PRINT January 2011


IN CONTEMPORARY ART, anything goes. Anything, that is, except for art made explicitly at the behest of the world’s most authoritarian nations. Such “official art,” to follow this line of reasoning, cannot be contemporary, since it lacks any awareness of the present beyond that defined by an all-controlling state. But the path through which official mandates become realized on canvas or in stone is hardly straightforward. The resulting works often say more about the present than might otherwise be inferred from their seemingly identical subjects or styles. That so many paintings produced outside the neoliberal metropoles remain firmly wedded to socialist realism, for example, may be regarded less as a quaint anachronism than as a willful desire to stay deep within the time of Communism’s dawn—however quixotic such intentions might seem post-1989.

Then there are works whose creators mobilize the conventions of official art in order to make concrete the conditions of a particular time and place. Ryu Hwan-gi, one of North Korea’s oldest and most decorated artists, painted Soldiers Longing for Return allegedly in 2002. From what we know of painting in one of the world’s most secretive countries, the scene is familiar. Four male soldiers, wearing the dull khaki uniform of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, huddle together in what appears to be the small bedroom of a rural thatch-roofed home. The central attraction is a soldier who has just finished writing two slogans in red and purple oil pastel: INTO THE ARMS OF THE GENERAL AND TO THE NORTH, TO THE NORTH. It is not entirely clear to whom “the General” refers, as the title is one that’s been bestowed on both Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the Democratic People’s Republic, and his diabolically shrewd heir, Kim Jong-il, whose nuclear aspirations and anxieties over the line of succession continue to threaten an already precarious international balance of power. Together with the room’s antiquated furnishings, the depiction of the four soldiers—two of whom bear the traces of fresh injury, from bandaged hand to bullet-riddled sleeve—points to an earlier time, namely, the early years of the Korean War, which erupted in 1950.

Ryu Hwan-gi, Soldiers Longing for Return, ca. 2002, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 21". © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Nostalgia is not the point, though, not for a state so bent on fashioning a comprehensive system of visual representation, with the aim of ideological victory in a war that, as demonstrated by the recent deadly exchange of artillery fire between the two Koreas, has never officially ended. Bright colors, radically contrasting levels of illumination, and accelerated lines of vision are but some of the weapons in the arsenals of painters like Ryu, who owes his dramatic use of light and shadow both to cinema and to photography of the early to mid-1960s, when the Korean War took a visual turn in the pages of magazines such as Tŭngdae (Lighthouse) in the North and Konggan (Space) in the South. Like the experienced propagandist that he is, Ryu stages the work to maximum effect, turning the very private space of the bedroom into a public stage. We enter the room from a slightly elevated vantage point, a commanding position underscored by a candle whose thick, almost viscous yellow-orange glare envelops the soldier-scribe and his patriotic screed. Exposed in this way, the room inverts the ideal of a home and any attendant expectations of privacy and personal ownership.

Socialist-realist works have an uncanny way of plunging their viewers into a narrative and then leaving them there without hope of an exit. This tends to close down interpretation so the work can be read only within the bounds of allegory. Soldiers Longing for Return would be no exception, save for its contravention of scale. Grandiose size—as evinced by the proliferation of colossal statues dedicated to the Kim dynasty—is as much a part of North Korean state rhetoric as are anti-Americanism and nuclear proliferation. Ryu, by contrast, transposed a scene generally depicted on large, horizontal canvases onto a modestly sized, vertical support more closely associated with posters or portraiture. This comparative miniaturization thus raises the question of viewing in a way not expected for a painter so closely bound to the state. We become intensely aware of the painting’s tight crop, of the four edges that mark the work as itself a physical object in real space. The shift in scale leads us to consider a simple question, but one with enormous import in a totalitarian state: What, exactly, are we looking at?

The soldier-scribe is turned slightly toward the viewer, so that we get a clear view of his handiwork. From where we stand, however, the text is upside down, as if the soldier writes for someone looking over his shoulder. He grasps an oil pastel but doesn’t seem to lead it toward the production of another word. There is nothing more to write. Yet the soldier appears compelled to toil further, conscious of being watched and of his inability to reciprocate that look. Rural dwellings in the dead of night have long been the setting of choice for official painters, not only because of their associations with an idealized view of the agrarian proletariat but also because they underscore the scope of state authority. No shed is too remote to be surveilled, not even when it lies in the heart of enemy territory as in Soldiers Longing to Return. The state’s vigilance never abates. And this omniscience emerges as a theme as central to the work as the titular wish for repatriation to the fatherland.

We know that Ryu was an early member of the Songhwa Art Studio, the only private visual-arts organization in North Korea. In 2002, the question of life outside the state—artistic and otherwise—took on added meaning when Kim’s regime relaxed its control over the economy yet simultaneously stepped up its warlike rhetoric after being declared part of the “axis of evil” by George W. Bush. Ryu’s work invokes these complex distinctions between civilian life and the martial state by toying with the conventions of display. Official art shown in venues such as the Minye People’s Exhibition Hall in Pyongyang, from which the British Museum purchased Soldiers Longing for Return, are generally exhibited so that their bottom edges roughly correspond to the eye level of their prospective viewers. According to these conventions, we would first see the supine bodies of the soldiers, lying roughly at our eye level, their inert forms thus sharply contrasting with our own uprightness and mobility.

It would be difficult to suppose that Ryu, whose very longevity in a regime prone to multiple purges demonstrates the authenticity of his commitment to the Democratic People’s Republic, meant this juxtaposition to perform the role of a critique. If anything, the painting makes a case for an alternative domesticity cast squarely within the frame of the martial. Signs of domestic life, including a wooden chest, a spinning wheel, and a basket filled with cotton, have been pushed to the far reaches of the painting in order to make way for a reconfigured family circle comprising the somewhat older soldier-scribe and his young charges below. Two of the latter are coupled almost as if husband and wife; a gun nestles between them like a strange surrogate baby, echoing the box of (children’s) pastels above. The militarization of the domestic interior is made complete by the utter absence of civilian figures.

This beau monde of sorts is compromised, however, by the insistent emphasis on the edge. The lower right-hand corner reveals only a faint sliver of one soldier’s head and upper body, and the abrupt cutaway shifts our attention to the painting’s bottom edge, the point at which the viewer would most immediately enter into the world of the work. It also brings us face-to-face with the artist’s signature in the lower right-hand corner. The characters of Ryu’s name coagulate like fresh blood near an open wound, a visceral indication, perhaps, of the artist’s efforts to claim the painting as his own.

Is the work, then, fundamentally about the implicit struggle between a world in which civilian presence is allowed versus one based on its suppression? Ryu, the grizzled veteran, wisely leaves the question unanswered, not out of fear of reprisal, but because he perceives that the only art that makes sense in an uncertain time and place is that which preserves the urgency inherent in conditions of absolute contingency. It is a point that resounds more clearly than ever as the nation braces itself for a transfer of power that seems anything but certain. In North Korea, contemporary art means never losing sight of the distinctions—the edges—whose careful negotiation can often mean the difference between life and death. And in Soldiers Longing for Return, Ryu does just that, suggesting, moreover, that what we see from the edge sometimes reveals more than the most frontal of views.

Joan Kee is an assistant professor in the department of art history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.