North Korea, Bryan Ferry and totalitarian art

October 22, 2019
North Korea, Bryan Ferry and totalitarian art

Last week I found myself walking the streets of Pyongyang, North Korea, thinking about Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music fame. That's not a sentence I thought I would ever write, but let me explain.


In my visit to North Korea there were two things I particularly wanted to see, but unfortunately I was unable to see either. The first was the World Cup football qualifier between North Korea and South Korea, the main purpose of my trip (and the first time this game had been played in the North for more than a generation). Ultimately, the authorities decided that no fans at all would be allowed in, and the 0-0 draw was played out to an empty stadium. The second thing I wanted to see, but which was not on the itinerary offered, was Pyongyang's Mansudae Art Studio, of which more later.


Instead of the football, we were offered a trip to the final night of the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, also known as the Mass Games. The event - think Cirque du Soleil on acid - was recognised in 2007 by Guinness World Records as the world's largest gymnastic display, with over 100,000 participants. It's held in the world's largest stadium, the astounding May Day Stadium, which has a reported capacity of 150,000. The Games, and the Stadium, have to be seen to be believed - vidoes online do them no justice whatsoever.


On the way to the games we visited the Mansu Hill Grand Monument - a complex of statues with the centrepiece being two enormous bronzes of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. Visitors are strongly encouraged to buy flowers - at €5 a time - to lay at the feet of the statues, and are absolutely required to bow before them. Later we took the metro system, where the walls of the stations are covered in incredibly intricate mosaics, and visited the Korean War Museum. The museum features a huge 360 degree diorama of a battle scene from the war, where the curved painted walls merge seamlessly and remarkably into the physical scenery on the ground. Along the way, seemingly every street corner had a large painting or mural of a scene meant to inspire the people or glorify the leaders.


So how does Bryan Ferry fit into this? Well, as I found myself admiring the scale, grandeur and skill of the monuments, buildings and murals, my mind was drawn to the trouble in which Ferry found himself in 2007. The singer was being interviewed in a German magazine, and he said of the Nazis that they "knew how to present themselves ... I'm talking about the films of Leni Riefenstahl and the buildings of Albert Speer and the mass marches and the flags. Just amazing - really beautiful".  At the time, Ferry was promoting a Marks & Spencer clothing line, but he was promptly dropped by the retailer following controversy over his remarks. Lord Banner, Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress said: "His original remarks were thoroughly offensive. He was insensitive, it was ill-conceived and wrong". Ferry himself issued an apology: "I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused by my comments on Nazi iconography, which were solely made from an art history perspective. I, like every right-minded individual, find the Nazi regime, and all it stood for, evil and abhorrent."


I don't want to dwell too long on the politics of the situation, but suffice it to say I am very grateful indeed that I do not live in North Korea and instead enjoy all the freedoms and opportunities of the West. However, Ferry did make a valid point. Totalitarian regimes have long used art and architecture as a means of promoting their regimes, inspiring loyalty (or obedience) in their people, or propagandising certain themes. There have been many academic works published on this subject, looking at how Communist Russia and China, and Fascist Germany and Italy used art for the furtherance of their ideology in the 20th Century.


It is also indisputably true that when a regime, with total control over City planning and over the training and education of its populace, dedicates its efforts to art in its broadest sense, some astounding work is produced.


Which brings me back to North Korea and the Mansudae Art Studio. One of the biggest producers of art in the world, the studio employs around 4,000 people, of whom a quarter are artists. Within North Korea, to be selected to work at Mansudae is one of the most prestigious posts available. It produces all the mosaics, murals, statues and monuments in the City, as well as the hand painted propaganda posters that tourists can buy.


One of its most interesting off-shoots is the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, which has produced work for many other countries. Let's just say that not many of these countries make it into the top half of any league table of the most free, prosperous or democratic nations - the roll-call includes, for example, Congo, Syria and Zimbabwe.  If you are an oppressive regime requiring a statement piece, Mansudae is the place for you.


To see how this fits together, consider the African Renaissance Monument, a huge bronze in Senegal, commissioned to commemorate Senegal's National Day. Costing $27m, it is the largest statue in Africa and was incredibly controversial. Senegal's president at the time, Abdoulaye Wade, said that the statue symbolises the triumph of African Liberation from centuries of ignorance, intolerance and racism, hoping it would rival the Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower as a tourist destination. The opposition leader saw it differently: "the economy has collapsed ... the education system is in a crisis. The health system is in crisis. And yet Abdoulaye Wade is squandering public money."


It was of course built by the Mansudae Overseas Project Group. A statue commissioned by one of the world's poorest countries and built by one of the world's most oppressive regimes - but nevertheless, a thing of astonishing scale and beauty.

About the author

Richard Pulford

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