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Art as propaganda or reality?

Art as propaganda or reality?

The Kim Utopia and North Korean Perspectives

Written by Dave Thomas 

Photos Courtesy of Drents Museum

After an hour of studying the paintings and watching a documentary about North Korea in The Kim Utopia exhibition a restless feeling seeped under my skin. My western mindset found the paintings of ecstatic workers, sublimely pretty traffic wardens and tranquil farm scenes far too surreal. Yet other paintings depicting barbaric American soldiers torturing a North Korean or setting crops on fire struck a chord with the atrocities in Vietnam, adding a possible sliver of truth to the overt propaganda machine. Yet what kind of regime would commission a painting of bounteous sheaths of corn at a time when most of its citizens were starving?  And why does nearly everyone always look so vibrant and happy?

Philippe Chancel, Airang Festival to celebrate the 90th birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, © Philippe Chancel

90th birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, © Philippe Chancel

Images from the documentary revolve in my mind as I walk past paintings of industrial achievements reminiscent of the Soviet era. Students laughing in an English class, songs singing the praises of the fatherland blasting out of a factory radio (when there was not a power cut) and kindergarten children learning the ‘wellington boot’ story of the Great leader, which demonstrates just how much he loves his people. The overriding message that jarred in my head? Everything from power cuts to food shortages was blamed on the Americans but if a factory worker made a mistake they unreservedly apologised: our Great Leader is infallible but I am not? And by then I was standing in front of a painting that showed two men fishing. An ordinary scene reminiscent of a painting in my parent’s home. Again those nagging doubts – surreal but is it really that bad?

An Ch'ang-gi - Een scène uit de Koreaanse oorlog

An Ch’ang-gi – Een scène uit de Koreaanse oorlog

Time out. At the Drents Museum, Grandcafe Krul always serves a couple of dishes related to the temporary exhibition and I enjoyed a North Korean salad. A brief digression. The interior of the cafe is that of the former Maison Krul at Noordeinde 44-46b in The Hague where Queen Wilhelmina used to enjoy drinking hot chocolate.

The Kim Utopia is in the new wing of the museum. The rest of the museum is housed in the former provincial house built in the nineteenth century. It includes a chapel, which dates from when the site was a Cistercian abbey. This chapel is host to North Korean Perspectives, an exhibition of work from the North Korean press agency, photographers, photojournalists and international artists.

What you see is neither a politically correct utopia nor a dystopia that might be closer to a reality. Young people clearly having fun at a theme park, a tired mother with her children on a bus, a leader who apparently always wears the same clothes wherever he goes, roads full of potholes and countryside propaganda. Alice Wielinga’s works are the most provocative: each picture combines a utopian painting with a harsh photo reality, but then not even America lives up to its dream.

A black and white photo from the North Korean press agency showed rows of apartment buildings. It reminded me of my time in Albania soon after the fall of the iron curtain. We were warned never to stand on apartment balconies because they were prone to collapse.

Exhibition details
The Kim Utopia and North Korean Perspectives both run until 30 August 2015 at the Drents Museum in Assen. The museum also contains many other permanent exhibits ranging from Dutch art in the period 1885 to 1935 to archaeological finds in Drenthe.  
Address: Brink 1, 9401 HS Assen (10 minutes walk from Assen railway station)
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday 11.00 to 17.00
Tickets: Adults 12 euros, children and Museumjaarkaart holders free


Get a taste before you go:
You tube video of The Kim Utopia
Get a taste before you go:
Alice Wielinga ‘s works from North Korean Perspectives:
Important if you do not speak Dutch
The exhibition texts are in Dutch, but at the information desk you can ask for a guide to the exhibitions in English


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