Australian govt denies visas to DPRK artists

About the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art:

Established in 1993, the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) is the Queensland Art Gallery’s flagship international contemporary art event. It is the only major series of exhibitions in the world to focus exclusively on the contemporary art of Asia, the Pacific and Australia.

Since the first Triennial in 1993, more than 1.3 million people have visited the exhibitions, peaking with more than 700 000 visitors to APT5 at the new Gallery of Modern Art and Queensland Art Gallery in 2006.

The first three Triennials demonstrated the diversity of contemporary art practice across the region (from Pakistan to Niue) by profiling 220 artists from 20 different countries. APT 2002 was radically different in that it considered developments in contemporary art over recent decades through in-depth explorations of 16 individual artists. APT 2006 continued to develop the model of 2002 with a strong emphasis on the Gallery’s Collections, and featured a selection of works from 35 artists and 2 multi-artist projects (a total of 66 artists) from our region across generations.

In 2009, APT6 will profile the work of over 100 artists from 25 countries in the region, including a number of artists and artist collaborations never seen in Australia before.

Internationally renowned for its collection of Contemporary Asian and Pacific art, an ongoing element of the APT series is the commissioning of new works in tandem with an acquisition program for the Gallery’s permanent Collection.

This year the exhibition features paintings by North Korean artists from the Mansudae Art Studio:

APT6 will include for the first time contemporary artists from North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Tibet, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma). Australian artists presented in APT6 are the Philippines-born, Brisbane-based husband-and-wife team Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan; the Melbourne collective DAMP; Raafat Ishak (Melbourne); and Tracey Moffatt, who lives and works in New York and on the Sunshine Coast.

However, according to Nick Bonner:

[The North Koreans] were invited by Brisbane Modern Art Gallery Asia Pacific Trinennial (government insitiution) and their work was allowed in – 5 big inks 2×2 metres and a ten square meter moziaic, and 2.6 metre oil…all beautifully on display and appreciated by the public (expecting over 700,000 visitors). The  5 artists and one translator who had been issued DPRK passports to travel have been refused visas stating that their ‘presence in Australia is, or would be, contrary to Australian’s foreign policy interests.’

So it seems to me that the moral of this story is: you can’t hold an art show in Australia without the national government getting in the way.  That is a shame for the Australian people and the North Korean artists.

According to Australia’s Courier Mail:

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith said the artists’ studio produces favourable propaganda images of despotic leader Kim Jong-il.

The spokesman said the ban was also part of the Australian government’s response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear and weapons program.

“The artists concerned are from a studio that operates under the guidance of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il,” the spokesman said.

“The studio reportedly produces almost all of the official artworks in North Korea, including works that clearly constitute propaganda aimed at glorifying and supporting the North Korean regime.

“To make an exception in this case would have represented a relaxation of Australia’s visa ban and sent an inappropriate message to the North Korean regime.”

Tony Ellwood, gallery director, said. “We were hopeful there might be an exception, but we have to respect the wishes of the federal government on this.

“However, we are very disappointed.”

Unfortunatley this is probably the outcome the North Korean government would have preferred.  The Mansudae Art Studio gets exposure at an international art exhibition while the artists themselves stay nicely protected in Pyongyang and unable to expand their knowledge of and connections with artists from other countries.  Even if the North Korean government truly desired their artists to make an appearance at the exhibit, it is unlikely that denying artists entry visas to Australia is going to affect the DPRK’s foreign policy one little bit.

UPDATE 1: Here is a list of the painters involved.  An explanation of Choe Yong Sun’s The Construction Site (2005) can be found here.

UPDATE 2: Here are some more pictures of Choe Chang Ho and his work: Picture of a Retired Man, Kangson Steel WorksOn the Way to Work.

UPDATE 3: More pics at The Times.

UPDATE 4: The Los Angeles Times covers the story:

Bonner, who has made several documentary films in North Korea, in 2006 commissioned the Mansudae Art Studio to produce 15 pieces dealing with industrial landscapes for showing at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in South Brisbane, Australia. The display, which will be up through April, features the works of 100 artists in 25 nations.

Though he acknowledged that North Korea’s art studios are government-run, as are most organized activities in the country, he said that doesn’t mean that all the works produced there are political.

Mansudae, which houses 1,000 artists, has produced work for several exhibits in Italy, according to the studio’s website.

Bonner encouraged the artists to avoid the socialist realism style typical of most communist propaganda.

“We didn’t want works that glorified workers, but something more understandable to Australians — their humility,” he said.

Still, for many of the artists the assignment was a stretch. Finally, a painter showed Bonner a photograph of a blue-collar worker smoking a cigarette. “He said, ‘Is this what you mean?’ and we said, ‘Yes!’ It was a real breakthrough,” Bonner said.

He said the completed works — including sketches and portraits in oil paint and ink — express ideas that are groundbreaking for the North Korean artists, such as a painting that shows the smoky fires of an industrial foundry.

“I’ve let them down,” Bonner said of the artists. “I promised them an opportunity to explain their work. They paint beautifully; that’s why they were invited. For them to speak to other artists and patrons from a foreign land would have been a real breakthrough.”

Bonner said the project was never intended to be political.

“But the Australian government has managed to turn it into that,” he said. “It’s bloody frightening when a government steps in to overrule an art gallery. That’s just wrong.”

UPDATE 5: From The Australian:

WHEN Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith turned down visa applications for a group of North Korean artists, the Queensland Art Gallery and curator Nicholas Bonner were disappointed but understood the decision.

Bonner had been working with the Brisbane gallery for many years to bring the artists and their work to Australia for the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.

The initial refusal of visas had been made on the grounds the artists were “persons whose presence in Australia was contrary to Australia’s foreign policy interests”.

That was fine, says Bonner, who travelled from his base in Beijing to see the work installed for the exhibition opening on December 5 and, he had hoped, to help present the North Korean artists to Australian audiences.

It was when the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded to inquiries about that decision by commenting on the art, sight unseen, that Bonner became agitated.

“When [DFAT is] not allowing the artists to visit specifically because the Mansudae Studio is involved in the production of propaganda, [it] went too far,” Bonner says. “If you allow the art in but then you don’t allow the artists who made the work in, that’s censorship. The frightening thing about this is that whoever is advising the Australian government on this is showing a massive level of ignorance.”

Bonner is a British landscape architect who left the University of Sheffield in 1993 to spend a few years working in China.

By chance more than design, he became involved in various projects in North Korea, setting up a tourism business as well as organising sports visits and making films.

He is based in Beijing because that city is the gateway to North Korea, which he visits monthly.

“When we went to North Korea, we had our own preconceptions almost delivered in Fox News style – the massive parades – and you think, how funny,” he says. “But if you’re at the other end of the parade waiting for one of your friends and you see them when they stop, when they come to you and say, `Right, fancy a beer Nick?’, then you see the other side.

“I know how the situation is in North Korea and it makes me more determined.

“You can go two ways: say, `Forget this place, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole’, or you do, and I’m the latter.

“What we found was that interaction with individuals allowed us to do the most amazing things we never thought we could do.”

If even a few of those artists had been able to visit Brisbane to see their work hanging in QAG’s Gallery of Modern Art alongside mirror mosaics from Iran, video from Vietnam and sculptural drums from Vanuatu, Bonner believes Australian audiences would have enjoyed hearing about the experience of working in the most esteemed art studio in North Korea. He also believes the North Korean artists would have benefited. “You never know what might have happened,” he says. “If you are creative and see the wealth of art around you, it is going to have a massive effect.”

A statement released by DFAT, following the publicity surrounding Smith’s decision not to grant visas to North Korean nationals, said the ban was “part of the government’s response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons program”.

Although the statement said the nature of the artwork was an “incidental consideration”, DFAT made reference to the fact Mansudae studio is under direction of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Because the studio “reportedly produces all the official artworks in North Korea, including works that clearly constitute propaganda aimed at glorifying and supporting the North Korean regime”, DFAT decided on the visa ban, a sign to that country’s leader of this country’s disapproval.

Bonner becomes almost speechless with despairing rage at this statement and the damage it may do to the project that took so long to achieve. He apologises, saying he hopes he doesn’t sound like a crackpot, but he admits he would never have got involved in the first place if he had known this would be the outcome.

“North Korean artists have never done anything on this scale before,” he says.

“There’s never been work shown on this scale ever, but with the expertise of Suhanya Raffel [one of the APT curators at QAG] and my specialty, we’ve been able to show work on this scale.”

Mansudae is, indeed, the North Korean leader’s favoured art studio: artists compete to be accepted there following their six or eight years of university training because of the prestige. Mansudae also does produce much of the state’s official propaganda.

But, says Bonner, the artists at Mansudae also specialise in many other kinds of art.

Bonner is particularly proud of being able to show several portraits where the subjects are shown as individuals, rather than as stereotyped joyful workers, such as those depicted in the large mosaic work that greets visitors to this landmark exhibition.

Some of the works come from Bonner’s personal collection and he talks about discussing innovation with individual artists. One group of seven chosunhua, or brush-and-ink paintings, commissioned for APT, “tests the boundaries” of this traditional form by depicting domestic interiors, “humble illustrations of a familiar scenario expressed in an unpretentious manner”, Bonner says.

As with all the works in APT6, QAG has lavished care and respect on the display, and the overall effect in the spaces devoted to the Mansudae artists is eerie.

The almost comical optimism of a print of a young woman cleaning a bus or of a group of workers cycling to a factory is balanced against the tender realism of beautifully rendered portraits.

A large work by O Sung Gyu, depicting a foundry scene, is presented in isolation, so the viewer can appreciate its ambition and technical skill, noticing how the artist has also attempted to depict the fierce flames with more loosely applied blocks of colour.

In the room alongside, Im Hyok’s big brush-and-ink portrait of a worker, ubiquitous cigarette in his hand, eulogises the work ethic with predictable doggedness, but another study, by Kim Yong-il, shows a pensive man, posed like an Asian Byron, on a shoreline, with what looks like a fishing village in the background.

The smokestack is everywhere, even shown in the view through the window in a brush-and-ink interior of what seems to be a typical North Korean apartment.

Bonner, before the disappointment of the refused visas, expressed his satisfaction at working with these artists as they experimented with traditional techniques and composition.

Dismissing this work as propaganda “suits the way we are managing the world”, Bonner says.

At the opening he was told by some viewers that they found the images of happy workers disturbing, but he says such a response shows a “lack of depth and understanding”.

He hopes viewers will see the difference between propaganda and the humility of these works, the way each has, behind its making, the story of an individual artist working at a craft.

Even if a viewer decides the message is too ideological, Bonner’s response is, “So what?”

“To be quite honest, if they said it was propaganda, so what? It is still interesting to see that.

“You have to ask, how ignorant do you want the Australian population to be?”

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  • Gavin

    I’m surprised that Australian citizens are continued to be granted North Korean visas if Australia bans the issue of viasa to North Koreans. A misunderstanding earlier this year left UK citizens unable to visit the North for a while after they incorrectly believed the UK had implemented a visa ban.

  • That’s a good point Gavin, and I personally think there’s a possibility that something reciprocal may occur such as you mention, no hint of it yet but something to keep an eye on for sure. incidentally the reason initially given for visa denial w as simply that it was not in the interests of the foreign policy of the Australian state, the detail about them being propagandists and workers for the government came later, the statement seems to suggest that because they paint Kim Jong Il (they don’t, thats other artists) this is why they couldnt go to Australia, which is odd as it sounds as if the OZ govt is acting as an art critic. Anyway its all a bit sad as the art is there with nobody to explain how they go about producing it and as Curtis points out this is hardly a great victory for Australia, its an opportunity for some non-political engagement gone begging. The pieces themselves are great though, if you’re in Brisbane and haven’t been to the show yet then as the Australian tourist board memorably said ‘where the bloody hell are ya?’

  • haveahacks

    The Australian MFA’s response doesn’t make any sense. Is there an existing blanket ban on all North Koreans entering Australia ? Why does the spokesman talk about an “exception” ? There’s a big difference between an art studio and a weapons factory or internal security agency. North Korea is a communist country. Where else is an artist going to work except a government studio ? This puts the Aussies in the position of suppressing people on the basis of their speech, or more accurately, the speech of their colleagues. But then the Aussie government is also putting up its own Great Australian firewall, so perhaps censorship comes naturally to them.

    It’s possible that they do have security concerns about some specific individual in the delegation, but are unable to say so publicly. Still, even then they should come up with a better excuse than what they’ve pushed out so far.

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