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North Korean Images at Utopia's Edge

January 19 – March 12, 2009

propaganda van girl
Jong Gwan-Su, Propaganda Van Girl, "2.7 Times More than Planned"
Linoleum print (ed. unknown), 1988, 21 x 30½ inches

A propaganda van girl (her armband reads “Propaganda Van”) congratulates
a crowd of jubilant miners for exceeding their production quota by 270%.

Deeply established within the Korean tradition, woodblock printing on the Korean peninsula dates back to the very earliest uses of the technology. Today, woodblock printing remains an outstanding form of artistic expression on both sides of the 38th Parallel. In North Korea, the simple and economical technique, employed extensively during the Korean War, is used to produce readily understandable and visually striking images.

Far from triumphant scenes of military glory commonly associated with socialist realism and familiar propaganda images, the 24 North Korean woodblock prints in this exhibition explore the idea of a secular paradise, a concept at the center of national narratives since the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. In these prints, the artists pay tribute to the heroism of workers by employing stylistic restraint and by communicating an implicit conviction that human fulfillment can be found in the drudgery of modern labor. What emerges is not an anonymous proletariat, but a new level of existence that philosopher Gilles Deleuze called the "dividual," a stage at which individuality is completed, rather than effaced, by collectivity and collective work.

The prints share similar characteristics. All the artists were trained at the highly competitive Pyongyang University of Fine Arts and employed either at the Mansudae Art Studio (Mansudae ch’angjaksa), the Literature and Art Press Centre or the Pyongyang City Art Studio. The artists depict a wide range of subjects and themes, within the constraints of the state-run system, to create a form of workaday beauty through the expert use of colored blocks, sharp lines and hard edges. These elements both enhance and transcend the ideological context of the prints.

The prints in this exhibition are on loan from the collection of Nicholas Bonner, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker and art collector who has been traveling to North Korea for the last 15 years. Bonner’s film Crossing the Line (2006) will be screened at St. Lawrence University on two Tuesdays, February 24 and March 3, at 7:00 p.m. in the Gallery. This documentary examines the life of James Joseph Dresnok, the last living American defector to North Korea.

North Korean Images at Utopia’s Edge was organized by The Korea Society, New York City.