In the summer of 2015, the North Korean government blocked Instagram. Users were met with the English message: “Warning! You can’t connect to this website because it’s in blacklist site.” The Korean blurb warned of “harmful” content ahead. This ban, however, hasn’t stopped touring photographers such as David Guttenfelder and Taylor Pemberton from uploading their snapshots once they return to their home countries. These images, at once unadorned and jarring, give us a glimpse into this highly sealed off nation.
North Korea’s censorship policies are some of the strictest in the world. In 2015, Reporters Without Borders dubbed North Korea the second most suppressive country in their Worldwide Press Freedom Index. The government controls all media outlets, leaving little room for the dissemination of artistic expression.
Despite North Korea’s blaring human rights violations, the aforementioned instagrammers are refreshingly neutral. They merely present honest, straightforward portraits of everyday life: a bustling city street, a man getting a haircut, children going off to school.
“It’s easy to go into the country feeling certain about what is right and what is wrong,” @pemberton told BBC. “I feel it’s also unfair for me to pass judgment on what their life may be like. It’s a different world with a different framework. When all that melts away, and you are able to see the substance in the humanity, it’s amazing.”
The North Korean government, however, has another vision for the art their population should be exposed to. Mansudae Art Studio, founded in 1959, is the only sanctioned, state run art making factory. This institution, comprised of 4,000 employees, specializes in Socialist Realism and propaganda art. Works feature placid landscapes that highlight North Korea’s topographical beauty, tough looking soldiers and farmers, as well as this piece, bluntly titled Long Live General Kim Jong Il. Most notably, they created a 66-foot high sculpture of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, which proudly stands in the capital. In 2012, the monument was joined by an equally towering likeness of his successor, Kim Jong Il.
It’s worth comparing these two opposing art forms, as they are some of the only North Korean pieces westerners are permitted to see. We are left with two polar opposite portraits: hyper-reality versus reality, stylized versus stark. These two camps represent two types of reverence: one strives to give a peek into the daily lives of individuals, and the other aims to instill reverence for its leaders and empire.
Like this article? Check out artist Do Ho Suh’s exhibition at the MOCA Cleveland and other global art news.