On Totalitarian Art: Interview with Morten Traavik

By | October 17, 2014 | No Comments

When it comes to working steadily with North Korean cultural bureaucracies and establishing channels of cultural exchange, Norwegian artist Morten Traavik must be considered one of the most successful foreign cultural figures of the past decade.

Best known for his sponsorship of a group of North Korean accordionists playing a Western pop tune on YouTube, Traavik has since brought a small North Korean performing delegation to Norway, and led Norwegian soldiers in a mass performance in North Korean style on the border with Russia. He has been widely visible in Western media throughout this process, without torpedoing his projects or his contacts. This is all hardly a small achievement, given the well-known sensitivities on the North Korean side about perceptions and negative media coverage.

Morten Traavik’s most ambitious project with respect to North Korea now appears to be coming to fruition. An art academy (called “DMZ,” a memorable if curious name) will be set up next year in Pyongyang. Traavik will share administrative leadership of the institution with Heinrik Placht, a German-trained Norwegian abstract artist with substantial  experience working with the International Academy of Art in Palestine.

Media interest in the project has been desultory. Amid the rise in international attention to North Korea, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung did what good German newspapers do and decided to broaden out the discussion. A telephone call to Traavik in Stockholm ensued. The resulting article by Thorsten Glotzmann, entitled “Kim Jong-un’s Court Jester,” is rather critical.

Traavik’s project aims to bring together the works of seven international artists along with North Korean artists for a two-week exhibition in August 2015. As he explained, “This is a kind of art reality show in which you do not know what you might see.” But if it is reality that must be seen to be believed, then that reality will include the shrinking of artistic space by the authorities. As the article points out, there is a correlation between the DMZ itself, where German curator Nikolaus Hirsch has operated since 2012 and the limitations the state will place on Traavik’s work. As Traavik explains, explicit criticisms of the North Korean regime would be considered rather unhelpful, “and only strengthen the conflict.” There will be no Pussy Riot and no Ai Weiwei arriving in Pyongyang anytime soon.

Traavik’s views of North Korean art come through in most of his interviews, and this one is no different. He does a bit of disarming via relativity (“every strict regime prefers art which is figurative and simple, and above all simple to interpret”) and makes observations on art education in the DPRK (“students learn that they must be positive and constructive, depicting something concrete”). What is more important to Traavik is the thought that the West can learn from North Korea (or “von den Asiaten,” as the SdZ puts it, somewhat alarmingly), particularly in terms of handiwork and technique.   

Traavik’s views on cultural exchange make clear that he’s operating as an individual, rather than as an arm of any EU member state. The United Kingdom, for instance, has a budget for cultural engagement with North Korea that includes specific language about embedding or demonstrating British values within any work. The German Goethe Insitut ultimately closed its reading library in Pyongyang because of restrictions on the materials within it. Even Chinese aid comes with a degree of cultural expectation, bringing the “Lux Sinica” to the DRPK. Conditions are inevitably placed on cultural exchange that involves bringing things into North Korea.  Traavik dismisses such approaches:

Too often cultural exchange conceals within it the goal of educating the poor, uneducated masses. This is cultural chauvinism.

The Norwegian artist’s fascination with the collective nature of North Korean performance art clearly terrifies the reporter interviewing him. Describing “The Promised Land,” a 2012 project involving North Korean instructors directing Norwegian borderguards in a “Mass Games”-style human pixelation piece, Traavik explains: “This would not be possible in a democracy.”

The reporter interpolates his own interpretive text with Traavik’s quotes here. Noting that the Norwegian is fascinated with what the artist calls “the expression-laden depiction of unity,” the reporter–almost certainly not Traavik–naturally brings back to Nazi Germany and Leni Riefenstahl. When the conclusion of the article is headed with “Blatant Enthusiasm for Totalitarian Symbols,” it becomes clear that Traavik is triggering some rather deep responses within his German interlocutor.

But in doing so, he manages to raise a few significant questions. For instance, is it possible to disentangle North Korean art from its ideological meaning? Traavik says:

It is possible to be against the ideology that stands behind [North Korean art] and at the same time appreciate that it looks fantastic.

With respect to the Mass Games, Traavik sees less repression than a strong sense for the societal whole or national community (Gemeinschaft). In his view, it simply cannot be the case that people do not participate in the activities out of their own free will.

They certainly do not participate out of fear (Angst). Most of them have a lot of fun doing it.

The reporter takes this statement by Traavik and kicks it out of the park, asking “how believable is this notion of fun in a country which starves and burns inmates in gulags, using their bones as fertilizer, as testified by North Korean refugees to the UN Commission of Inquiry?” One might ask a few counterquestions: How many testimonies to the Commission of Inquiry were made by students who had grown up in Pyongyang? What is the Commission’s view on the Mass Games? (Naturally, it has one, but the interviewer has clearly not read the report which provides his article with such moralistic thrust.) Is it possible that by engaging with North Korea for the long term — call it an anti-Sweeney approach — Traavik is in fact as well positioned as anyone else to begin the process of changing hearts and minds among North Koreans who study art or music, moving toward the de-isolating or “de-bordering” of North Korea? But this article is clearly not going there, charging on to its foregone conclusion.

Traavik, the piece concludes, will need to answer questions such as those which dogged Leni Riefenstahl for her entire postwar life. After all, it states, the Mass Games are clearly derived from the Riefenstahl aesthetic. But what about those cute accordion players?

They are so cute, that for a moment one forgets how brutally things go in this country. At the final analysis, it becomes clear that Traavik’s performance art covers up this reality. This art’s very harmlessness is what makes it dangerous.

Source:Kim Jong Uns Hofnarren: Kunstakademie in Nordkorea” [Kim Jong-un’s Court Jester: Art Academy in North Korea], Suddeutsche Zeitung, October 15, 2014. Translation by by Adam Cathcart.

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