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Dream makers: The Mansudae Art Studio commissions in their local and global contexts

Portrait of an official 1700s-1800s

Portrait of an official 1700s–1800s | Colour on paper | 75 x 53.5cm | Collection: Lee Ufan, Paris

Untitled 1956

Li Kon Yong | b. unknown d.1980s | Untitled 1956 | Ink on paper | 37 x 29cm | Collection: Nicholas Bonner, Beijing

Foundry interior by Cheo Chang Ho

Choe Chang Ho | North Korea (DPRK) b.1960 | Foundry interior 2009 | Ink on paper (Chosunhua) / 200 x 200cm | Commissioned for APT6 | Collection: Nicholas Bonner, Beijing | Courtesy: The artist and Nicholas Bonner


The five chosunhua (brush-and-ink paintings) in APT6 were the first commissions to be discussed with the artists. The curatorial team and the artists alike felt strongly that these pieces would be at the heart of the display. Each of the five paintings are by different artists and were developed around the theme of the everyday — interiors and exteriors — and present five very individual views illustrating responses to work and life.

The other commissions that followed these five magnificent brush-and-ink paintings were the calligraphy banners and the oil painting. Oil painting, of course, has its roots in European art and was most recently taught to Koreans by the Japanese during the occupation from 1910–45.

The suite of 13 portraits from the Nicholas Bonner Collection presented here includes two early pieces, one from 1956 and the other from 1957. Historically, portraits were a completely independent genre, generated by mixing together the traditional cult of the ancestor together with the symbolic value of portraits in aristocratic circles, and the importance placed on portraits of officials.

The image of a beautiful ink portrait of an official from the 1700s, which is made in brush and ink contextualises the 1956 portrait that can be seen in another gallery space.

Today, most portraits in the DPRK which are not made for official purposes are the most intimate of works, such as those chosen for display in APT6.

Our greatest challenge in preparing the presentations of works from North Korea — for the Mansudae artists, and for us as curators — has been, to quote writer Michel Poivert:

. . . to avoid being ideological when faced with ideology for it requires a very real balancing act that entails both detachment and judgement . . . There is grace that lies at the very centre of these images that does not originate from the visual potency of the scenes and sights recorded. Instead we witness humanity rising visibly to the surface through the softness of bodies and attitudes, seemingly rejecting all these enduring images of authority in its heart of hearts.6

I am aware that the question still remains, how are these works contemporary?

Every time I work on an Asia Pacific Triennial, I am reminded that artists continually interrogate the contemporary condition — what Terry Smith identifies as the questioning of the ontology of the present. It is not possible to ignore tradition — we need to recognise the importance of understanding and citing tradition in any understanding of the contemporary moment. We are also forced to consider what it means to make work under different conditions. What does it mean to display art that participates in the everyday in a political and social and aesthetic sense, and which is concerned with building ideas about the social and of community?

In his preface to Iraninan Photography Now, prominent theorist Homi Bhabha eloquently argues:

It is one of the great tragedies of history that there are times when a whole country disappears behind a heavy curtain. Sometimes this is the result of an authoritarian regime that wants to darken the lives of its own people; at other times, those outside the country choose to see it, for their own purposes, through a veil of ignorance. After a period behind the curtain, we expect artists to burst through the darkness and come rushing towards us with the ‘truth’. We want to see the truth of the people; to examine the truth of everyday life. These artists resist the temptation to become truth-tellers — they know too much about the dangerous slide of dogmatic truth into political tyranny. These artists, who have to live within the contradictions and dilemmas of their societies and communities, move beyond the dramatic indulgence of exposure and exemplarity without losing their critical edge. They are intent on protecting what is unexpected and contingent about the experience of everyday life by inscribing aesthetic temporality that can be represented alongside long histories and old traditions.7

In conclusion, the last words must belong to the artists...Next

Dream makers: The Mansudae Art Studio commissions in their local and global contexts (page 1) | (page 2) | (page 3) | (page 4) | (page 5) | (page 6) | Artist quotes | Endnotes