Artistic work of Sun Mu (born 1972) represents both Korean states; using political images in surprising relationships, one of the reasons his being removed from the showrooms of the 2008 Busan Biennale. Six years later his solo exhibition was shut down at the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing, China.
2019 fall, his works were exhibited from September 13 to October 20, in a solo exhibition in Kunstraum Munich, Germany. As the exhibition title “Look at us” suggested, Sun Mu decided to address the recent summits between North Korea, South Korea and the United States. The installation design of the exhibition showed the interrelationship, the similarities and differences between the two Koreas.
We spoke to the German curator of the exhibition, Alexander Steig and the artist Sun Mu about the recent project:
How did the project come about?
A.S.: Curator and artist Jae-Hyun Yoo introduced me to Sun Mu at Haus der Kunst, Munich back in summer 2018. We met again in autumn during our trip to South Korea when Jae-Hyun Yoo suggested inviting Sun Mu to exhibit in Munich. As deputy chairman of the art-space “Kunstraum München” I brought up the topic on one of the Board meetings. Of course, I informed my colleagues about the political background. We decided that the artist should reside in Munich in one of the state provided artist residences to produce art for this exhibition. Sun Mu arrived in Munich in mid-July 2019.
Sun Mu: This year February, I had an exhibition in the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, USA. This institution was founded by a US-scholar of European history as a Museum of the Cold War and it had a huge collection of objects from the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc. I wanted to exhibit there to ease the relationship between our two countries. One day I saw a woman who stayed in front of my painting and cried. She was not American; probably from East Germany. I became curious. Germany was also divided into two countries. I felt that the perception of people in Germany and reaction to my work would be different. This crying woman understood something that many others did not understand because art is always something personal, the more personal it is to people, the more people are touched by it.
Can you imagine that the exhibition in Munich could be shut down?
A.S.: Well, the North Korean Embassy is in Berlin, and maybe someone will come to visit us. But I don’t think similar intervention which happened in China and turned out the shut down of Sun Mu’s exhibition can happen in Germany. It’s not that Sun Mu represents one of the two sides of the party. He just knows both countries and hangs on to that idea of the approach. I feel his art is less controversial than his personal way.
What discussions do you want to stimulate?
Sun Mu: I escaped from North Korea because I was hungry but not because I disagreed with the political regime. I started to paint because I wanted to express myself. Also, art is a form of expression, which shows our differences in the best possible way but also, let them be. My themes come from my life and my reality. What you see is still a reality of me. I have been living in South Korea for such a long time, I studied there, I have my family and kids, but when I google myself, I still read “The artist from North Korea”. What can I do? I guess I am still North Korean inside, but if you ask me to explain, I probably do not know what it does exactly mean. I thought I speak the same language in South Korea, but I am not. A 70-year-long division creates a cultural divide.
A.S.: The Kunstraum Munich is a political art space. Artists deal with the critical examination of their own countries and state politics. You have to work critically as an artist and report on things if you think they need to be considered. Last year we invited Friedrich Burschel who talked about “Forensic architecture”, a group that has traced NSU murder in Kassel. In addition to the exhibitions, we offer a framework program. For the exhibition of Sun Mu we have invited Prof. Dr. Du-Yul Song, a South Korean sociologist who was arrested for wanting to arrange a meeting between North and South Korean intellectuals, so to speak, to initiate an approach attempt on an intellectual level. The more polarization of society takes place, the stronger is our responsibility to offer art, which reflects on the topic. We do not dictate anything; we make offers. We do not look for scandal; we want to make a contribution.
Can we speak about the paintings?
A.S.: Sun Mu’s paintings are formally inspired by the propaganda images of his homeland, but he questions their content and ideological messages. At first glance, the images look like pop art variant of propaganda posters of the North Korean Workers’ Party, but in his old homeland, the artworks are capital crimes because painting the face of the Great Leader without the Party’s permission is blasphemy and nobody is allowed to do that, Sun Mu said.
Sun Mu: I am not so much influenced by propaganda but by people and their destinies. When I arrived in South Korea, I went to study at Hongik University because I wanted to meet people. I have experienced both societies and I feel that you do not need an ideology to get along. The freedom to have a political and artistic expression in South Korea gave me space to create paintings filled with strong satirical messages of the North Koran regime, but it also attracted controversy and threatened the safety of my family members living in North Korea. Under the “three generation of punishments”, three generations of a family can be disciplined by the North Korean government if a relative has gone against the state. For this reason, I work under a pseudonym and hide my face. Instead of my birth name, I am using the pseudonym “Sun Mu”, which means “without border” or “boundlessness”. I wish for art without borders.
A.S.: As a leitmotif for our exhibition’s poster, we have chosen a picture with a female traffic officer. I think the idea of the artist’s work is perfectly caught here. The canvas is divided into two parts, abstract depiction of two Koreas, marked by red and blue. In the middle of it we see a woman wearing a specific uniform. You feel she is playing a certain role, probably representing the power of the state, radiating responsibility in her performance but at the same time she has a bit of a boyish attitude. Over her figure we read sentences: Come to the North, Come to the South, Let us meet in Panmunjom. The perception of Sun Mu’s work is actually very limited to both Koreas, because a foreign viewer cannot read the logos and therefore will understand the content only partially. Without understanding texts, the meaning of the work is not very clear.
Sun Mu: I write my own texts however the inspiration comes from the North Korean logos, that is why backgrounds of my texts are mostly red. They say: Long live our leader; We work for the people; We live our way; Our path is not easy but we have to pass on. I used to believe in those messages, I can even recall to the last one: “The road is not easy I go anyway” when using it with great irony. I would like to point out that there is a North Korean society. There, too, live the people. It is possible to understand others without prejudice, however, as soon as we describe our origin we are stamped.
Are you familiar with the Socialist realism? Don’t you think these paintings resample the Soviet posters?
Sun Mu: I never saw soviet posters. Propaganda mechanisms like ideology are the same everywhere that is why everything looks so similar.
A.S.: Not only Soviet posters, in GDR we also had a period of propaganda poster and similar pictures and I have recently seen something similar during my trip to Vietnam. These images provide the usual clichés. They work with the same prototypes.
Do you consider these works contemporary art?
A.S.: He paints very formal, almost chorographical. There are some elements of western art, which probably come from his studies in South Korea.
Sun Mu: I don’t know what is contemporary art. I have no interest in it. When I was painting for the army in North Korea, the painting was just a tool. Now I suddenly read that my work is called “political pop-art”. I paint for myself. My work is neither left nor right. I don’t want to take a side. What is contemporary for me? When people get along with each other and discuss the situation. When I arrived in South Korea and saw western artists I did not like any of them until I discovered Joseph Beuys, especially after my show in Düsseldorf where I was in a space, which he used for his shows. I saw a yellow light bulb plugged into an actual lemon creating a metaphor of nature’s transformative and healing power. I also saw his works about a rabbit and I started to think: “What did he mean by that?“ After I read some texts, I understood his concern about the environment. It impressed me. I wanted to open myself up for the art of others.
Do you support the idea of Beuys that “everyone is an artist”?
Sun Mu: No, I don’t think it’s that easy. His idea about environment and a rabbit cannot occur to everyone.
A.S.: I am amazed by how fast Sun Mu works. He resembled a seismograph that reacts up-to-date. I watched him working. He can quickly serve large canvases. His colors are always cheerful. He features symbols of Communism, like North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, juxtaposed with symbols of Western capitalism like a Coca Cola bottle or Donald Duck. He has his own vocabulary, probably based on his archive, containing stereotyped people, nearly archetypes.
Sun Mu: No, I don’t have any archives. I look for role models online and rework my vision. My process of painting is always different. Sometimes I start with drawing on canvas and afterwards paint or I paint right away because I’m obsessed with the idea. I normally use red and blue, which represents two Koreas. Sometimes I think about football. It’s about the game of two teams but only one will win. Red equals the red card, and is called excretion from the game. But in every game, there is also a mediator. And I’m this mediator, I show a yellow card and it means a warning. My colors are joyful because I have a positive attitude. We are the same people; ideologies are different. I like to depict children. I myself have two kids. Children are the future of both South and North Korea.
Do you want to influence reunification with your art?
Sun Mu: No, even if I wish reunion, it sounds very political. How should we be united when we are so different? I just wish we would slowly approach to get to know each other. To be an artist is to be someone who can freely communicate to the world; someone who can tell a story about both the past and present, along with the future.
A.S.: As I interpret this position, Sun Mu wishes that both countries would come into contact. Artists may create incomprehension, so does Sun Mu. And artists can act differently, but they can reach impact on political and social events. Perhaps they can make contact faster than the politicians, who constantly have to follow complicated diplomatic ways. Compared to politicians, artists can send direct and open messages, independent positions. So it seemed important to me to publicize position of Sun Mu in Munich, Germany.