BY Cleo Roberts in Reviews | 24 OCT 19

Can Artists Exploring the Korean DMZ Critically Engage with its Thorny History?

Or are they destined to succumb to fantasy, nostalgia and divisive stereotypes?

BY Cleo Roberts in Reviews | 24 OCT 19

A barren strip of land, four km wide and 250 km long, reinforced on either side by stations of troops, delineates the northern and southern parts of Korea. A relic from Korea’s Civil War in the 1950s, dubbed a ‘demilitarized zone’ (DMZ), the area is widely considered a vacuum between the split nations, a wilderness imposed to maintain the 1953 Armistice Agreement. At once disarmed and enclosed within a heavily armed membrane, it is both immune to warfare and pregnant with it, arguably forming one of the world’s most heavily militarized areas.

Yet with the anticipation of war comes its antithesis: the prospect of peace. Within and around the zone are peace villages, the most notable among them being P’anmunjŏm – characterized by its utilitarian 1960s architecture executed with Wes Anderson-esque precision – which played host to Donald Trump’s recent meeting with Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, in Cheorwon County, once the centre of the formerly united Korean Peninsula, are the headquarters for The Real DMZ Project, a research-led initiative founded in 2011. Working with artists and academics, it has, through a series of projects, residencies and international exhibitions, opened up ways of critically engaging with the area.

‘Negotiating Borders’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Korean Cultural Centre, London 

Inviting artists to respond to an area renowned for its ‘security tourism’ – an industry that relishes the sight of surveillance architecture – the Real DMZ Project is utopian and reparative in its approach, seeking to channel a vision of effective demilitarization and peace. Its current exhibition, ‘Negotiating Borders’, at London’s Korean Cultural Centre, evokes such wistful idealism. A cabinet of sketches pays homage to an exhibition curated by Kyong Park and Cathleen Crabb at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, 1988, which was developed in response to South Korea’s democratic uprising of 1987. Mo Bahc’s drawing of an amulet re-envisions the DMZ area as unified, while Nam June Paik’s text on gridded paper repurposes it as a lush tiger farm, appealing to Japanese tourists and threatening to invaders. Nostalgia is denied in Seung H-Sang’s Bird’s Monastery (2017), and Lee Bul’s Study for Aubade (2019), which take up the mantle and recalibrate the area. For Seung, the zone could be used for a monastery, equipped with chapel, library and a roof configured as an aviary. Meanwhile, Lee suggests melting the barbed wire from the guard posts that enclose the zone to create a quasi-constructivist tower. But they are still feeding into a fantasy, one which quickly disintegrates in the face of realities depicted by other artists.


‘Negotiating Borders’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Korean Cultural Centre, London

The popular imagination often holds North Korea as a hermetic state with which any contact is untenable. While avoiding idealism, Seung Woo Back’s wall of photographs taken in Pyongyang, Blow up (2005–07), makes a start at undoing this stereotype, revealing a higher degree of mobility, autonomy and access than is conventionally associated. Back isolates and zooms in on details from his images to show and enlarge the nation’s humanity. A man slumps, a woman runs across the pavement, a child makes an ethereal smile, as if subtly to hint at the roles they play in the country’s masquerade. Collectively, these figures mark a space for individuality in a totalitarian state. A similar conjecture is apparent in Noh Suntag’s scenes from North Korea’s Arirang Mass Games, an annual gymnastics and arts festival staged in homage to Kim Jong-il and his father, the late Communist leader Kim Il Sung. Unlike Andreas Gursky’s polished photographs of the same subject, which revel in uniformity and obscure characterization, Suntang looks for the individuals who make up the crowd, showing the glitches in this synchronized operation.

‘Negotiating Borders’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Korean Cultural Centre, London

Other works in the show address the idea of individualism, though their effects are questionable.  Heinkuhn OH captures soldiers on the DMZ in stylized, homoerotic poses; while Soyoung Chung renders a watch-post in sheets of fine plastic netting replete with peep holes – a flimsy camouflage. These works excite voyeurism but could be seen to ridicule or condescend to their subjects. Without a sister iteration in North Korea, The Real DMZ Project runs the risk of creating a progressive silo, reinforcing divisions rather than alleviating them. As curator Sunjung Kim told me, ‘It is not large, nor popular. But slowly, some local people and visitors have discovered the importance of the Real DMZ Project.’

‘The Real DMZ: Negotiating Borders’ is on view at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, London, until 23 November 

Main image: Seung Woo Back, Blow up, 2005–07. Courtesy: Korean Cultural Centre, London; photograph: Dan Weill 

Dr Cleo Roberts writes on contemporary Asian art. She has contributed to Art Asia PacificArt Review Asia and forthcoming books published by Phaidon and Thames & Hudson.