Just as the Korean peninsula is split, so is its contemporary artistic consciousness. Mina Cheon is a South Korean artist who collaborates with her North Korean alter-ego KIM IL SOON (a Socialist Realist painter, naval commander, farmer, scholar, teacher, mother, and human being). In this, the latest of Cheon’s grapplings with the Korean schizo-imaginary, the topics of art, motherhood, games and hope come together in a reflection upon (cult)ure, love and education.
The recent war of words between North Korean and US leaders has only hardened the people’s attitudes to demagogue Father figures. With this exhibition, Cheon establishes the personality cult of UMMA (‘mommy’ in Korean), whose maternal love is deployed as the only acceptable solution for global peace and Korean unification. Whereas South Korea’s modernity was pushed forward by a chima baram (skirt wind), UMMA’s matriarchal strength is offered as a catalyst for developing North Korea. In this exhibition, Cheon (in the guise of her alter ego Kilm Il Soon, the ‘Umma of Unification’) sends motherly love and education to her children in the Hermit Kingdom and the USA. In addition, she debuts artworks resulting from a series of dissident dreams.
For UMMA: MASS GAMES, Cheon has worked with underground networks to send hundreds of USB drives containing performance lectures on contemporary art history into North Korea – arguably the first such artistic ‘re-programming’ engagement with the nation to date. All ten lessons will be on display at Ethan Cohen Gallery on Notel media players (devices commonly used in North Korea for watching foreign video content, such as K-pop, drama, and Korean Wave Cinema). The Art History Lessons by Professor Kim (2017) endeavor to be relatable for North Korean and American audiences – borrowing from children’s TV show formats while showcasing today’s contemporary artists and critical perspectives. Carrying the vital messages “The world loves you, North Korea” and “Both art and lives matter,” lesson topics include Art & Life; Art & Food; Art, Money & Power; Abstract Art & Dreams; Feminism, Are We Equal?; Art, Lives Matter, & Social Justice; Remix & Appropriation Art; Art & Technology; Art & Silence; and Art & Environment.
The Mass Games (Arirang) are the paramount North Korean spectacle, deployed for nationalistic propaganda purposes and presented to the world. But are they any fun? In this exhibition, Umma supervises her own games, convened by love for her children: The show includes group-performance imagery in the form of Happy North Korean Children (2014) prints. Furthermore, an installation entitled Happy Land Games (2017), incorporating oversized wooden versions of the toys normally given away inside packets of South Korean Choco·Pie candy – depicting fairground rides from a mythical park called Happy Land. The Choco·Pie is the most desired smuggled confectionary in North Korea, a single pie trading (on the black market) for the equivalent of three bowls of rice. Visitors to Ethan Cohen gallery are invited to assemble and play with Umma’s Happy Land. The themes of games, happiness, and imaginary society in these works 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.’
This exhibition also showcases an insight into Socialist Realist painter Kim Il Soon’s cosmopolitan subconscious. It is only in her dreams that she truly contemplates liberation. These dreams have resulted in two painting series (entitled, respectively, Hot Pink Drip and Yves Klein Blue Dip) which incorporate digital manipulation and abstract painterly gestures in conjunction with realist propaganda styles. Titles and topics include: Umma, Unicorn, and Unification, as well a series of Professor Kim and Umma in her full virtuoso presentation rising above the clouds and fogs of the Baekdusan Mountain, in Umma Rises: Towards Global Peace. Other works include portraits of Umma in North Korea, Missiles Good Bye and Hello Brave New World.
In UMMA: MASS GAMES, the contradictions, fractures and paradoxes of the Korean imaginary are on full display. With the Kim Il Soon artist-complex (a locus of various attributes: scholar/educator, state-artist, dissident dreamer and mother/umma), Cheon explores overlapping political and personal dramas of identification and acceptance. Simultaneously, she exorcizes Fatherly sins through the cult of the great UMMA, her motherly love, and her serious play. No image of this love is too grand. Nothing too small: Leading up to the opening of her exhibition during NYC Asia Contemporary Art Week, Umma (dressed in traditional Korean garb and on her knees) will perform the cleaning of gallery floors and offering kimchi. On Friday, October 13th (5:00 PM), she will be cleaning the floors of Ethan Cohen Gallery as a prequel performance to the UMMA exhibit.
The exhibition catalogue includes a curatorial essay by Nadim Samman, who contributed ideological engineering and ‘right-thinking,’ staging the provocation of the exhibition from the heavens to the undergrounds of North Korea, where Umma rises and descends. Other writers include fellow-traveler philosopher Laurence A. Rickels who has taken down the Official Psychoanalytic History of Umma and Korea, by interpreting Kim Il Soon’s dreams, unlocking her “andere Schauplatz” where she unleashes a desire for Unification.