Friday, 25 February 2011

To the North, to the North

January’s Artforum has an interesting short essay by Joan Kee (not, unfortunately, available online). She subjects Ryu Hwan-gi’s 2002 painting Soldiers Longing for Return to the kind of close reading socialist realist works rarely receive, and comes up with some valuable reflections along the way. Prune the inevitable prose tics of Pyongyangology (Kim Jong-il as the “diabolically shrewd heir”, “one of the world’s most secretive countries…”) and there’s writing with real insight and use.

Ryu Hwan-gi is one of the DPRK’s foremost artists, and Kee reads this work against the resistance of its generic conventions to interpretation:

Socialist-realist works have an uncanny way of plunging their viewers into a narrative and then leaving them there without hope of an exit. This tends to close down interpretation so the work can be read only within the bounds of allegory.

Soldiers Longing for Return slips this particular allegorising knot, Kee suggests, by way of its size, depicting this scene on what is, for a socialist-realist work, a relatively modest, small-scale representation. That, and its stray details from domestic life, make “a case for an alternative domesticity cast squarely within the frame of the martial.”

I won’t rehearse any more of Kee’s argument here; it’s worth you looking up the essay to follow her thoughts there.

Instead, I’d like to leave a stray detail of my own, one which came up through this reading of a reading. Do we need finer distinctions within the groups of work we call socialist realist? Kee’s right that it’s worth registering the fact that “so many paintings produced outside the neo-liberal metropoles remain firmly wedded to socialist realism”, although I don’t find her political account of that continuity convincing. More important, perhaps, are distinctions which touch both problems of representation and of ideology.

Debates about Socialist Realism (the boy meets tractor school of film, as the joke goes) have lost most of their intensity on the left in recent decades because the Stalinist state capitalisms which were the approach’s patrons and producers are mostly gone. The line that the two qualities socialist realism had was that it wasn’t socialist and wasn’t realist fits that era, but repeating it again now won’t take us further.

More precise, maybe, to read this image with the Juche idea as the masterplot we’ve got in mind, instead of the Russian and Zhdanovite narrative the term Socialist Realism carries along inside itself. If Socialist Realism of the ‘classic’ kind carried out the ideological work of romanticising and celebrating a non-existent freedom (murals of happy workers decorating factories where bureaucratic exploitation flourished), North Korean art more often contributes to reinforcing a sense of history at a standstill, representing the present as endless re-runs of the first years of the Korean War. The repetition of martial themes in North Korean art is one thing; their exaggerated grotesquery of war’s dangers and destructiveness is quite another.

It’s a Sea of Blood, as the title of the famous film and opera goes. Labelling something propaganda is a first step; specifying the aims and influences of that propaganda, as any good advertising student knows, requires more detail still.

Against that context Ryu’s image and its turning of “the very private space of the bedroom into a public space.” What we’re being hailed as here, though, I don’t fully know.


There’s an in-depth Al Jazeera documentary on the DPRK’s film industry you can see here.

And meanwhile the struggle to think about what Courbet called “real realism” continues: Gene Ray’s essay on "Dialectical Realism and Radical Commitments: Brecht and Adorno on Representing Capitalism" in the last Historical Materialism is very fine, and a good antidote if you’ve started at too many monumental lies for too long.

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