text > A Postcard from Afar: North Korea from a Distance

Certain thinkers hold peculiar views about art, believing, for instance, that art is a domain of human activity where people deposit their views of what the world could have been if it weren’t what it already is. According to this view, artists show us what the reality around us would have looked like if our present had been shaped by different events in the past: if the Western world, for instance, had not been modernized, if there had never been an industrial revolution and if the Europeans had kept living in the Dark Ages of artisanal production and spiritual superstition; if the French, the Americans or the Russians had never had their revolutions, or if the Cossacks had made it into the New World earlier than the Puritans. These artists and thinkers do not always agree on the consequences of these “ifs,” nor on what causes reality to look how it does – with some, more liberal, believing that history is a matter of accidents of the past and that our reality depends on them, and with others, the Marxists, insisting that our reality obeys certain objective laws of history expressed in the straggle between the rich and the poor or in the development of new forces of production, and that accordingly what it “is” is what it “is” and cannot be otherwise. These differences does not concern us here. What concerns us are the “ifs” that have formed the basis of so many good works of art. In literary and cinematic science fiction the “ifs” have often been gathered under the theme of “parallel universes” which according to some are permanently separate, and to others are able once in a while, to meet.

In any case, it seems to me that the event which I recently attended at apexart has something to do with this theme. The organizers attempted to offer us a glimpse of two parallel universes at the moment they met in mid-January in a white cube in Manhattan. Recent international events have been favorable to the curator, participants and organizers of this project. A Postcard from Afar overlapped temporarily with the passing away of Kim Jong Il (the General Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea) and with the urgent need in Pyongyang to appoint a new Leader to be in charge of the objective laws of history. This was a historical event that was felt very differently in two separate and hostile universes. For the small universe called North Korea, the death of its dynastic ruler was a disaster, judging according to its one-channel media. For the larger universe – which is governed in accordance with the principle of contingency and of the divine accident, and which claims to be the only possible and “real” one – the news from Pyongyang caused additional tension, but also entertainment and opportunities to sell more ads through its multiple media channels. While the workers and peasants of the small universe released their grief and sorrow in collective mourning and weeping, for the individuals belonging to various consumer segments of the larger universe this was an opportunity to jettison their bitterness, irony and cynicism (the sour fruits of the freedom of speech) into the corporate social networks that guard their freedom.

A Postcard from Afar then appeared in the middle of Manhattan like a checkpoint in a demilitarized zone, like a watchtower erected in a joint security area established between the Axis of Evil and the Axis of Good.

I must also add (and a visitor to apexart could perhaps take note of this) that I went to see this event a little bit unprepared. I should have emptied my conscious mind of its preconceptions before entering this white cube assembled between two unfriendly universes. Instead, I arrived with certain preformed expectations in mind, with anticipations formed by my exposure to the omnipotent media that steers the larger universe which I also inhabit. My cynical reason expected to see artistic comments made in the spirit of those that I had encountered on internet forums and discussion boards. But I was wrong, and luckily so. With very few exceptions, most of the works in the show (especially those in video format) take a very tolerant approach to the small parallel universe, to its problems and concerns. The visitor will find compassionate views that seek to understand without condemning or ridiculing, which proves once again how and why art is a domain so different from the “free” mainstream media and its recyclable product: the public opinion. The curator’s statement also hints that the show “presents a distant perspective upon the nation, rather than a view from within it.”[*] Indeed, most of the works made by international contemporary artists are very intimate narratives, carried ahead by personal questions and interests in this small and very closed universe that stubbornly refuses to let haphazard private interest to rule the game  – which as one could imagine comes at very high price. In trying to make the two universes meet, apexart assumes the mediating role of the United Nations, and upon leaving the exhibition I felt that it was no more than an attempt to do so. For a true encounter to have taken place the curator and the organizers would have had to invite North Korean artists, some firm Socialist Realists to stare into the face of sentimental and ambiguous contemporary art. But then, this would have fallen in the domain of science fiction.


Octavian Esanu, Published in ArtExperience: NYC, Summer 2011, (84-89)


[*] A Postcard from Afar: North Korea from a Distance (Apexart brochure).