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The art of disrupting the world's most closed regime

War of Art
Regissør: Tommy Gulliksen
(Norge, Tyskland)

ART / CENSORSHIP / Seven international artists travel to Pyongyang to participate in North Korea's first art symposium.


Norwegian director Tommy Gulliksen is the latest film director who has had to deal with North Korea's strict monitoring of visitors when he made the footage to War of Art in the country's capital, Pyongyang. The film documents North Korea's first international art symposium, the DMZ Academy. Seven artists with a design language not recognized as legitimate art in North Korea – from abstract painting to experimental noise – were invited to this very closed country to share their work with local artists. The project reveals as much through its mistakes as through its successes, but Gulliken's approach is far more impartial and less provocative than Vitalij Mansky's high profile Under the sun. (The Ukrainian director was engaged to make a film about a North Korean ideal family, but launched a diplomatic spike by smuggling out unauthorized footage that instead showed North Korea's iron grip on the population and the reach of the state propaganda machine.)

It benefits the movie that War of Art Right from the start, it is addressing the controversial side of working with the totalitarian regime in this country, which has a very bad reputation when it comes to human rights.

The organizer of the program is the Norwegian artist Morten Traavik, who has already been to North Korea dozens of times, or on "cultural exchange". He was instrumental in directing Liberation Day (2017) which documented the Slovenian music group Laibach's concert in North Korea. We first meet him when he airs the idea of ​​the symposium on government representatives, as a way of reducing political negativity towards the country from outside. Later, he convincingly argues into the camera that he does not want to be a parrot for the state's ideology and accomplice in hiding the darker side of Kim Jong-un's regime, but sees that sanctions and boycotts have been ineffective and well worth it to attempt bilateral creative collaboration to challenge and move away from trapped thought patterns. As a counterpoint to Under the sun, which was made with a solid anti-communist intention to uncover negative reality by means of a bluff, is War of Art obviously a much more nuanced and multifaceted vision of human nature, creativity, cultural influence, censorship and control.

"Bizarre Art"

The base for the visiting group is the Hotel Pyongyang, the only place where artists can roam around a bit without strict monitoring from the helpers they have been assigned (who act more like guardians and thus panic the few times one of the the artists venture outside the set route without them). The urban landscape is filled with art that is rendered with technical skill, but exclusively in the service of state ideology. The film takes us beyond the great murals of North Korea's leaders, and further with the group into the unfamiliar area of ​​the University of the Visual Arts, where all the exhibited works are produced in compulsory social-realist style.

German sound artist Nik Nowak is finally allowed to put
in progress the first sound installation in North Korea.

Foreign artists feel that excitement increases with the peculiarity of their own works, which have no frame of reference they can understand, and which the guards regard with skepticism and perceive as "bizarre" – without the "type of message that inspires people". They falter in their promise to allow the work to be shared with other North Koreans. German sound artist Nik Nowak is finally allowed to launch the first sound installation in North Korea, with the high-frequency insect sounds not usually heard by the human ear. But he is referred to a park, behind a bush, where the installation can only be heard by a lone passing jogger.

A result of cultural influence

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of it War of Art is how the different personalities and attitudes of group members influence how willing they are to adapt their artistic practice to local requirements. Henrik Placht, an abstract painter from Oslo, has a mild, curious behavior and appears as the group's peace broker. Returning from the relaxing nude sauna that offsets the differences between them and the guardians, he rejects Traavik for his "cowboy" attitude to the ultimatum and argues that flexibility is the right way to go. At the other end of the scale we find the sociable Parisian graphic artist Jean Valnoir, who signs his works with his own blood and insists that his uncompromising expression is not up for negotiation. When a photograph of his back after a therapy session with suction cups is excluded from the final exhibition, the group discusses how to deal with this type of censorship. Chinese photo artist Quentin Shih of Beijing demonstrates a more patient and relaxed understanding of how society works in North Korea, and says he recognizes echoes of past China with roots in Soviet ideology. The group says they have trouble reconciling the happiness they see in the faces of locals in daily life, with the fear arising as soon as the strict boundaries of behavior are exceeded.

Kim Jong-un's testing of what is alleged to be a hydrogen bomb paralyzes the group as the hotel shakes off something that feels
like an earthquake.

Kim Jong-un's testing of what is alleged to be a hydrogen bomb paralyzes the group as the hotel shakes off something that feels like an earthquake. Locals take pride in becoming a strong global power, while we hear US President Donald Trump speak on the news, calling North Korea's esteemed leader "small rocket man". The urgent global need to deal with clashing perspectives could not have been greater. Belfast curator Cathie Boyd challenges moral slant by pointing out that the United States originally played an important role in the division of Korea.

The film as a whole is a thought provoking and welcome reminder that we are all products of cultural influence. It is also a reminder that power can be expressed not only through weapons, but also through gestures and provocations, where art serves as a means of change and community.

Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Gray is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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