North Korea is a nation so closed, any documentary shot there is invariably judged on how authentic a «window» onto people’s daily lives it appears to achieve. Norwegian director Tommy Gulliksen is the latest to navigate the regime’s notoriously heavy monitoring of visitors, shooting War of Art in Pyongyang.
The DMZ Academy
The film documents North Korea’s first international arts symposium, the DMZ Academy. Seven artists working in forms not recognised as legitimate art in the DPRK, from abstract painting to experimental noise, are brought in to share their work with local artists. The project reveals as much in its failures as its successes, though its approach is much more even-handed and less inflammatory than Vitaly Mansky’s high-profile Under the Sun (enlisted to make a film about an ideal Korean family, the Ukrainian director sparked a diplomatic row by smuggling out unapproved footage that instead revealed the iron grasp and reach of the state’s propaganda machine).
The project reveals as much in its failures as its successes
To its credit, War of Art addresses the controversy of collaborating with a totalitarian regime with a dismal reputation for human rights from the outset. The facilitator of the programme is Norwegian artist Morten Traavik, who has already been to the DPRK on a dozen or so «cultural exchange» visits, and who co-directed Liberation Day, documenting Slovenian industrial band Laibach’s North Korean tour. We first encounter him pitching the idea of the symposium to officials as a way to alleviate political negativity toward the country. Afterwards, however, he offers a convincing argument to camera that rather than being a parrot for state ideology and complicit in disguising the darker side of Kim Jong-un’s regime, he recognises that sanctions and boycotts have been ineffective and that two-way creative collaboration is worthwhile as an attempt to challenge and move beyond entrenched ways of thinking. Certainly, as a counterpoint to Under the Sun, filmed with the agenda of a staunch anti-communist intent on unmasking negative realities using trickery, War of Art is the much more nuanced and multi-faceted vision of human nature, creativity, cultural influence, censorship and control.
The visiting group’s base is the Hotel Pyongyang, the only place they are able to roam without strict supervision from the fixers assigned to them (who, functioning more as minders, start to panic the few times one of the artists starts to venture outside their designated orbit without them). The cityscape is filled with art, produced with technical finesse and solely in service to the state ideology. The film takes us beyond the large murals of leaders we likely all associate with North Korea and with the group into the uncharted territory of the University of Fine Arts, where all the work on display is in the requisite Socialist Realist style.
The visiting artists experience escalating tension over the nature of their own work, which with no frame of reference to make sense of it within, the minders distrust as «bizarre» and lacking the «kind of message that inspires people». They waver on their promise to allow the work to be shared with other North Koreans. German sonic artist Nik Nowak finally gains permission to pull off the first sound installation in North Korea, featuring the high-frequency sounds of insects not normally audible to the human ear, but is relegated to a park behind a bush, heard only by the odd passing jogger.
Products of cultural conditioning
Possibly the most fascinating aspect captured by War of Art is the way in which the different personalities and attitudes of the group members impact their varying levels of willingness to adapt their practice to local demands. Henrik Placht, an abstract painter from Oslo, has a gentle, inquisitive demeanour and emerges as the peacemaker of the group. Arriving back from the relaxing leveller of a naked sauna with the minders, he chastises Traavik for his «cowboy» approach of ultimatums and contends that felixibility is the only way. On the other end of the spectrum from his prioritising of harmony and adaptability, is gregarious Parisian graphic artist Jean Valnoir, who signs his work in his own blood and insists on uncompromising self-expression as non-negotiable. When a photograph of his back after a cupping therapy session is prohibited from the final exhibition, the group debate how to handle the instance of censorship. Beijing photographic artist Quentin Shih demonstrates a more patient, laidback understanding of how society operates in North Korea, saying he recognises echoes of the China of times past, and its roots in Soviet ideology. The group say they struggle to reconcile the happiness they see in the faces of a local population going about its day, with the fear that erupts as soon as the rigid limits of behaviour are transgressed.
The cityscape is filled with art, produced with technical finesse and solely in service to the state ideology.
Kim Jong-un’s testing of what is claimed to be a hydrogen bomb unnerves the group, their hotel shaking by what feels like an earthquake. Locals express pride in becoming a powerful global force, while US president Donald Trump is heard on the news calling North Korea’s revered leader «little rocket man». The global urgency in navigating clashes of perspective, then, could not be starker. Belfast curator Cathie Boyd challenges moral certitudes by pointing out that the United States was instrumental in the division of Korea in the first place. The film as a whole is a thought-provoking and welcome reminder of the fact that we are all the products of cultural conditioning. And of reminding us that potent power lies not only in literal weapons but in the smallest of gestures and provocations – art as a means for disruption and communion.