As South Korea and the world tries to sort the best response to the latest provocations from North Korea, an exhibition of contemporary ‘official’ art of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) opened at the MAK (the Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, with a rather dodgy title. “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” was launched despite opposition and questions about the nature of the museum’s collaboration with the Pyongyang regime.
By admission of MAK director Peter Noever in a number of interviews, the work is presented without any critical context.
Perhaps there is no other art in North Korea, as it seems the MAK believes. While that may be true, it is hard to imagine that much first hand research went into that position being taken. Perhaps the director’s trip to the DPRK was not so unlike this one taken by Vice correspondents:
Watch all three episodes. But perhaps it is another experience for a European museum director.
Surely there is a difference between exhibiting a display of historical propaganda versus a contemporary, active one constructed through forced labor and dictated entirely by one family’s aesthetic viewpoint, if you can even call it that.
The MAK makes a case that this show fits in a tradition of previous exhibitions centering about specific political systems, and yet the defense of this show is that it is about aesthetics, not politics, and about seeing the visual production of an ‘other.’ It is hard to imagine that this will open doors for us to see anything except what the current regime wants us to see.
Beyond the occasional report in English that this show is causing big controversy in Austria, the picture left behind for outsiders is the critical context created for the Museum itself through the multiple, self-condemning interviews with the director of this museum saying, among other things, that this is the same as showing Russian constructivism.
Anyway, the images are out there now, for all of you to see, and let’s hope for now everyone’s curiosity about the art of the DPRK and the architecture of Pyongyang (presented in this exhibition as the model city, a Gesamtkunstwerk, a manifesto of Juche ideals with Utopian elements) is satisfied. What you do not see in these pictures is that there is no electricity, no items to buy in the supermarket, destroyed farmland, extreme poverty, and even in this model city of Pyongyang, reportedly only two hours of drinking water available per day, and not enough food to feed even high-ranking military officers.
The show seems to exist merely as a provocation itself. If this is the case, is there a benefit gained over what is lost here in the sense of academic scholarship and institutional research? That is Mr. Noever’s core argument in defense of the show. I am open to new experiences if someone can back it up, however I fear what a lack of education does for visitors in this case.
Reference material (there’s plenty more than this):
MAK website in English: http://mak.at/e/jetzt/f_jetzt_b_blumenfuer_e.htm
Some perspective from a North Korean defector living now in Vienna: http://www.falter.at/web/shop/detail.php?id=32233
Interview with Peter Noever: http://derstandard.at/1271376865449/Blumen-fuer-Kim-Il-Sung-Es-war-ein-staendiges-Ringen-um-Vertrauen