On the Necessity of North Korean Art
Ethan Cohen Gallery, 2017
North Korea’s official art is a problem. It is a problem because it is a national project, born of a state whose ‘modern’ cultural performance is wedded to a failed experiment in total design. It is a problem because, today, its internationalist ideological posture appears hopelessly – indeed, aggressively – provincial.1It is a problem because its intended audience appears pathetic (wretched), to the same degree that its supreme commissioner seems pathological. It is a problem because it proposes final solutions to wanting (and to having) that have been overturned by the courts of everyday life.2It has a stench of fanaticism about it, and it is a filter bubble – maintaining a post-truth rendition of society. But the problem character of North Korea’s official art doesn’t stop there: Underpinning its depictions of missile arrays, fully satisfied youth, abundance and daddy worship, it has a bad case of performance anxiety. Furthermore, it is structured around a political demand for assent whose rhetorical certitude and grand self-designations (such as juche) are so much mansplaining.

To mansplain you have to be a man, something “Lil’ Kim” has taken pains to prove.3Upon his elevation to Supreme Leader, following his father’s death, the 33 year old would fatally purge hundreds of officials. In bidding to head the family not even his own brother was spared. Although he is now the nation’s leading man, there was something brutally juvenile about the way he consolidated this position, through recourse to cartoon violence: executing a senior general with an anti-aircraft missile; feeding his uncle to dogs. A problem child, certainly, in the box-blue suit of a demagogue; one now relishing the prospect of engaging another man-boy in a reckless caricature of diplomacy – little fingers hovering above launch buttons, threatening to press their folly home…

What does North Korea need?4Certainly not more mansplaining, nor another problem child. This said, if it must have a national art then how might this project perform best? Enter Mina Cheon, proposing the antithesis of the man-boy-father: Mommy (Umma) – paragon of cunning and artfulness whose mastery is levened, crucially, with patience, understanding and love. Umma is a character-principle (an ideology) underpinning the putative authorship of various works. Appearing in various guises, her ‘attributes’ include scholar/educator, state-artist, dissident dreamer, victor, and martyr. The grandest of all wish fulfillments, Cheon’s alter-ego proposes the only experiment in benevolent yet total dictatorship to be attempted in the modern period – motherly rule. As Cheon would have it, Umma is the alpha and omega; exorcist of fatherly sins and absolver of tantrums. No image of this ‘alternative female power’ is too grand: There she is, on a banner dominating the gallery space, rising – arms outstretched in Christ-like beatitude, above a backdrop featuring the legendary Mount Baekdusan.5 Elsewhere, she is a soldier – proud and ready for action. But Umma also stoops to conquer: Leading up to the opening of her exhibition during Asia Contemporary Art Week, Umma (dressed in traditional Korean garb and on her knees) performs the cleaning of other galleries’ floors. Among her many roles, Cheon states, Umma ‘takes on the burden of despair.’6

It is obvious that Umma, the ultimate mother, must beget impeccable progeny. There they are—gathered in an orderly fashion, arms raised in salutation, in the photo-collages Happy North Korean Children (2014). Hung in front of a background wallpaper depicting the Arirang (mass games), their figures’ structured group dynamics bespeak useful activity and togetherness. Of course there is an obvious note of parody here – a starkly outlined model of games (along with happiness and children) that other featured works blur and confuse. But the fact that the models in these images are Cheon’s own offspring broadens the interpretive agenda.7Indeed, it deepens the ludic universe of her character-play: In as much as the gamed aesthetic fictionalizes her children, it also serves as a marker that her confabulations are real. The rule is more plainly drawn when one considers Cheon lending her own image to a host of characters in many other works (rendered in paint, photography and video). Conceptually speaking, Cheon’s approach stakes out a completely different ‘realism’ than the one underpinning the North Korean art that her work superficially resembles: It is not that her works depict an ideal, unified, reality. Rather, they are offered as a stab at a truly Korean national art, whose most descriptive designation might be termed real parallelism.

Just as the Korean peninsula is split (along the 38th Parallel), so is its contemporary artistic consciousness. Such is the real parallelism of Cheon’s fractured/distributed authorial gambit. Issuing from various character-personalities, her works (when taken together) attempt to address the incommensurable identifications of a greater Korean nationhood – its schizo-imaginary. Indeed, Cheon’s oeuvre is an alternative vision of a national art – one that attempts to encompass such wildly varying agendas as capitalism (the South) and the command-economy (the North). Real parallelism, attention to Cheon’s art discloses, is a kind of political surrealism in which affirmation and negation co-exist; in which things are both serious and, simultaneously, utterly absurd. It is life and death, and just a game. It is a strange togetherness. It is a national art whose guiding motto might as well be ceci n’est pas un pays.

Kim Il Soon, one of Cheon’s stand-ins, is a leading North Korean artist – a recipient of state honors and the beneficiary of an academic system that affords her assistants and plentiful commissions. As might be expected, her previous works have showcased the hallmark martial agenda and ideological style of the DPRK. Though created by a woman, many of these paintings display the iconographic signature of the supreme mansplainer. And yet, recently, things have begun to change. When Kim sleeps, she dreams. And when she dreams, she paints. And in her dreams she entangles the Socialist Realist universe with its others. In her Hot Pink Drip and Yves Klein Blue Dip (dream) painting series, Kim’s cosmopolitan subconscious runs riot. Kim the dreamer plays fast and loose. Atop realist/figurative propaganda she splashes abstract and expressive fields of pink, and International Klein Blue. By siting divergent iconographic elements within a single frame, Kim conveys the parallel (intellectual) dimensions of these artistic agendas – their togetherness (in time, and perhaps even space) despite mutually exclusive ideologies.

But perhaps we must clarify the matter. Kim doesn’t mean to do any of this – to convey, to analyze, to overturn etc. It just happens. The free play of her subconscious (a game that hijacks her socially respectable self-presentation) is responsible. But what is really beneath this phenomenon? None other than Cheon, a real person. But Cheon, herself, is by no means undisturbed. Critically toggling from Kim to her, we recognize a mirror function in which Kim undercuts the rule of Cheon’s authority. Qua-author, the latter has performed an act of discursive fracture (by appearing as another). This is to say, apart from begetting a rebellion in fiction, Cheon’s gambit problematizes the unity and settled position of master discourse (or ‘speaking law’) in general. So much for mansplaining, in which the authorial unity is paramount.

In this manner, Umma engages in dialectical ‘self-criticism’ in order to achieve apotheosis; Cheon’s performative rupture of author(ity) preceding a new mastery. Having unsettled a key pillar of mansplaining, Umma (it seems) is ready to perform the revolutionary act of momsplaining: In a series of ten video lectures covering international modern and contemporary art, Cheon, in the guise of Professor Kim, offers her countrymen an alternative worldview. The Art History Lessons by Professor Kim (2017) invoke children’s TV show formats while delivering lectures on topics such as Art & Life; Art & Food; Art, Money & Power; Abstract Art & Dreams; Feminism; Social Justice; Remix & Appropriation; Art & Technology; Art & Silence; and Art & Environment. The breadth of foci engaged amount to a complete alternative to official North Korean art history. Beginning with an excursus on Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), the founding act of artistic appropriation, Umma/Professor Kim appropriates her audience. Not least, by rhetorically addressing them in the manner of (her) children. In a wider frame, she endeavors to expropriate their cultural imaginary. Throughout the videos Professor Kim offers a refrain: “The World loves you, North Korea” – an assurance that her seizure of (art) history is benign, and that she represents the whole world.

Umma’s seizure of history and appropriation of her fellow North Koreans (as children) is more than mere representation of a benign dictatorship. In fact, her pedagogical gift to the DPRK goes beyond hypothesis. That is to say, the performance/action does not only take place within the frame of a video-product to be enjoyed by a Western crowd in a Manhattan gallery. As it happens, Cheon has worked with underground networks to smuggle hundreds of USB drives containing Professor Kim’s lectures into North Korea. Arguably the first such artistic ‘re-programming’ engagement with the state to date, through this action Cheon has attempted to alter the course of North Korean art history. Deviating from the limited range of content normally made available through this distribution channel (typically, international news, K-Pop, film and television programs), her lectures are the first explicit re-articulations of the contemporary artistic imaginary addressed directly to North Korean viewers. When one reflects upon histories of nonconformist art from the former Soviet Union and China, outlining how pioneering conceptualists gained inspiration from smuggled art magazines, then this action’s real potential is apparent. Comparison issues a provocation: If there is no North Korean dissident conceptual art then it must be invented.

In attempting to reprogram North Korean artistic culture from within Cheon’s momsplaining reveals its will to power. Having assaulted the authorship/authority of the Kim dynasty by occupying the very name of the father (Kim Il Soon, Professor Kim etc.), and by performing a travesty of mansplaining, Cheon annexes the domain of national art, recuperating heterogeneous demands and split voices under the sign of “the world” according to mom. That North Korea is to receive mom’s world (through her words) by way of cultural insemination highlights Cheon’s seizure of the phallus. The true scope of Umma’s ideological agenda is such – total embrace, to the point of penetrating North Korea’s ideological space in order to seed it with visions from her art that may lead to the birth of really new artistic phenomena. Cheon would force Kim Jong-un to bear her artistic children. North Korea’s official art has a problem: In a parallel universe, a fictional scholar teaches its epigones how to become real conceptual artists.

In so far as she engages in an act of social engineering, Umma poses as a real challenge to the North Korean leadership. But perhaps this is going too far. In a parallel world, brightly colored objects lean against the crisp white walls of a Chelsea gallery – where a well-dressed crowd exchanges gossip over glasses of wine. The objects make up an installation comprising oversized wooden versions of toys normally given away inside packets of South Korean Choco·Pie candy.8Depicting fairground rides from a mythical amusement park called Happy Land, they are asinine, disposable, games for kids. Reimagined at a larger size, their block colors partake of the same graphic power as Socialist Realism. Within the adult playground of such galleries, North Korea’s official art can be consumed like wine or Choco·Pie, as a social libation, or confection; like Happy Land itself, in the spirit of play. Within such galleries it can often seem impossible to imagine that the game of art might be a matter of life and death. In another land, however, a single Choco·Pie trades for the equivalent of three bowls of rice.9 There, playing with Happy Land is a risk – because Happy Land is a problem.


Greater Korea exists, for the most part, as two separate image worlds. Offering a political surrealism or real parallelism that explores their porosity (indeed, which furthers their co-inscription within a single frame) Cheon’s art reaches towards a unifying principle. In foregrounding the topics of repression and dreams, her work dramatizes the practical difficulty of making competing claims cohere under the rule of the father. We have seen how “the world” according to Umma embraces a distributed authorship (or authority). However, it is (qua benign dictatorship) Umma’s world – subject to the final ideology of motherly love. In this, the familial principle is misappropriated from the Kim dynasty and rendered to all Koreans. The world loves you North Korea.

1. Indeed, the DPRK’s nascent official realist art took its cues from the People’s Republic of China’s attempts at a ‘great leap forward’ by implementing a Soviet advised Five Year Plan – right down to importing professors from the latter’s art academies to oversee the production of ideologically useful images, concurrently with turning its attention to the production of useless pig iron and the total eradication of sparrows that would bring on locust plagues.
2. From peasants right up to the highest eschelons of its ‘most equal’ society.
3. A moniker for Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un used by Mina Cheon in a painting entitled “Lil’Kim,” (2014) which appropriates the title of Times Magazine in 2012.
4. A question asked by Mina Cheon elsewhere in this volume.
5. The birthplace of “Dangun” the founder of Korean Kingdom who was known as “grandson of heaven” and “son of bear.” North Korea claims that Kim Il Sung organized his resistance against the Japanese forces from this location, and that it was the birthplace of his son, Kim Jong-il.
6. The subtitle of the exhibition is, of course, Motherly Love North Korea.
7. Kim Il Soon’s children are named Kim Siun and Kim Sia.
8. The illicit consumption of Choco·Pie/Happy Land in North Korea was at a peak in 2014, when Cheon staged her “Choco·Pie Propaganda” exhibition at Ethan Cohen Gallery, which featured an installation comprising 10,000 Choco·Pies entitled, Eat Choco·Pie Together (2014).
9. The Choco·Pie is the most desired smuggled confectionary in North Korea. Visitors to Ethan Cohen gallery are invited to assemble and play with Umma’s Happy Land (2017). The themes of games, happiness and imaginary society in this work are in dialogue with North Korea’s international self-presentation – invoking the DPRK’s 2011 Global Index of Happiness Research claim that it is “the second happiest nation in the world next to Big China.”