Made in North Korea @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art. It’s a charity, and was set up by a group of illustrators led by Quentin Blake, in 2002.

In July 2014 they opened their permanent home in a converted warehouse just north of King’s Cross train station, an area which has been comprehensively regenerated and filled with shops, boutiques and the new campus of Central St Martin’s Art school – all bisected by the cleaned-up Regent’s Canal.

The House of Illustration’s aim is to explore historic and contemporary illustration and to promote the work of emerging illustrators. It hosts frequent talks and events, and runs a learning programme for children, young people, adults and families, delivered by professional illustrators.

North Korea

As anyone who reads the papers or listens to the news should know by now, North Korea is probably the most secretive and closed society on earth, dominated by the Cult of the Great Leader, tubby Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

A hundred years of Korean history

The exhibition offers a free A3 handout packed with information – among other things explaining the iconography used on North Korean products, miniature reproductions of all the posters and comic book covers featured in the exhibition, And it also includes a handy timeline of the troubled history of North Korea:

1910-45 – The Korean peninsula is occupied by Japan. Various resistance movements.

1945 – Japan, defeated by America, withdraws its troops from Korea leaving a potential power vacuum. Russia and the U.S.A. (still wartime allies) agree to administer the northern half and southern half of the peninsula, respectively. They set the border at the 38th parallel i.e. 38 degrees north of the equator. This decision is the basis for the division of Korea which lasts to this day.

1948 – Separate governments are formed in each half of partitioned Korea – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, the Republic of Korea in the south. The Workers’ Party becomes the ruling party of North Korea, led by Kim il Sung.

1949 Communists finally seize control of China at the end of a prolonged civil war with nationalists. Naturally, they form supportive relations with communist Korea on their border.

1950 North Korea launches a surprise attack on South Korea and succeeds in pushing the South Korean Army and American troops deep into the south. At which point General MacArthur launches a surprise amphibious invasion at Incheon, half way up the peninsula, threatening to cut North Korean supply lines. The North Koreans are pushed right back up to the border with China, at which point China intervenes, sending 200,000 troops to support the North Koreans. They push the allies, by now fighting under the flag of the United Nations, back towards the original border, and fighting then continues around the 38th parallel for a further grisly two years, until an armistice is signed in 1953. Technically, the war has never ended.

1953 to 1994 Kim Il Sung rules North Korea as a communist dictator.

1994 Kim Il Sung dies and his son, Kim Jong Il takes leadership of the DPRK.

2011 Kim Jong Il dies and his son Kim Jong-un takes leadership of the DPRK.

Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK

This is the UK’s first ever exhibition of graphic design from North Korea. It brings together a fascinating cross-section of commercial products and ephemera from this most secretive of societies – over 100 common objects including food packaging, ticket stubs and stamps together with stunning hand-painted posters and comics.

This wealth of objects is all part of the collection of Nicholas Bonner, who has been visiting North Korea and leading tours of the country for over 20 years. Bonner has also been involved in three documentaries and a feature film about the country.

The Main Gallery of the House of Illustration is made up of three rooms of the size you might expect to find in an average house, and a fourth much smaller one, a sort of annex.

Room 1 – Posters

Room one is covered with about 30 wonderfully bright, clear propaganda posters showing happy, healthy, smiling North Korean men and women promoting their country’s fabulously successful economy and wealth of goods and products. Look! Look how rich we are!

Hand-painted poster saying 'More consumer goods for the people' - collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘More consumer goods for the people’ – collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Since there is no private enterprise in this communist country, all posters – indeed all objects whatsoever – are state-designed and state-approved. These posters are made in state-run collective studios. The largest is the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, which employs over 1,000 artists.

It’s surprising to learn that almost all of these posters are hand painted. Difficult to believe, but the proof is there – if you look close enough, you can see brushstrokes and flaking paint.

I learned one big thing: In the West we make posters to promote consumption; in communist countries public art is designed to promote production. Hence almost all the posters in this room show a smiling Korean worker gesturing towards huge piles of cotton, medicines, fish, food, straw, coal, milk, meat – you name it, North Korea is overflowing with it!

Hand-painted poster saying 'Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People's economic plan'. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People’s economic plan’. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Key features of the posters include:

– Outstretched arms and open hands are a vital part of the image’s dynamic impact. Reaching, stretching, showing, betokening optimism and energy.

– So is the Korean script. This is itself pretty geometric and so lends itself to being incorporated into images which are basically naturalistic, but stylised, hyped-up, super-realistic, and which often feature straight lines and idealised shapes. In the poster, above, the converging lines of the coal conveyor, the rails, the quayside and the ship have an almost Art Deco quality.

– And, of course, there is the actual contents of the messages – these are mostly abstract design elements to us, but to Koreans they blare encouragements and exhortations. Here are some of the texts from the 30 or so posters on display:

  • Let’s do more sheltered-water aqua cultivation!
  • Let’s build more factories to produce more consumer goods!
  • Let’s innovate the fish industry!
  • Let’s fully carry out the Party’s foreign trade policy!

and my favourite:

  • Let’s all rear more goats!

– And, my goodness, all these happy people have perfect teeth, as stylised as blocks of dazzling white marble! There’s a chair in this first room which I needed to sit in to soak up all the bright colours, the wealth of consumer products – and the dazzling dental perfection!

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Room 2 – consumer goods and movie

This is a fairly small space, which contains a display case holding 22 small consumer products and a screen showing a short time-lapse movie about Pyongyang.

Kind of makes you want to go, doesn’t it? After all the scare stories you hear, the people look remarkably like us and their underground, roads and buildings pretty similar. Only much, much cleaner.

The products in the display case are things like fizzy drinks cans, water bottles, packets of boiled sweets or noodles, packs of chewing gum, a biscuit tin. The commentary says that all these common or garden products feature the ‘flat block colour and smooth vector graphics’ seen in other Asian countries, and it’s true that I associate these violent acidic colours with products in India, which I’ve visited a few times.

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

To really understand  the uniqueness of the coloration and design of the objects on display, I imagine you’d have to be a graphic designer. Clearly the posters in particular are a combination of:

  • Russian Socialist Realism as filtered through Chinese Socialist Realism
  • with added Korean motifs
  • and a distinctive Korean colour palette

Room 3 – Public performances

Colour is explored a bit more in the next room where there’s a all label explaining the existence of a distinctive Korean colour palette. Apparently the main colours are white, black, yellow and red, with secondary colours green, turquoise, light pink, sulphur yellow and violet.

I think it’s these secondary colours which make all these products look so distinctive. Not blue, turquoise. Not just green, but a bright acid green. And pink, lots of pink.

The main subject of this room is public entertainments, namely the state-run cinema, theatre, circus and gymnastic – lots of gymnastics. Large-scale, state-sponsored gymnastics. Apparently the 2007 ‘Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance’ was the biggest gymnastic display every held anywhere in the world.

There’s also a display case explaining North Korean opera. Apparently there are five major revolutionary operas, which were written during the Japanese invasion and then the Korean War. Korean opera incorporates traditional folk dance and an entire wall of the room has been covered with a blown-up image of a chorus of women folk dancers.

Installation view of Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Next to it (visible in the photo above, on the left) is a display case showing no fewer than 82 lenticular postcards. New word to me, ‘lenticular’ is the term to describe that kind of postcard which looks oddly pixilated and when you turn it, you get a slight three dimensional effect, as bits of background emerge from behind foreground objects, as some of the objects appear to ‘move’.

A little tacky to our taste, these are apparently very popular in the Democratic People’s Republic. Subjects included dancers, both folk and ballet, horses realistic or leaping into the sky, landscapes and notable buildings in Pyongyang, flowers and birds – all done with the bright-to-garish coloration which the note on palette had made me appreciate more. Only one was remotely warlike, a poster-like cartoon figure of a wounded Korean soldier heroically attacking an American tank armed only with a grenade.

Room 4 – Comic books and ephemera

Room four makes a bigger impact than all the others because all four walls are covered in wallpaper made up of repeated iterations of some of the ephemera on display, namely the gaudy wrappers of canned food, bottles of water, packets of all sorts of consumer products.

'Installation view of room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the House of Illustration

Installation view of room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

This room is really a car boot sale of all kinds of bric-a-brac from North Korean everyday life, a veritable ‘cabinet of Korean curiosities’. There are display cases devoted to:

  • tourist maps, tickets and souvenirs
  • labels of food products
  • New Year cards
  • pin badges
  • stationery and stamps
  • cigarette packs
  • sweet boxes
  • beer, water and fizzy pop bottles and cans

In among lots of North Korean trivia I learned that Juche is the Korean word for ‘Self Reliance’, which has been official state policy since the communist party came to power, i.e. having little or no contact or trade with the outside world. Official propaganda at every level drums home the idea that they don’t need it because North Korea is, quite simply, the most perfect, happiest society on earth. Hence all the dazzling smiles!

The New Year’s cards are a traditional Korean tradition, but given a communist twist ever since the state introduced the notion of redating the entire calendar from the birth of the first Great Leader, Kim Il Sung in 1912 – or Juche 1.

I liked the lapel badges or pins, with a variety of logos symbolising North Korea’s sporting prowess in – well, you name it, they’re the best at it – football, gymnastics, even cricket. All adults wear two lapel pins showing the two Kims (as you can see Kim Jong-Un doing, in the photo at the top of this review).

I particularly liked the way the food labels of meat products show not just the finished food product, but the animal it came from. Just to be clear.

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

And note the use of English in this, as in many, labels. Apparently, this implies class and quality.

Being a boy, I also enjoyed the massive display of pocket comic books, mostly war and spy stories, the North Korean equivalent of the Commando war comics which I grew up with 40 years ago.

That free A3 handout I mentioned earlier, includes thumbnails of all 97 of these comic book covers. Some have generic titles which could come from any culture, such as ‘The Star of Glory’ or ‘No Turning Back’. Others are more comically communist like ‘Taking up the torch of our comrade’s will’ and ‘The heart of a member of the young communist league’ and, my favourite: ‘He was very intelligent and courageous in every battle’.

I was struck by the number of covers which featured snow, and heroes wearing winter uniforms, reminding me that Korea has bitter winters, something which features in many memoirs of the Korean War.

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the house of Illustration

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Images and society

One of the wall labels in this room makes the simple but profound point that all of these artefacts, objects, products and ephemera, superficially bright and varied though they seem, in fact use a relatively limited set of images and icons.

This iconography of agricultural and industrial plenty, accompanied by stylised bodily gestures (the outstretched arm and hand demonstrating the bounty of communism) and smiling faces, is obvious in the big posters.

Less obvious, until it’s pointed out to you, is the use of a standardised set of official icons. That A3 handout I keep mentioning also includes a guide to 32 of these icons, which range from symbols of the party (red star, red flag, hammer and sickle) to images of Pyongyang’s enormous, iconic buildings (the May Stadium, Arc de Triomphe, Koryo Hotel, Juche Tower and so on) to sanitised versions of Korean national icons (the pine tree representing longevity, the white tiger a symbol of Korean history, the crane representing good fortune, and so on).

The point is the sheer repetition of this finite set of symbols on everything. Seeing images of the Grand People’s Study House or the Worker’s Party emblem on fag packets, tin cans, fizzy drinks, water bottles, stamps and postcards, is designed to ram home the fact that North Korea is the whole world – its buildings and food and technology and athletes and sports, its national symbols and, above all, the communist party which rules over it, is the best in the world, is all the country needs; reinforcing the fundamental idea of North Korea’s glorious self-sufficiency or Juche.

Living in Western societies which are super-saturated with a bewildering array of constantly changing imagery, it is difficult to imagine what it must be like to live in a society where there is a very limited amount of visual imagery, and what there is, is tightly controlled by the state.

Who knows what the North Korean graphic designers who made all these posters and designed all the other objects in the show think about their own society or the wider world. But the exhibition makes you come to admire the inventiveness and sheer skill of artists forced to work within an extremely tight set of parameters, who still manage to infuse their work with colour and life.

Peace

If we want to stop killing each other we have to realise the other side are people just like us. Shame we can’t make Donald Trump visit this exhibition. We mustn’t underestimate our differences and think the population of Syria or Burma can be changed into Hampstead liberals overnight by a free election or a handful of tweets – but you have to start somewhere.

This exhibition provides the immense public service of taking us out of our Western comfort zones, away from Western media and art – and introducing us to a completely different visual, political and cultural world. It’s also great fun. Go see it.


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