Uli Sigg must know North Korea as well as anybody who wasn’t born there. The Swiss entrepreneur, diplomat and art collector first visited Pyongyang for business in the 1980s, when he worked for a firm selling lifts. “At night, the city was pitch dark,” he remembers in a catalogue essay for a unique new show, Border Crossings, that has just opened at Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Bern.
“There were no lights in the streets or in houses – because they didn’t want to offer South Korea a military target, so they said. In my opinion, it was really an energy shortage.”
From 1995 to 1998, Sigg (now 75) served as the Swiss ambassador to North Korea, during which time he was granted privileged access to the reclusive nation’s art studios. He’d go on to build a collection of North Korean work so impressive that the government in Pyongyang asked him to consider housing it in a museum there. (He declined.) In recent years, Sigg has taken to collecting work from South Korea, too – and the result in Bern is an unprecedented exhibition that shows art from both halves of the peninsula side-by-side.
The history of Korean art dates back 5,000 years and takes in Buddhist icons, ink paintings and green-glaze celadon porcelain. Since the division of the country in 1953, though, after the Korean War, two distinct artistic cultures have developed. Broadly speaking, as in politics and economics, the South has moved in tune with Western trends – abstract painting, street photography – while the North has stayed resolutely isolated, with myriad socialist realist paintings glorifying the Kim dynasty.
“This isn’t surprising,” Sigg explains. “South Korea is a nation of 50 million people, who are fully engaged in globalisation – with unrestricted access to information about global art… This distinguishes them from North Korean artists, who can only do work commissioned [by the government].”
The UK has seen several exhibitions by South Koreans lately: the sculptor Lee Bul, at the Hayward Gallery in 2018; the video art pioneer Nam June Paik, at Tate Modern in 2019–20; and the installation artist Haegue Yang, at Tate St Ives when it re-opens on May 17.
Featured in Border Crossings is another South Korean artist, Park Seo-bo, who’s just as highly esteemed. The painter co-founded the Dansaekhwa movement, of monochrome abstraction, in the 1970s, and Sigg is exhibiting a work from his “Ecriture” series (so called because its marks look like handwriting).
The homogenisation of art in recent decades – with the proliferation of fairs and biennials worldwide – has meant that work made in Seoul isn’t too different from work made in Sheffield or Sydney. In many ways, though, the imagery from the north side of the 38th Parallel is most interesting. Art from North Korea has been seen internationally before: in 2010, 100 works were sent from the Korean National Art Gallery in Pyongyang for an ill-fated exhibition at Vienna’s MAK Museum for Applied Arts. Critics lambasted it for peddling sunlit, propagandistic visions of life in a land where half of the 25 million inhabitants live in poverty.
But what really sets Border Crossings apart is the fact that, usually, pictures of the three successive Supreme Leaders – Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un – are not allowed to leave the country. Sigg’s contacts opened doors for him that otherwise are closed. The Kims pop up in his collection often, depicted more like deities than humans. Sigg explains that, for him, “this art has many parallels to religious painting in the West. It has an ideological intent and ultimately aims at subjugation through means of splendour and overpowering.”
In Pak Yong-chol’s 1986 painting, The Marines, for instance, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are seen calling the shots aboard a battleship on the ocean. In The Missiles, painted by the same artist a few years later, the same duo wear beaming smiles as they oversee a missile launch.
The idea behind both canvases is to hail the Kims’ leadership and present them as synonymous with the might of North Korea’s armed forces. (Pak Yong-chol holds the rank of “People’s Artist”, the highest that exists for an artist in his country. It’s achieved by winning prizes at national art exhibitions, as well as gaining recognition from the Supreme Leader.)
Probably the most eye-catching work in Border Crossings is a monumental painting Ri Song-ho of Kim Il-sung’s funeral. Scores of mourners sob their eyes out; some of them collapse in distress. They appear on either side of the unflappable Kim Jong-il, who – despite the loss of his father – maintains a steely determination, aware that he now has a country to rule.
The pyramidal composition, with Jong-il at the apex of a triangle of grievers, isn’t dissimilar to that found in many works by Raphael (such as The Transfiguration with Christ at the apex). The point that Sigg and his curators wish to make is that, though the style and taste of North Korean art differs from our own, its practitioners aren’t necessarily bad.
The country boasts a huge, state-run art academy called Mansudae. Spread over 29 acres in Pyongyang, it hosts 4,000 people across 13 departments, including ceramics, sculpture, oil and acrylic painting, embroidery and chosonhwa (more on which shortly). “There’s real virtuosity in many North Korean images,” says Border Crossings’s curator, Kathleen Bühler. “Contemporary art there has evolved differently from contemporary art in the rest of the world, but it can still be technically excellent”.
Innovation has happened too. One example is in the aforementioned field of chosonhwa: traditional ink-wash painting on rice paper. Originally this was executed in black and white, but in recent decades North Korean artists have introduced a range of expressive colours. In Ryu Hongch’on’s gorgeously ethereal Landscape with House, for example, a medieval fortress known as Ulmil Pavilion can be seen perched atop a cliff, set amidst verdant trees and pink flowers.
The connection between Switzerland and North Korea runs deeper than Sigg’s term as ambassador. The Swiss have long served as mediators between Pyongyang and its international foes. Let’s not forget also that the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, went to school in Bern for 11 years, pretending to be the son of an North Korean embassy employee. (It’s said he still speaks the Bernese dialect of German well today.)
As for Sigg, he has continued to visit both Koreas frequently since 1998 and, despite his personal links with the North, collected many works critical of it by artists from the South. Among the most daring is a series by Kyungah Ham, who used Chinese intermediaries to establish contact with a textile factory in North Korea and have it produce embroideries featuring politically sensitive motifs. These included a mushroom cloud (alluding to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme) and a piece of meat (alluding to food shortages).
With no prospect of a peace agreement between the two Koreas, let alone reunification, does Sigg see any signs for optimism? “North Korea is surrounded by countries – China and Russia – who don’t want a flourishing state that could compete with them militarily or economically. Also nobody has a conclusive model of how reunification can be achieved… There’s a long road ahead.”
Border Crossings: North & South Korean Art from the Sigg Collection is at Kunstmuseum Bern until September 5. Info: kunstmuseumbern.ch