Uli Sigg’s idiosyncratic collection of North and South Korean art is on display in rare exhibition in Switzerland
An ambitious new exhibition in Bern, Switzerland, brought together artists from the bitterly divided nations of North and South Korea, which have long inhibited artistic exchange.
In “Border Crossings: North and South Korean Art from the Sigg Collection”, 90 works by 30 artists produced between the 1970s and the 2010s rub shoulders with the divergent histories of the two nations, separated by a hard border since 1953..
The exhibition, at Kunstmusem Bern, revolves mainly around the collection of Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to China and North Korea. He loaned 75 pieces which he acquired in the late 1990s during his assignment in the region, as well as works from South Korea and China which he subsequently began to acquire.
It’s a rare opportunity to see North Korean art, which rarely leaves the country. The works exhibited from the country are all done in the socialist realist style and are largely propaganda paintings. There is a large painting by North Korean artist Pak Yong Chol called Missiles depicting Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il looking jubilant as rockets explode.
Exhibition curator Kathleen Bühler said she strives not to make “hasty judgments” about North Korean works and to see them “in the context of the conditions in which they were made” . Consequently, the works exhibited are not grouped by nation but by theme.
“The accusation that North Korean art is mere propaganda explains only part of these works, ”Bühler said in a statement. “Because all art is always also an expression of the ideology of its time, and directly or indirectly transmits something of its environment.”
Other works in the exhibition come from the collection of Swiss activist Katharina Zellweger, who was a humanitarian in North Korea in the 1990s. She has loaned the museum a selection of North Korean stamps and posters.
The exhibition also includes Chinese perspectives from artists who grew up on the border with North Korea. In He Xiangyu’s video Yellow swim caps, the artist crosses the Yalu River, on the North Korean border, to imagine what the defectors could suffer illegally trying to enter China.
Other work shows the moments of permeability that may exist along the 155 mile border. With the help of Chinese middlemen, South Korean artist Kyungah Ham managed to get his embroidery designs to the northern nation where they were reworked by North Korean embroiderers in a transgressive collaboration.
The show also reminds viewers of Kim Jong Un’s curious relationship with border crossings: The current leader of North Korea lived in Bern for 11 years as a child, disguised as a family member of embassy staff. from North Korea.
Borders: North Korean and South Korean art from the Sigg collection is visible at Kunstmuseum Bern from April 30 to September 5.
See the works exhibited at the museum below.
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