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On my way out the door last week to meet the artist Song Byeok, I grabbed a book off the shelf—a catalog of North Korean poster art assembled by a collector whose fascination with the propaganda of the Hermit Kingdom outpaces even my own. It features nearly 300 pages of reproductions of North Korea’s kitschy public art, which bear state slogans exhorting citizens to preserve national resources, honor the party, and revile the United States. Maybe, possibly, I figured, there was something in the book that Song had painted over the course of his former career as a propaganda artist under Kim Jong-il.
Song opened the book and dogeared a page, and then several more. One of the images wasn’t specifically one he had painted, he said, but it resembled one he had made. Several others were by his own hand, he said. How he could tell, I don’t know. The socialist-realist posters are meant to look utterly anonymous, as if they were the dictates of North Korea itself, not the products of North Korean artists. That’s one major difference between the work Song painted in North Korea and the works Song paints in South Korea today: He signs his paintings now.
But he does not sign his paintings with his real name—for reasons that the artist’s solo exhibition at The Dunes in Columbia Heights makes clear. After more than a decade living as a defector, Song has turned his brush on the state he was once compelled to promote. Were his identity made public, his friends and family members who remain in North Korea might suffer as a result. (Which is also why I’m not identifying the book in which his old work appears.) Song Byeok has done more than mock Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s recently departed Dear Leader, by painting Kim’s head on Marilyn Monroe’s body—this show’s statement painting. Song may well have blasphemed the son of God.
There is nowhere in the world where art is more prized by the state than in North Korea. The state has employed art as one of its primary tools for establishing the cult of its recently deceased dictator, Kim Jong-Il, and his father and predecessor, Kim Il-sung. North Koreans are required to hang pictures of both men in their homes. The cult guides the people, and the art confirms the cult.
So putting Kim Jong-Il in Monroe’s iconic pose from The Seven-Year Itch—clutching her dress to keep it from flying over her head—is plainly meant to embarrass the dictator, to subvert his cult of personality. It’s harder to say what some of Song’s other images mean. “General and Tribespeople” features a realistic Kim addressing a gaggle of semi-nude, Gauguin-esque female figures. A painting of Kim Il-sung is a rather reverent, straightforward portrait, but merely depicting either head of state is a scandalous act—as a propaganda artist, Song was never called on to paint them.
Rather, commissions to depict Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il go to a circle of court artists, who depict the leaders designing new buildings for Pyongyang, for instance, or meeting with steel workers. One of Song’s paintings, in which a gnarly Kim Jong-il is surrounded by children, appears to reference “Embraced by the Great General’s Love,” an official jewel painting of Kim Il-sung surrounded by tykes, which artists Kim Il-kwang and Chon Hak-choi painted using gem-like mineral colors. With this clear reference, Song’s painting seems to say Kim Jong-il’s acorn has fallen far from his father’s tree.
Turning through the book, Song chuckled as he pointed to a poster showing a Korean soldier smashing a bunch of U.S. troops. Another painting thrilled him: a grim bayonet off of which a U.S. soldier dangled by his snagged uniform. He led me to one of his long scroll paintings in the exhibit, where he showed me he had painted in miniature that same poster, amid a scene of dark buildings set in twilight. It was his, he said, and he had placed his painting in its proper context.
Song’s paintings haven’t changed much from one mode to the other. He is freer with composition, and his paintings are less frantically cinematic, though he still relies on the comic-panel format. Although his paintings are satirical now, they nevertheless reflect the same blend of Confucian and Communist identity that marks the Juche ideology of North Korea. There, socialist-realism did not develop, as it did in the Soviet Union, from the original works of zealous and earnest revolutionary artists. It was entirely foreign to Korea, adopted for the North as a tool of control from the Soviets, no different than the Kalashnikov.
It’s plain that Song admires Andy Warhol. From Song’s use of Marilyn to the small Pop-style icons of birds and goldfish that appear like stamps on the surface of his paintings, Warhol looms large over this work. It’s only fitting, because Warhol might have loved modern-day North Korea, a state where prints of a celebrity define the public monoculture. Song borrows more from Pop artists than from North Korea’s own art history, whose traditional watercolor landscapes and more progressive post-Impressionist portrait traditions were similarly undercut by the advent of socialist realism.
It’s unclear how much things have changed for North Korean artists. In Song’s time there working as an official painter—roughly the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s—he painted rich posters on canvas using incredibly fine inks. Jane Portal, the author of Art Under Control in North Korea, told me that during her last trip to North Korea nearly 10 years ago, she got the impression that artists were suffering a severe shortage of supplies: paints, canvas, paper, and so on. The few images that are available from the official Songhwa and Mansudae art studios suggest some artistic movement; Hong Yong-il’s woodcuts look like the American industrialist painter Charles Sheeler’s, and Pak Kyoung-hwui’s oil paintings wouldn’t look out of place at an art fair.
Song, however, relishes the kitsch. So be it. But as an artist working in the West now, he faces a different kind of challenge. The stories on which he draws are impossibly alien: His failed effort to flee to China during the severe famine of the 1990s landed him in a concentration camp, where he served seven months’ hard labor. To simply convey some sense of his life working as an artist in the world’s most secretive state would be an accomplishment. If he can find a way to use his materials, methods, and processes to do so—and not through simple satire, caricature, and narrative—he will have done it in a way that was forbidden to him before.
“Song Byeok: Departure” is on view to April 30 at The Dunes, 1402 Meridian Place NW. Free.