by Jason Farago
ArtForum / November 20, 2014–January 23, 2015
With the massive hack of Sony’s e-mail servers this month and the canceled release of The Interview, a bro comedy about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the threat and the mania of North Korea has once again entered the terrain of culture. This timely exhibition of propaganda and fine art (the distinction here is meaningless) from the world’s most terrifying country therefore deserves scrutiny: Look hard, think hard, and don’t write these images off. The dozens of posters here, dating from the 1960s to today, have none of the formal innovation of Soviet propaganda, though many replicate Soviet image-making techniques—intense color, bold captions, workers and soldiers leaning forward against incongruous backgrounds—in lifeless, cynical plagiarism. Their force derives from the intensity of their delusion or deception: the grand falsehood of a grinning factory laborer, an infantryman attaching a bayonet to his machine gun, or men of all races hoisting a gleaming book that reads “Juche,” the political philosophy of Kim Il-sung.
None of the posters’ artists are named, nor are the painters of the twelve canvases also on view in this show, which range from kitschy to awkwardly compelling. Many of the paintings come from the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, which employs some four thousand artists, making it one of the largest art-production facilities in the world. The soft-focus paintings of a pansori drummer before Pyongyang’s bombastic Arch of Reunification (Performance I, 2011) and of a smiling female conductor of a military band at the Mass Games (Gymnastic, 2011) are dreary to look at in isolation. However, placed against the more explicit propaganda posters, these works offer a bizarre taste of individualism in a country with no space for it. They also reveal the creepy use of female bodies in the government’s iconography. Inspection, 2012, sees a dozen female soldiers lined up before a giant bronze military memorial, each with lips pursed and eyes fixed, cannon fodder for a regime we mustn’t laugh at.