its nation­al name. In the West, it is invari­ably North Korea. What most peo­ple know of its art is a hero­ic and home-grown rework­ing of Social­ist Real­ism, the peas­ant and indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at in action for the col­lec­tive good. Not a sker­rick of para­noia as the end­less advance of ide­o­log­i­cal tri­umphal­ism march­es on. Pro­pa­gan­da posters and oth­er media such as sculp­ture and por­traits hold the same line – con­fi­dent, warmth in home­land col­lec­tivism, resis­tant to oth­er thought and aggres­sive in defence of those who con­demn it. But with­in this last bas­tion phe­nom­e­non is a com­plex and sub­tly vary­ing syntax.

What are we to make of an artist whose work is born out of his imag­i­na­tion, where no appar­ent role exists oth­er than the artist’s self-expres­sion and ful­ly realised in this exhi­bi­tion? The role for artists is pre-deter­mined but with­in this reg­u­lat­ed and super­vised envi­ron­ment cameos of per­son­al expres­sion appear.

Kim Guang Nan was born in 1953, a few months after the July armistice of the North and South Kore­an War and trained at Pyongyang Cen­tral Art Acad­e­my, and hav­ing qual­i­fied, worked at the Man­su­dae Art Stu­dio. Estab­lished by Pres­i­dent Kim Il Sung, it remains the major state-run organ­i­sa­tion for artists in North Korea. A phys­i­cal­ly vast enter­prise, artists work across styles and medi­ums – painters in oil and ink, print­mak­ers, craft work­ers, design­ers, sculp­tors, ceram­i­cists and mosa­ic artists – hand­i­craft and embroi­dery is the main activ­i­ty for women. Pro­pa­gan­da work is ubiq­ui­tous from stu­dio work to pub­lic art. Any form of abstrac­tion does not exist and is regard­ed as bour­geois and anti-revolutionary.

Nicholas Bon­ner lives in Bei­jing and has become some­thing of a cul­tur­al impre­sario for North Kore­an artists. As a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Man­su­dae since 1993, he works close­ly with its artists. He has giv­en them a voice out­side North Korea where, if cir­cum­stances were left to lum­ber along, art would remain con­strained, pre­dictable, and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly sin­gle-mind­ed. The ide­o­log­i­cal imper­a­tive for mak­ing art tends to over­ride oth­er per­son­al inter­ests and ideas for new projects not being reject­ed out of hand is a fick­le arrange­ment. Nicholas coor­di­nat­ed North Korea’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Asia Pacif­ic Tri­en­ni­al, 2009, at Queens­land Art Gallery QAGO­MA. The Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can­celled the artists’ visas at the eleventh hour. He com­mis­sioned work for the archi­tec­ture sec­tion of the 2014 Venice Bien­nale which award­ed the Gold­en Lion to (South) Korea, but includ­ed a sec­tion from DPRK. Com­rade Kim Goes Fly­ing’ was released in 2012, a joint British-Bel­gian-North Kore­an roman­tic com­e­dy fea­ture film and joint­ly direct­ed by Nicholas Bonner.

It is a nec­es­sary real­i­ty that he speaks for the artists he works with. In the case of The Future is Bright’ and Kim Guang Nan, it is treat­ed seri­ous­ly, and not look this is what North Korea thinks the future will be like!’ It began as a project explor­ing their upbring­ings, imag­in­ing a future with all the trep­i­da­tion and excite­ment that was involved. We both clear­ly remem­ber the graph­ics we were shown as kids and how we used this infor­ma­tion to devel­op our imag­i­na­tion. There was so lit­tle else avail­able so those com­ic images of rock­ets and alien life forms were not only mas­sive­ly appeal­ing in their own right, but pro­vid­ed a stim­u­lus to send us on our own imag­i­na­tive journeys.’

Nicholas had a North Kore­an sto­ry­book with an illus­trat­ed front cov­er and Kim had read the book and found it fun and remind­ed him of his youth … we would then sit down and dis­cuss the piece in the terms of how it worked visu­al­ly … colour schemes, keep­ing it sim­ple and com­ic like. Both of us recog­nise our child­hood in all of the images … the imag­i­na­tion of a child. … and now as grown men still the feel­ing of explo­ration and dan­ger.’ The phys­i­cal per­son­al­i­ty of the linocuts was impor­tant to con­vey a feel­ing which is unmis­tak­ably pre-dig­i­tal which includes delib­er­ate glitch­es in reg­is­tra­tion. The high gloss paper was sourced in Chi­na, the lino blocks in Pyongyang and the heavy, sticky ink was sourced local­ly too.

Imbed­ded with­in the visu­al nar­ra­tive of The Future is Bright’ is a reflec­tion of a utopi­an vision of North Korea. It is a social­ism shaped by the influ­ence of Sovi­et ide­al­ism, where sci­ence, explo­ration and the vast­ness of its imag­i­na­tive reach might become part of a pro­le­tar­i­an dream(1). The Amer­i­cans failed with a mis­sile launch in 1957 while the Sovi­ets suc­cess­ful­ly launched Sput­nik’ in the same year and con­firmed that the Cold War was a polit­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic, hearts and minds war. In the case of The Future is Bright’ west­ern audi­ences might read it as an irony about one of the least vis­it­ed places on the plan­et. But in real­i­ty it’s about the imag­i­na­tion of child­hood realised again as an adult, an imag­i­na­tion born out of cir­cum­stances where the indi­vid­ual imag­i­na­tion usu­al­ly remains unseen.

Doug Hall AM

1. For a com­pre­hen­sive account of the Sovi­et influ­ence on North Kore­an art, illus­tra­tion and lit­er­a­ture see Daf­na Zur, Let’s Go to the Moon: Sci­ence Fic­tion in the North Kore­an Children’s Mag­a­zine Adong Munhak, 19561965’, The Jour­nal of Asian Stud­ies, Avail­able on CJO 2014 doi:10.1017/s0021911813002404

Quotes from Nicholas Bon­ner to Doug Hall from an email con­ver­sa­tion, March, 2016.

Images

Kim Guang Nan

Reflec­tion of rocket, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
6070 cm, 78.588.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Under­wa­ter research, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
99.540 cm, 118.558.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Under­sea world, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
6070.5 cm, 7889 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Space scene, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
40100 cm, 58.5118.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Plan­et survey, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
39.599.5 cm, 58.5118 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Ani­mals and plants, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
4099.5 cm, 58.5118 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Rock­et fired towards planet, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
40.599.5 cm, 59118 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Space man reflect­ed in helmet, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
4099.5 cm, 58.5118 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Ani­mals, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
40100 cm, 58.5118.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Fil­tra­tion under the sea, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
40100 cm, 58.5118.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Inside the submarine, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
40100 cm, 58.5118.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Con­ser­va­tion of the sea, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
42.559 cm, 6177.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Satel­lite maintenance, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
42.559 cm, 6177.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Deep space mining, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
42.559 cm, 6177.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Run­ning low on oxygen, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
42.559 cm, 6177.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

World res­cue team, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
4360 cm, 6178.5 cm framed

Kim Guang Nan

Local space transport, 2015
Linocut on high gloss paper
4259 cm, 6177.5 cm framed