A conversation with artist Mina Cheon on her North Korean awareness project and the power of invisibility in sending art to North Korea by Kimi Hanauer.

In Mina Cheon’s solo exhibition UMMA : MASS GAMES – Motherly Love North Korea at Ethan Cohen Gallery curated by Nadim Samman, Cheon collaborates with North Korean defectors in sending care packages to family members and friends living in North Korea containing food, first aid, and USB drives with video art history lessons in global contemporary art created by the artist.

Her new body of work reveals itself in different forms to different audiences; the primary audience being those receiving her videos in North Korea as well as the dissidents in South Korea who share amongst themselves, the secondary being the audience attending the gallery exhibition, and the third being the extended stage of the digital media world.

At the gallery, Cheon complicates and expands a representation of North Korea by centering the figure of Umma (mommy in Korean), described by the artist as a shaman, superhero, and unidentified mother figure. As Cheon states, “[Umma] is an alternative power; something other than the failures of the current father figure power structures and leaders.” Responding specifically to a political context in both the subject matter and form, Umma’s care is directionless; it emerges from within and towards the people she cares for.

Mina Cheon, UMMA : MASS GAMES – Motherly Love North Korea, installation view “Heavens” at Ethan Cohen Gallery.

This exhibition is sectioned into three parts; heavens, earth, and the underground. In the heavens, we see the rise and decent of Umma from the legendary North Korean Baeksdusan Mountain. On Earth, we see Happy Land Games, a series of enlarged games referencing Cheon’s earlier work with Choco·Pies, that viewers are invited to play with. And in the underground, we find ten notel players running the videos of contemporary art history lessons that are currently being sent into North Korea.

Throughout the show, we also see Umma’s dream paintings of abstraction and Korean unification; ideas and desires that only manifest within the unconsciousness. Through this arrangement of digital photos, paintings, video, and sculptural works, we are invited to dwell in a space of potentiality, considering the artist’s concrete political gesture as well as the symbolic power inherent in the representation of the action.

In this conversation, Mina and I unpack and consider the ideas this exhibition presents: the politics of visibility, collaboration, culturally specific content, representation, and motherly love.

Happy Land Games, installation view “Earth” at Ethan Cohen Gallery, Benday designs on Vinyl, D-Fab on MDF.

 

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO MAKE ART THAT IS CULTURALLY SPECIFIC?

KIMI HANAUER: In this work your dealing with loaded and timely material surrounding the narrative and representation of North Korea, with aspects of your work taking place in the Western context of a New York gallery in Chelsea. A central question that has come up in regards to this, is who has the right to make use of this kind of material? What are the qualifiers for being able to access and present the content you are presenting?

MINA CHEON: Well if my position as a Korean who is devoted to addressing the trans-historic burden of what happens to a country—meaning the generational passing down of the trauma of Korea and the North and South division—doesn’t qualify me to be able to work with such material as North Korea, I have to ask the same question about what are the make-ups of total representation of a cultural scene. Do I have to be purely North Korean in order to make work about North Korea? Does a South Korean in the United States have the right to advocate for North Koreans?

It becomes a question of what allyship means. For me, it’s a term that often feels too passive.

What is permissible as an ally? What is an alliance? What is the Korean-American Alliance? When there is alliance to support different groups, can we share the burden and the agency? And then it boils down to, well then, who has the right to make art about specific cultural and national issues? Do you have to come from the exact same circumstance in order to be able to address a problem? What about anyone else who might be coming from a different or kindred history, it could easily be said that one is historicizing or objectifying a subject. If you go down that path, no one actually qualifies. One of the problems that I face as an Asian American in Baltimore, is the invisibility in the discussion and conflicts between black and white communities.

Yeah, I’ve thought about that too. It can be helpful to remember that people who aren’t white or Black have also historically been used to (partly) produce white supremacy in the United States. When citizenship was first created in 1790 and until 1952, only ‘free white aliens’ could naturalize, which brought up many cases where non-Western immigrants attempted to claim whiteness in order to attain citizenship rights. In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind for example, the Supreme Court shifted and refined the way they defined ‘whiteness’ in order to specifically exclude some and include others. 

My studio released a November newsletter with the title indicating that the artist is humanizing North Koreans for global peace. My humanizing of North Koreans is against the backdrop of Western media that is not doing this. I’m in no way saying I’m taking over North Koreans or saying how they should be. In contrast to the way Western media portrays, I am humanizing this narrative. Let’s pay attention to how their lives matter. I am coming from a very earnest perspective and not one from exclusivity:

My dedication to sharing art with North Koreans equals my dedication for humanizing North Koreans in the eyes of the world. For most Koreans, whether in the North or the South, we are one: we dream of unification. With this project, we advocate that North Korean lives matter; and we plead, please do not destroy North Korea for the sake of global peace. (Cheon, 2017)

Display of 10 notel players with Mina Cheon’s video art being sent to North Korea, installation view “Underground” at Ethan Cohen Gallery.

Part of your advocacy work is the sending art lessons over video made for specific North Korean audience members, and in the symbolism behind that action. Could you share with me more about the video content you and your collaborators sent over?

In sending the video footage over, I am saying that North Koreans have the right to access the type of information that most other people have access to in the world. The videos I created cover contemporary art from artists all over the world. Screened on notel players at the gallery (notels being the commonly smuggled electronic device in North Korea for viewing foreign media akin to older DVD players with USB and SD ports), the art history lessons in video art form are the same ones being transmitted into North Korea, supported by anonymous North Korean defectors led NGOs in South Korea and by these people who believe it their life’s mission to help North Koreans liberate.

These defectors, the collaborators of this aspect of the work, believe that this kind of information has the power to educate North Koreans about media. And they are sending the work directly to people they know such as friends and family members, with rice, and medical aids. These care packages include information, entertainment and basic needs. The defectors’ connections in North Korea are not part of the elite society in Pyongyang, they are not part of the government, they are sending it to those who are open to receiving them. It’s not a blanket assumption that “North Korea” needs these contemporary art videos, it’s actually a very unique exchange.

This work, how it is going into North Korea, the efforts to mobilize the work, people surrounding the project, and those receiving and disseminating the work – it’s a lot of invisible labor.

In an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with a journalist named John P. MacKenzie, he turned my attention to Nicholas Kristoff, the New York Times journalist, who recently visited North Korea. I want to comment on a video documenting his visit, entitled “From North Korea With Dread” by Adam B. Ellick, John Woo, and Jonah M. Kessel. It’s this crazy juxtaposition of Trumps voice overlaying video cuts of North Koreans cheering and ecstatic responses. But then at the end you see that the North Koreans were just watching a dolphin’s performance. Probably one of the most bizarre video reporting I’ve seen.

I question the message being sent by interlacing Trump with North Korean audience in this intentionally strange way of visually defining and framing the relation between the US and NK for the viewers in what seemed like a carefully constructed theatre of absurdity of North Koreans (or of our times). This video is mostly about going into Pyongyang, a very elite society, and interviewing people and sharing just how much they believe that North Korea is going to win the war.

The video repeats the most prescribed image of North Korea including North Koreans in an American style amusement park, with a later focus on a security man who was surveying and behind the frame for every interviewee, Kristoff voice near the end of video noticing this man, saying, “In North Korea, something’s are seen and heard and others just mysteries.” The portrayal of the North Korea’s high class, felt cautiously omitting and that the US-NK relations is really about the personality cults and followings of DC-Pyongyang. The people who were interviewed have the greatest stake and lineage in speaking the North Korean propaganda, and are not the sentiment of the entire country.

Video Stills from Art History Lessons by Professor Kim, delivered to North Korea through USB Drives, Lesson topics include Art & Life; Art & Food; Art, Money & Power; Abstract Art & Dreams; Feminism, Are We Equal?; Art, Lives Matter & Social Justice; Remix & Appropriation Art; Art & Technology; Art & Silence; and Art & Environment.

You can’t make a blanket statement of a nation of people. People are different even within the categories you might put them in; they still may not share the same ideas.

And even if it’s North Korea! The people receiving these videos are not the same people from Pyongyang. Those propelled acts on behalf of the governing regime take part because they have that much at stake for their own benefits, you see this in South Korea, for those who are elites, they abide to the power that provide benefits for them. In Albert Memmi’s book, The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965) explicitly references the Tunisians who work to keep the colonizing stratum in tact, with or without the French protectorates’ order, as they are called “petty tyrants.” They are part of what has to be the regime, but then there are the oppressed people who cannot even operate at that level.

Such is the history of the pyramid of petty tyrants: each one, being socially oppressed by one more powerful than he, always finds a less powerful one on whom to lean, and becomes a tyrant in his turn. (Memmi)

In this way, the work you are producing seems to be a lot about visibility; what actions can and can’t be visible? The action of you spreading these videos is not really something that can be visible if you want it to work; the work has to be underground and executed in secrecy in order to succeed. This is the groundwork; the essence of the work you are representing in the gallery. It uses the artistic language, implicit process, and strategy, but may not get as loud or recognizable like the reporting we find in Western media sources of anti-American posters splattered in Pyongyang.

That’s the thing, I’ve had interviews about my project and several journalists ask for direct proof that people are watching my work in North Korea and about the impact worth reporting. But the thing is that, even when I do get responses, I’m not allowed to share it or my project will fail since it is ongoing. My own name is out there, but the way my videos are going past the border and in the diverse routes into North Korea requires the secrecy and anonymity, so the effect and power is in its invisibility or else the project stops. And by that journalists can’t actually make a story they might need in the way they need it. So part of this project has been learning about how news and journalism is centered on a pitch; it’s about how you align it with what Trump said, and then also to learn how it fails to actually capture this project.

Video Stills from Art History Lessons by Professor Kim, delivered to North Korea through USB Drives, Lesson topics include Art & Life; Art & Food; Art, Money & Power; Abstract Art & Dreams; Feminism, Are We Equal?; Art, Lives Matter & Social Justice; Remix & Appropriation Art; Art & Technology; Art & Silence; and Art & Environment.

 

KOREAN DIASPORA AND INVISIBILITY

Do you feel like the way the conversation around North Korea is framed in the States has a relationship to showing power? It feels like a conflict that has been co-opted in ways.

Well, war is expensive but it generates its own self-serving economy. And, war is useful to enhance national power and new narratives of threat that naturally promotes nationalism as a sentiment. Many presidencies declare their type of war and magnify new enemies, which lead to new defense strategies, military expansion, and foreign policy. The spirit of fearing the, often constructed, enemy has a track record of separating us from them. These rhetoric are played out again and again…

There are some scholars who really inspired this work, key writers and historians from Bruce Cumings, Victor Cha, Charles K. Armstrong, and Hyun Jin Preston Moon. Some of these pivotal male writers described North Korea, their predictions about Pyongyang Spring, and the immanent internal implosion of the DPRK. Artists being interested in working on North Korean awareness and participating in an already existing media penetration into the hermit kingdom is natural to take place. Would only a North Korean artist then have the right to be making artwork in this way? This is the true testament of alliance; my work is a collaboration of many Koreans and beyond, including the diasporic Koreans: Immigrant Koreans, South Koreans, and North Koreans.

Then there is this other kind of study by Professor Seok-Hyang Kim, and Ehwa Woman’s University North Korean Studies and Institute of Unification Studies. I found her study, which is a huge influence for this work, to be less known. She studies the words of North Korean defectors. While oral history is questioned in academia, I’ve found her documentation of oral narrations to say so much more than a historical overview.

Umma Rises: Towards Global Peace, Yves Klein Blue Dip North Korean dream painting, on archival digital print on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, 2017.

 

MOTHERLY LOVE IS INVISIBLE LABOR

Could you share with me a bit more about the UMMA figure that is centered in the gallery exhibition?

In this work I’m not essentializing what a mother needs to be, as the alter ego Kim Il Soon (my North Korean art persona) is presented in her full motherly virtuoso as Umma, the mother of unification. She is an alternative power; something other than the failures of the current father figure power structures and leaders.

It also reads as a very specific response to the context we are in right now.

At this very moment, Umma as an undefined identity is powerful, and playful, she is her own type of superhero (a shaman). I think people misunderstand this too, that Umma equates the definition of motherhood, but it can be motherhood in terms of the way maternal work and power is dismissed and goes unnoticed in society.

And, it is not necessarily talking about womanhood. It is perhaps just how femme power can make a difference in opposition to the common display of patriarchy, war, spaces and words of conflict. And, it has nothing to with my mom or archetypes of the natural mother, Umma presents a pathway through the fractured reality and towards a creative force global peace. And, motherly love can be omnipresent and directionless.

Also, Umma vs. Mass Games; they are almost oppositional things. Mass Games is the rigid presentation of the ability to cohere and Umma is this indefinable terrain of the unknown, highlighting cultural liminality. Here, I am thinking of Victor Turner’s postulations on the subversive power of symbolic liminality in ritual spaces in The Forest of Symbols (1967).

South Korea’s modernization overnight is also attributed to mothers getting together and creating an internal banking system, called getdon. The idea that development occurred with mother’s chima baram (skirt wind) is important, since it is about passage, movement, strength, solidarity. So the concept of Umma should be understood as a catalyst, not a defining point nor ultimate solution.

Umma and People, Yves Klein Blue Dip North Korean dream painting, on archival digital print on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, 2017.

Could you share more about how Umma’s narrative was reflected in your exhibition design at Ethan Cohen?  

The presentation and the curatorial vision of the entire show sections the gallery into heavens, earth, and the underground of North Korea. The heavens include this decent or rise of the Umma figure above the legendary North Korean Baekdusan Mountain, posed in a kind of crucifix as a superhero shaman. Behind her is the waterfall of the other most mystical Keumkangsan Mountain.

And the image of mass games stadium cuts through the gallery space in serious contrast and architecturally perpendicular to the Umma. From the assumed wondrous nature of North Korea to the most mechanical man’s presentation of Arirang, the ground level includes the Happy Land Games, leading into stairs of the underground world where the game playing at a different level, displaying the 10 notel players that loop the videos of contemporary art history lessons being sent into North Korea.

I know Mierle Laderman Ukeles was also a reference for you with the performances you did before the show, where you spent time cleaning the gallery as a North Korean mother. Can you tell me about that?

As Ukeles did cleaning performances in museums, I cleaned the main floor of the gallery the evening before the start of my installation while the previous exhibition was up. I got on my knees to clean the floor with rags and water, like all good Korean mothers, and at the end offered the audience Kimchi. The cleaning wards off the evil before the arrival of Umma and with the cleaning, everything starts anew. The performance UMMA’s Cleaning Lesson was also inspired by Nam June Paik, who performed as a shaman in his art practice and who was raised in Korea with shamanism rituals at the house. The stink of Kimchi was essential to set the new Korean stage that is both North and South Korean. And we tried to do the performance in other galleries in New York as well, but they couldn’t host us. It was a complete rejection of the Umma! Which kind of makes sense; she is after all North Korean.

Unification Flag, Yves Klein Blue Dip North Korean dream painting, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches, 2017.

 


 

The full conversation will be published as part of Press Press’s upcoming book, Sentiments, in Summer 2018. UMMA : MASS GAMES – Motherly Love North Korea was on view at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, NY through January 11th.

All photos courtesy of Ethan Cohen Gallery and Mina Cheon Studio.