Counterpoint to Basketball Diplomacy: Beuys in Beijing, Beethoven in Pyongyang

By | March 12, 2013 | No Comments

Joseph Beuys knew a thing or three about modern totalitarianism: as a young man he bore personal witness to the symbolism of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. Yet by 2011 Beuys had taken on a different significance in East Asia, as a normative symbol of something greater, and hopefully much more lasting: artistic freedom.

Then lo, was it recently the Beuysian spirit in evidence in Pyongyang? Was Japanese conductor Michiyoshi Inoue there, in the middle of the Capital of the Revolution, cleverly sowing seeds of liberty in the furrow created by Kim Jong-un in his desperate bid to ply the capital city folk with cultural candy? Or was it Kim doing the sowing, cultivating more cultural-diplomatic fog to confuse us all?  Chief Editor Adam Cathcart considers the possibilities.- Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

Beuys in Beijing, Beethoven in Pyongyang

by Adam Cathcart

There’s an interesting story from 2011 about how the German government and several top art museums pulled off a massive “Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition in Beijing, with the not-entirely-subtle goal of stimulating discussion of human rights and democratization. As one peripatetic analyst and visitor described it for The China Beat:

The exhibition, a tour de force of German humanism and the roots of European democratic thought, seemed to signal a renewed openness, even in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s recent crackdowns on dissent. Nearly seven years planning had gone into this Kantian Aufschwung, involving cultural contacts on the highest level. If there were ever a Trojan horse to stride up the steps near Tiananmen Square after 1989, this was surely it.

The curators even went so far as to pay tribute to the radical artist Joseph Beuys, the man who had introduced himself to North America in 1974 by spending a week caged in a gallery in New York City with only a felt blanket, a cane, a live coyote, and a copy of the Wall Street Journal. Why include this odd character at all? Perhaps it had something to do with politics.


Beuys grew up in Nazi Germany, and knew something about totalitarian systems: He witnessed science books being burned at age 12, joined the Hitler Youth, sang all manner of hymns to the Fuhrer, and, as a 15-year-old participant in the Nuremburg rallies of 1936, was one small cog in the Nazi orchestration of human movement filmed by Leni Reifenstahl. (Like any child of Carl Orff or disciple of Dalcroze, he would surely understand North Korea’s mass games keenly.)

By incorporating Beuys into the Beijing exhibition, the German curators were thus making an especially pointed remark about China’s need to recognize the right to make art freely. The German press drew further explicit linkages by writing incessantly about a type of reincarnation of the Beuysian spirit in China, the jovial yet pensive Ai Weiwei, who was enduring government harassment and giving interviews with fiery quotes like “He who lives in a dictatorship must resist.” Ai was to have joined the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, after the latter came to open the exhibition. They would bask in the light streaming from the museum onto Tiananmen Square, and the liberating spirit of Europe’s uncontrollable cultural wealth would be set to slither and glide through Beijing’s hutongs and even among the peasants beyond.

What happened next was utterly predictable, but no less insulting: The PRC proceeded to disappear artist Ai Weiwei, who was to have traveled to Germany on the Foreign Minister’s Lufthansa. So much for a “soft power” victory by the West.

Sonic Realm in Pyongyang: A Shallow Oasis of Good Sense | The struggle between German Englightenment-influenced thinking and the norms inherent in Northeast Asian Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist/Kimist configurations continues, and the conflict remains rather sharp. In Korea, the DMZ is a significant military dividing line, but it also serves as a wall to all manner of artistic ways of looking at the world.

And yet there is sound. In Pyongyang’s sonic realm, the West can be enjoyed, if in limited fashion.  As James Joyce notes in Ulysses (Penguin 1992, p. 30), Kim Jong-un has now been firmly “lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities he has ousted;” there are no alternatives. Perhaps precisely for this reason, a minor cultural thaw must commence. This year’s March 8 Women’s Concert was decidedly more westernized than that of the previous year. The Munich Chamber Orchestra came recently to North Korea to play Lutoslawksi, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and were the subject of perhaps the most beautiful short film ever recorded in the DPRK.

But, generally speaking, they still don’t play much Beethoven in Pyongyang. This makes the visit of Japanese conductor Michiyoshi Inoue (井上道義) all the more remarkable. For all the politicization that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has experienced over time, according to Inoue, his performance with the DPRK State Symphony was the piece’s premiere in North Korea.

What a lovely performance.

An Ode to Distant Joy: Beethoven in Musical-Diplomatic Context | More might be said here about politics. For one, the obligatory virility of North Korean nuclear propaganda formed the purest possible apocalyptic contrast to the show. It might also be mentioned that a South Korean conductor had already worked for two years to get an inter-Korean orchestra to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under his baton, and he only got as far as a mixed French-North Korean concert in Paris with the Unhasu Orchestra. Today, we find nothing less than the DPRK sponsoring an “Ode to Joy” with a cultural representative of Japan while simultaneously threatening war with South Korea.

The venue and personnel also bear noting: The chorus whose German vowels conveyed Schiller’s text with such clarity was none other than the Mangyongdae Arts Troupe, now known as the troupe from which Kim Jong Un’s Japanese-born mother Ko Young-hee found her niche in Pyongyang. The venue was none other than the newest performing hall in Pyongyang’s Mansudae district. Every bit as much as the l’affair Rodman, this event had Kim Jong-un’s fingerprints all over it.  It was far from a marginal event, and in the long run, may well turn out to be more significant than more recent and better publicized cultural exchanges.

Will Kim Jong-un open the spigot to more classical music exchanges with foreign countries? His Kim Won Gyun Conservatory could shake again, as it has done in the past, with Bruckner conducted by a visiting German guest. And indeed, it should not be forgotten that Beethoven’s symphonic return to China in 1971 was a watershed moment for Chinese musical and political culture. This concert cannot do the same, not least of which because Kim Jong-un is not Zhou Enlai.

North Korea has no Ai Weiwei figure and probably never will. There is no counterweight to the Kimist leviathan, whose familial charisma had ought ostensibly to be all the aesthetic nourishment one needs. Jeremiads are allowed only by those who renounce the motherland completely, and they are at risk to critique it even then. The Goethe Institute won’t be bringing a Joseph Beuys exhibition to Pyongyang any time soon.

But then again there is Beethoven, and the North Koreans play it very, very well.

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  1. Goodness though, wouldn’t a Beuys exhibition in Pyongyang be amazing…all that fat and felt…institutions and theorisers of the DPRK might enjoy the participatory nature of the wild/nature in the deconstruction of imperialist/capitalist social norms inherent in Beuys’ “I like America and America Likes Me” piece from 1974, Beuys locked in cage with a coyote for a week. The coyote proceeding to savage all the symbols of protection/corporality Beuys provided (fat and felt), the accompanying symbols of american modernity (a stack of copies of the New York Times), and Beuys himself.

  2. Ai Weiwei (overexposed though he may be) in a cage with his heavy metal band in Pyongyang? Obviously, stranger things have already happened.

    Xi Jinping could be glad to have him out of town for a while, and the North Korean security service reports tend to be quite rigorous, insofar as I understand it. Only half-joking; these are regimes with some deep cultural compatibilities but there is ample room in the cultural creases/margins to explore new possiblities.

    Have an academic article on North Korean hip-hop as well…

  3. You might also have mentioned the Yun I-sun concert hall and the regular foreign concerts that are played there, mostly by visiting German youth orchestras. The often derided sSpring Festival says all sorts of music being played and sung. Then there is the film festival. OK so audiences are selected but they are still made aware of alternative ways of looking at things. Embassies may also do a bit. When I was there, we showed Notting Hill and Wallace and Gromit to mark the first year of diplomatic relations, and other films as well. The remake of “The Importance of Being Ernest” had its Asian premiere at the April 2002 film festival and I also showed it to foreigners and Koreans – mainly English teachers and officials.
    My driver delighted in playing Western pop music in the car – rather more than I did. We even had the deputy head of the Foreign Ministry’s European department dancing the Gay Gordons…
    It all helps.

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