Made in North Korea- Everyday Graphics from the DPRK from 2018

At House of Illustration’s Main Gallery in London

It’s a country that never seems too far from headlines these days, ruled by a Communist dynasty spanning three generations. North Korea (or the DPRK to give it’s official title) is a ‘closed’ society, yet one which over the last few years has started to reveal something of itself to the outside world; whilst remaining secretive and cut off from close relations with even its allies.

North Korea holds a particular fascination and allure for the curious or adventurous; being exotic, strange and certainly remote, even to most seasoned travellers.  Mind you, ask anyone about the place and they are unlikely to start the conversation by talking about the beauty of its graphic art and design. Yet I’d be surprised if any visitor to ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’, an exhibition running at London’s ‘House of Illustration’ until 13th of May 2018, isn’t themselves surprised by what’s on show here.

Knowing something of this unique country’s history, makes for a deeper insight into the attitudes of its leaders and people. Admittedly, the secrecy and repeated standoffs with the West don’t exactly make for a clear picture of what life is like in North Korea. But sabre rattling and bluff aside, how do ordinary Koreans live in a society where dissent is not permitted? What are their lives like on a day to day basis?

‘New Year Card with Factory Worker demonstrating Soya Products (2005)’

Over the last few years, there have been several interesting documentaries exploring the country north of the 38th Parallel (the intensely militarised border that separates the two Koreas). One of which, ‘A State of Mind’ (2004) was produced by Nicholas Bonner; who is also the co-curator of this exhibition. ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ is the first show of its kind in the UK and is successful in providing a glimpse into the work of anonymous North Korean designers and graphic artists. It also offers a more constructive view of the country compared to that normally seen in the media. By examining the many examples of graphics, posters, comic books, product labels and other ephemeral items (collected by Bonner during his numerous excursions into the DPRK as a tour organiser and filmmaker); we get an intimate insight into details and customs of North Korean life, offering something like a portrait by proxy of its people; beyond the facade of official propaganda or the reductive sound bytes of Sky News or Fox.

Take a look at the geographical position of the Korean Peninsula. It’s strategic location. With China and Japan as next door neighbours, many Koreans see their country in the words of an old saying, like ‘a Shrimp trapped between two Whales’. In the first half of the twentieth century, Korea experienced war,  foreign occupation and partition. This included a harsh period of Japanese colonial rule, which lasted for thirty five years and left an indelible mark on the Korean people. There’s Russia too, who’s influence in shaping the North is arguably the most resonant of all. After the defeat of Japan in WW2, the peninsula was divided into two separate countries, that each became geopolitically significant in the emerging Cold War. Communist in the North, Capitalist in the South.

The conventions of advertising we take for granted in the West don’t exist the same way in North Korea. There everything is state and committee approved and decisions about almost everything are passed down from above (including the instructions for details of designs). Perhaps predictably, much less significance is placed on the identity of designers and artists, who work their way to success through the many state run studios. The most highly regarded of which is the Industrial Art Studio in the capital Pyongyang.

When discussing the country, people often focus on its status as a Communist nation. This of course is the basis of government and wider society. However, also significant is Korea’s Confucian heritage. Traditional values are very Important here. These contain elements of ‘National Pride’ and a respect for family, hierarchy and order. It is also impossible to overestimate the effect the devastating Korean War had on both Koreas. A war I might add that ended not with an armistice, but with a ceasefire over 60 years ago. Despite that, tensions in the region remain high, as we all know.

In the spirit of North Korea’s guiding philosophy of ‘Juche’ or ‘Self Reliance’; almost every product in the country is made within it’s borders. The emphasis of design isn’t on tailoring products to the aspirations and emotions of individuals as consumers. Instead, homegrown brands are made to appeal to different groups within society. Something you can see in the variety of cigarette packets on show.

‘Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People’s Economic Plan!’

In the posters that begin the exhibition, we see stylised factory workers, miners, engineers and scientists portrayed as smiling, vigorous heroes of everyday life (sounds a bit of an authoritarian cliché I know, but stay with me).

Initially when I looked at the DPRK posters, in design terms, I was reminded of examples from Stalin’s Russia or Maoist China. But (titles aside) the longer I looked, the more they began to reveal original elements; in terms of layout as well as a particularly distinctive use of colour. In Korean art, colours have symbolic meanings and traditional associations to the five elements. Certain colours also relate to the cardinal points. Another discernible feature of some posters is an emphasis on subtle pattern. Again a quality that is manifest across the graphic arts of the DPRK. Many posters contain large areas of almost translucent flatness (often with very delicate gradations of colour), whilst others exhibit more modelling. Together offering a dynamic visual contrast.

‘More Consumer Goods for the People!’

The traditions of poster design in North Korea are complex and rich. What may have been imported from other Communist countries or Asian cultures has long since developed on its own course. There may be elements of design present from outside, but the overall effect is distinctly North Korean. A memorable example being the dynamic ‘Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People’s Economic Plan!’ (1979). Or to an even greater extent ‘More Consumer Goods for the people!’ On show too (although not pictured here) is ‘Thrown it becomes waste. Gathered it becomes raw materials!’ which encourages the population to recycle (presumably in keeping with the idea of ‘self reliance’). All these images are dramatically striking and eye catching; as well as being hand painted artworks that would become the templates for runs of printed posters. Now on display, they allow us an insight into the designer’s creative process. We also have actual posters, that show the quality of the final print.

‘Tinned Fish Label’

It’s important to mention that there is a clear and orderly arrangement of text on all of the posters, in keeping with the visual clarity of the Korean language itself. A rule that seems to apply to many areas of graphic design, given what’s on display in this exhibition. A neatness and legibility which is present in product labelling; indicating to the consumer details about a particular product and – excuse the expression- showing them ‘exactly what it says on the tin’. In certain examples like the ‘Tinned Fish Label’ above or ‘Sweet Packet’ and ‘Tinned Food Label’ (both below); this is elevated to a high level of harmony and economy of means. A balance of form, colour and typography. As well, one cannot but admire the delicate artistry of the illustrators who’s work adorns these products, which after all were designed to be used and thrown away.

Together with product information, we find the name of the item or brand in American English as well as Korean; something oddly indicative of ‘premium quality’. (‘Lockington’ for example, is suggestive of 40s and 50s America: ‘homegrown’ and ‘authentic’). Other indicators of quality are visual and often include symbols of status in Korea. Things universally recognised by the population. Stylised forms of buildings, landmarks and natural features that in addition to packaging, decorate everything from notepaper to stamps.

One of the things that makes these products and fragments so distinctive is that their designers have produced them in relative isolation. If you look at examples of contemporary labelling on packaging in the West or Asia made to contain similar products; it is clear that in these designs, it was necessary to include a lot more written information. This is something that I couldn’t help noticing for some time after the show. In a strange way then, the very limitations imposed on the designers have made for things of beauty.

‘Box for Biscuits’

A great number of works on show express a strong sense of national and civic pride. Something to be found not just in North Korean graphics, but also in its other arts. We see finely coloured and composed views of public spaces and governmental buildings, set in well kept gardens and parks. Several examples are photographic in origin and form the basis of stamps, postcards and other printed material, designed to show the country at its best to tourists.

The comic books on display are known as gruim-chaek (“picture books”) in their native land. Their content is mostly propaganda in the form of revolutionary fables mixed with spy dramas and martial derring do, that utilise elements of Korean history and folk tales. Some are obviously aimed at children like ‘The Carp that was caught by the Little Bear’, which uses cartoon characters to tell the story. Other titles show an unusual use of English, such as ‘We Must Always Be Revolutionarily Vigilant Everywhere and Always’ and the bleak ‘If We Die, We Die Together, If We Live, We Live Together’. They can also be descriptive like ‘On the Yalu River’, but my personal favourite has to be ‘The Fossils give Testimony’. Or ‘Undroppable’. Surely the best of all. Of course, in their original Korean form these titles probably make more sense. But translated, they conjure up interesting images.

Comic books are genuinely popular in North Korea and to my eyes, their covers recalled the human dramas of old film posters. Generally, the characters are depicted in a popular realistic style of illustration. Yet one not without merit.

This show is well designed; both visually and thematically. From the carefully arranged and clear displays to all the information required to engage with what you’re looking at (which I found not too verbose or over complicated). Even if you know nothing about North Korea, the organisers have very thoughtfully provided enough information in the form of a handout (which also makes a pretty good souvenir of the show) to enable the spectator to understand the text on each of the posters and comic book covers. Also given are important dates in the country’s history; together with details about it’s significant landmarks, natural features, buildings; together with the meanings of certain Korean symbols.

Taken together, all the elements of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ look great too. The specially produced wallpaper (that adorns the galleries) not only reflects the material on show, but has a contemporary look to it. Bonner’s book of same title offers a more thorough examination of the subject and is beautifully illustrated and designed. Perhaps it will even become a record of a disappearing artform. As the country begins to adapt to the modern world, many of the qualities of the works presented (that give them much of their uniqueness) may well be lost.

In the final analysis, there is much to appreciate in these artefacts of a distant land. Bearing in mind that they are the product of a nation that controls the lives of its citizens on every level. This is something imperative not to forget when looking at the work. Significantly, overt political or martial content and images of the country’s leaders have been greatly reduced or removed. After all, this is a show about the graphic arts of the DPRK. Nevertheless, when looking at examples of party badges (that all citizens are expected to wear), I was surprised there were none of the Kim family themselves, which I would have been quite curious to see, given their obvious visual prominence in North Korean life.

‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ will obviously appeal to people interested in the graphic arts, but also to those curious about North Korea itself. It is a fascinating peek into a society very different from our own, yet one to which we can relate on an aesthetic level thanks to this exhibition.

(C) Gideon Hall 2018