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The vibrant, colorful world of North Korean product design: Exhibit shows the political and social messages delivered through graphics

Feb 26,2019
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Left: Labels of canned pear and trout from North Korea. Right: A propaganda poster encourages North Koreans to raise goats to produce more meat and milk for the country. [CULTURE & I LEADERS]
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Top: Nicholas Bonner introduces his collection at a press briefing at Hongik Daehangno Art Center, central Seoul, Monday. Above: “Orange Candy” is written in English on a package of candy, intended to give a sense of higher quality. [CULTURE & I LEADERS, KIM EUN-JIN]
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Images of bleak concrete buildings inhabited by equally gloomy people oppressed by a totalitarian dictatorship often come to mind when talking about North Korea.

Yet the “Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in The DPRK” exhibition, which opened last December at the Hongik Daehangno Art Center, central Seoul, attempts to challenge those long-held prejudices by presenting the communist state exactly as it is through everyday North Korean objects and ephemera.

“Made in North Korea” is a vibrant and colorful show that displays 200-plus items from north of the 38th parallel collected by co-curator Nicholas Bonner, one of the world’s most-experienced North Korea visitors.

Bonner, who has a background in landscape architecture, has been running tour company Koryo Tours since 1993 and facilitating organized trips to major North Korean cities ever since.

“I think we in the West and South Korea just associate propaganda with North Korea. But this [exhibition] is very different,” said Bonner, speaking during a press briefing in Seoul Monday.

“We know the black and white of North Korea, but what we fail to know is what is in between. So that is one of the big reasons for this exhibition.”

What instantly grabs visitors’ attention are the vibrant colors that fill the exhibition, exuding not only from the displays themselves but also from the wallpaper covered in splashes of bright yellows and blues.

Objects ranging from cup noodles to soda cans feature bold typography and modern, digital images that appear almost identical to goods found at supermarkets in the South. Dozens of propaganda posters that serve as the government’s mouthpiece for spreading political and social messages also display neatly-printed graphics of artworks that Bonner calls “world-standard.”

“The designs changed from hand-drawn to digital style graphics in the mid-2000s,” Bonner explained. “Packaging’s very different from what it was when digital and printing technology was [first] allowed. Graphics have moved on massively so nowadays any graphics you pick up from the store or supermarket [are] very similar to even here.”

North Korean graphics, categorized as social realism art, are all designed by trained artists who work from government-run studios. They are strikingly reminiscent of designs popular in South Korea during the 1970s’ “New Village Movement,” when the Park Chung Hee administration tried to usher in modernization by encouraging higher productivity for the progress of the country.

A closer look at the North’s posters reminds viewers that they are propaganda, not an advertisement. Featuring gleeful characters dressed in uniforms against the backdrops of pleasant households and factories, the posters bear such calls to action as “Let’s all raise goats to produce more meat and milk.”

Bonner agrees the images and scenes in the propaganda do not reflect the reality of the communist state, but “packaging has never been reality,” he says.

“Packaging in the North is ‘This is a bottle of water. Inside is water.’ Packaging here, in Britain or [the United States] is ‘If you drink this water you’ll be more beautiful, you’ll be taller, handsomer and sexier.’ That’s the big difference.”

Besides the vivid colors, the widespread presence of English words and Westernized imagery on a lot of consumer products, such as cigarette cases and edible goods like candies, may come as a surprise. On display there are also commemorative stamps celebrating landmark events abroad, the likes of Prince William’s birth in Britain, and concert brochures for opera performances that come in a variety of languages, from Spanish and English to Japanese.

“Giving it an English letter or an English name gives it this feeling of something luxurious,” Bonner explained. “There is a North Korean version of Rothmans cigarettes. They don’t use the word luxury in North Korea,” but writing in English connotes “good quality.”

Even though we may associate English with the West, in many cases, the English on the packages were actually previously intended to facilitate trade between North Korea and other socialist countries, Bonner added.

“Film posters used to be in French. [This is] because North Korea was part of the non-alignment movement and there was a lot of trading products between Cambodia, Vietnam and a little bit with the USSR. The English isn’t for [the West,]” Bonner said.

By contrast, the exhibition is also filled with political emblems and iconography that aim to boost national pride and identity on items as simple as cigarette boxes. The messaging can be as blatant as illustrations of a North Korean hero shooting a U.S. soldier on the packaging of a toy gun. The exhibition’s comic books feature young heroes and heroines sacrificing themselves for the sake of the country and valiantly fighting the enemy - usually South Koreans, Japanese and Americans.

In fact, a few items, including the toy gun and a few comic books that were exhibited at the original London exhibition, were barred by South Korean customs for containing politically sensitive material.

“The fact that everything got here bar a few items […] is amazing. There’s no way that this exhibition could’ve happened [in Seoul] before,” Bonner said, noting the significant improvements in North-South relations over the past year.

South Korea is the first country outside Britain to exhibit “Made in North Korea.” Bonner unveiled his collection of items for the first time last February at London’s House of Illustration gallery. The exhibition received a lot of attention there, and attracted 56,000 guests in three months.

Bonner specially brought over spatial designers, wallpapers and even gallery labels from Britain to recreate the aesthetics of the original London exhibition for the Seoul exhibit.

“Every object has been picked up by me. The invitations [for concerts and sports games] were made out to me. They’re very personal and it’s like a living diary,” Bonner added.

Admission is 13,000 won ($11.60). The exhibition will run through April 7, and will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., excluding Mondays. For more details, visit madeinchosun.modoo.at.

BY KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]