I like eastern art. I especially enjoy traditional Japanese prints and painting, so you can probably imagine the abrupt about-turn I made while passing our very own Cooper Gallery this week. Upon entering, my first surprise came when I discovered that these weren’t in fact Japanese works at all, they were Korean. North Korean in fact. Hmm...that’s quite an exotic curiosity for Barnsley I thought. Better read on.
The info pane told me that this was an exhibition of work from the Matsudae Art Studio – the largest State-run studio in North Korea. ‘As [North] Korea opens up to the West this will have an effect on work produced in the future’ it said. Yep, okay fair enough. ‘This could be a last chance to see artwork in its purest state from this country’. Hmm ... as a former art student I felt a little uneasy about this line, given how strictly controlled art is in North Korea, but thought that as a curiosity this could be a quite fascinating exhibition and it’s certainly doing no harm.
My attitude to that last point changed sharply when I read to the bottom and discovered that the exhibition was being held as part of the ‘All Barnsley Diversity Festival 2008’.
Excuse me? Diversity? North Korea?
I carried on reading. The festival’s purpose is to ‘celebrate the communities and individual cultures that make Barnsley their home’. Oh this is just too much. I’m all in favour of exploring other cultures - in fact I would actively encourage it – but I find it profoundly disturbing that anyone, least of all a democratic body like Barnsley Council and a cultural organisation like the Diversity Festival could tolerate the kind of puerile State-dictated drivel of North Korea’s totalitarian regime as an ‘individual culture’. The very idea of it must surely be offensive to all cultured people of the world, and presumably to all the democratic values we are supposed to hold dear in this country. And don't think I missed the suspiciously Soviet-sounding 'All Barnsley' reference either.
North Korea is a one-party dictatorship. Its government controls the people’s lives right down to the smallest detail. Freedom in any sense of the term simply does not exist. ‘Communities’ and ‘individual cultures’ are not tolerated unless they have been explicitly approved or created by the government. What you see in the Cooper is not an expression of a people or of a rich, diverse culture, you see a collection of images used by the totalitarian regime in Pyongyang to perpetuate itself – simply because nothing else outside of brute military force will.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m perfectly willing to accept this exhibition as a curiosity, in fact some of the traditional ink landscapes featured by artists such as Song U Yong (‘Shopsun Peak of Mt. Kumganag’) and Ri Chang (‘Echo of Waterfall’) are indeed truly breathtaking as pieces of art in their own right. They stand as a testament to the rich cultural history of Korea as a united nation prior to the misery of war and ideology that tore it apart in the 1950s. In fact these magnificent works are only devalued by their proximity to the close-minded, sinister, fascistic rubbish that fills the rest of the exhibition. The very idea of this material being featured as part of a diversity festival is simply unacceptable and utterly offensive.
An example of the more malignant nature of the exhibition is the work of Kim Song Min. Beautifully painted, these works nonetheless betray the invisible hand of the State guiding Kim’s brush. One such piece shows a very nationalistic portrait of a triumphant North Korean wrestler waving his national flag in jubilation while his crestfallen Japanese opponent, kneeling, looks on. The situation displayed here is particularly telling, as North Korea and Japan have had a very troubled relationship in recent decades, due in no small part to the North Korean policy of kidnapping Japanese scientists and technicians and forcing them to work on projects and developments in North Korea for decades. The title of the piece is very appropriately named ‘In the Spirit of Chosum’ – Chosum being North Korea’s peculiar policy of complete national and economic self-reliance, meaning no trade and very little contact with the outside world. Predictably this policy has led to an almost constant state of famine within the country, which makes Kim Song Min’s other featured piece all the more tragically ridiculous.
Called simply ‘The Harvest’, it features five North Korean women delightfully tossing bales of grain in the air, all furnished with that disturbingly forced smile that seems to appear in all totalitarian art – the kind you only pull knowing you’re going to die if you don’t. Ironically what you’re looking at in this painting is probably the entire North Korean harvest for that year, as the supposedly self-reliant ‘Spirit of Chosum’ has done nothing but force the North Korean people to rely on international aid packages simply to stay alive. Untold numbers have starved to death because of the economic and agricultural ignorance of North Korea’s dictatorship, and its refusal to open the country to international trade – precisely what has made South Korea one of the richest nations in the world.
The propaganda posters featured in the exhibition are predictably militaristic and xenophobic – ironically going against what I gather are the core principles of the All Barnsley Diversity Festival. One such poster features a gigantic fist clenching then- prime minister Koizumi of Japan, who his defiantly waving his national flag.
I imagine that the only reason this disgraceful display of militarism and thinly veiled xenophobia has been deemed acceptable in a ‘diversity’ exhibition is because North Korea still retains the superficial pretence of being a socialist country, and that this is something that makes the lefties in Town Hall, the Cooper, and Barnsley’s Labour party positively salivate at the thought. This, and this alone, appears to have raised the exhibition above that of say, celebrating the ‘communities and individual cultures’ of similar regimes such as Apartheid South Africa or perhaps Nazi Germany even – despite all three being thoroughly culturally and ideologically repugnant regimes, each with its own massive death toll to answer for.
And although socialist regimes have hardly fared any better when it comes to freedom and death counts, eager lefties should not be fooled by North Korea’s Marxist imagery – Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il long ago abandoned the ideal of international socialism, preferring instead to pursue more of a national socialism – cutting North Korea off from the rest of the world and forcing its citizens to observe a complete subservience to Party and State above anything else, while pursuing total economic self-reliance and a tendency towards militarism, extreme nationalism, and xenophobia. In fact come to think of it I can think of no better definition for fascism as imagined by Mussolini himself. Oh yes and did I mention that Nazi is short for National Socialist?
How on earth we are supposed to celebrate cultural diversity with fascism is absolutely beyond me. It is a perfect demonstration of the sickness inherent in obsessive anti-capitalism and how far its tentacles have spread through our local institutions. As far as I know, there aren’t even any North Koreans living in Barnsley. I may be wrong about this. But I firmly believe I am right in saying that if there were, they would certainly not wish to ‘celebrate’ the poverty-stricken Orwellian nightmare dictatorship that they came here to escape in the first place.