Korean Artistic Unison


By Tanya Silverman

Shore of the Lake Chonji of Mt. Paekdu. Chang Ri. 2005. Ink and color on mulberry paper.

KOREA makes for a simple, self-referential title for an exhibit combining artwork from both halves of the divided peninsula. North and South Korean works are arranged by curator Heng-Gil Han, who intends to promote “mutual understanding” and “cultural dialogue” between the two countries.

Two featured North Korean artists are Chang Ho Choi and Chang Ri, who both painted landscapes of Chonji, “Heaven’s Lake”. Standing atop the peninsula’s tallest mountain peak, the lake, Han affirms, is a common theme in the nation’s art. Indeed, North Korean folkloric accounts ascribe Chonji as the birthplace of the Korean people, not to mention Kim Jung-il.

Choi’s Chonji painting exhibits energetic “Mongol style” brush strokes of intense clouds powerfully stirring around solid rock ridges. The clouds in Ri’s landscape look lighter and calmer against the earthly scenery, serving as mystical backdrops to the centered pastel spread of blossoming flowers.

Han interprets the essence of the two Chonji paintings, as, respectively, “fatherland” and “motherland.” However, whether that’s what these North Korean painters themselves specifically intended remains undetermined, as they did not provide artist statements (only their work).

Duality. Sungsook Setton. 2005. Ink and watercolor on paper.

Duality is an abstract watercolor painting by Sungsook Setton. She is a South Korean born “nomad artist” who acknowledges her dual Eastern and Western influence. As such, her cohesive brush strokes–which range from round and meditated to thin and jagged–resemble the Korean peninsula. The DMZ is possibly represented through a noticeable middle-section split, perhaps cast on a fixable paper platform to offset implications of mending.

Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream of Iron. Kelvin Kyung Kun Park. 2011. Film, color, sound.

South Korean Kelvin Kyung Kun Park portrays a “feeling of the sublime in an industrial age” through his 2011 experimental film, Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream of Iron. Certain scenes show the collection of scrap metal, Han explains, referencing the era following the Korean War. Because South Korea lacks underground metal reserves, and importing is expensive, mass-recycling becomes necessary.

Cheonggyecheon is a district in Seoul, Han says, a neighborhood that formerly had a high concentration of “small family metal shops… smelting facilities or blacksmith’s workshops.” Collected metal was taken there, which workers would manually melt and produce hardware or machine parts.

“Park made this film because his grandfather was one of the store owners in the Cheonggyecheon area,” Han explains as we watch the film. “He was inspired by a nightmare–he told me that almost every night he dreamed of metal shops with weird sounds.”

Replete with clangs, bangs, and buzzes, the incorporated footage slinks around the narrow city streets to depict the small-scale metalworking process. Mechanisms of massive factories geared for mass production are also documented to portray the large-scale later stages of industrial development.

Electricity Coal, Metal Industry, and Railroad Transportation (are) Important Chains for Revitalization for People’s Economy! Jeong Sik Ji. 2007. Propaganda poster, color on paper.

Notions behind the course of North Korean industrialization are illustrated in one of the exhibit’s four featured propaganda posters. Profiles of four bright, bold workmen appear glistened in an inspiring light, with smoke stacks and piles of raw-material as backdrop.

Han explains that while the North Korean land does harbor “rich underground natural resources,” the issue lies in finding ways to mine them quickly and efficiently. He cites “Cheollima”, a post-Korean War campaign promoting increased production and industrialization, which implicitly encourages mining “raw resources in quantity and speed.” Translating “a slogan that talks about the importance of railroad connecting, energy production, coal mining and metal production,” Han expresses that the 2007 poster demonstrates how aspects of “Cheollima” prevail through current times.

Han affirms my inquiry that KOREA is the first time many spectators may witness North Korean art. To curious parties, he takes the opportunity to share observations about his recent trip to the country, confirms that Americans can actually travel there, and talks about how the society has a middle class that’s even growing.

Though logistical factors are very challenging because of diplomacy and finances, Han hopes, in the future, to arrange an artist exchange program where North Korean artists would be able to travel to places like NYC.

“KOREA” will be on display at FiveMyles Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, until Jul. 13.

Images courtesy of Heng-gil Han and FiveMyles Gallery.