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Darkness at Noon

By Maxi Kim.

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Thus far, it has been an enigmatic year for making the world more open to self-government. Since the 2011 revolts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, my friends and colleagues have seemingly discovered a newfound interest in East Asia – specifically, South Korea’s model turn from haggard military rule to newly dynamic republic. As a result, the parallels between North Africa and the East Asian peninsula are quickly being drawn by pundits and talking heads: Think of today’s Egypt as South Korea in the 1980s during the early stages of its democratic movement, Libyan ‘King of African Kings’ Muammar al Qaddafi as the middle-eastern equivalent of South Korean General Chun Doo-hwan, Tunisia’s familial network of corrupt commercial dealings as mirror image of South Korea’s early nepotistic big businesses.

Of course, what such optimistic similitudes conceals is an underlying teleological assumption that familiar autocracies will invariably, in the near future, become functioning, secular, democratic nations. However, an honest look at the Korean peninsula in its totality, including North Korea, reveals a series of alternative narrative threads that throws into question the South Korean democratic model: Perhaps the Egyptian military’s influence in its current society is a precursor to a North Korean style military-led society that will remain hostile to democritization, like North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong Il perhaps Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi will continue to stun the international community in consolidating power, perhaps the Orwellian way Ben Ali’s government controls dissent and free expression can best be understood in the light of the hyper-Orwellian way that Kim Jong Il’s regime continues to control dissent and punish free expression.

As the optimism of the Arab Spring quickly dissolves into the riots of the London summer, how can North Korea help us to further delineate the emancipatory deadlocks and antinomies latent in our current situation? You will recall how on April 3rd in Beijing Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese police; and thanks, in part, to the help of many of his vocal international supporters, China’s best-known artist was released after 81 days in detention, conspicuously thinner and quieter. Since his arrest there has been much rumor and talk about what actually happened to Ai Weiwei during his detention and why exactly he was kidnapped. Perhaps the most alarming rumor sprang up in mid-May when it was thought by my South Korean colleagues that Ai Weiwei was being held in an underground facility somewhere in North Korea’s design firm Mansudae; occupying 144,000 square yards in Pyongyang, Mansudae was originally set up to fabricate propaganda art for Kim Il Sung. Speculation had it that Kim Jong Il wanted to pick Ai Weiwei’s brain for North Korea’s own version of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium.

In retrospect, although the sighting of Ai in North Korea was shown to be false, the Chinese government’s collusion with North Korea to disseminate stadium-sized monuments and foster a totalitarian aesthetics has never been more true. If you follow the news at all, you’re probably sick of reading about the surge of Chinese direct investment in the African continent; however, it is important to note that very little concern has been raised about North Korea’s penetration into the continent. Perhaps the most surprising example of North Korea’s growing African presence is the sight of the African Renaissance monument in Dakar, Senegal. Measuring 164 feet high (13 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty), the giant copper sculpture of an idealized African family depicts a father raising his baby in his left arm, while his right arm is around the waist of the mother – all three staring into the horizon.

The fascist frisson that the statue elicits is unmistakable. In the first decade of the short 21st century, the North Korean design firm Mansudae has built dozens of Kim Jong Il-style monuments similar to the African Renaissance in neighboring African countries like Botswana and Namibia. For both Africa watchers and East Asia watchers alike it is important to note that Mansudae is responsible for building Eternal President, a 66-foot high statue of Kim Il Sung and painting The Year of Bitter Tears, a 269 foot long canvas that mourned the death of the Great Leader. The fact that this same design firm is now providing the manpower and aesthetic vision for an emergent 21st century African nationalism ought to give us all pause. Soon after the completion of the African Renaissance it was reported that the current President of Senegal received a letter from Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi asking how he too could acquire such a North Korean-style monument.

Up until very recently the discussion surrounding Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment was on how art institutions, like the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Montreal Museum, ought to have been doing more to hasten the release of the detained Chinese artist. Recall how Where is Ai Weiwei? was not only a query posed, but an urgent call to action. Now that Ai has been provisionally released, I fear that the recent ethical demands we’ve come to expect from our art institutions will lose a certain critical momentum and slowly be forgotten from the public narrative. Already the recent London riots have clouded what was eminently palpable only weeks ago – the timing here is crucial. We should not assume that a discreet appeal to the arts in the future will be enough to start the machine in motion again. Are we aware to the degree to which China’s government is relying on the West’s moral malaise and apathy to undercut the emancipatory potential of Art?

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Let us not forget that it was only shortly after Ai Weiwei announced in a Twitter posting, “Today, we are all Egyptian. It only took 18 days for the collapse of a military regime which was in power for 30 years and looked harmonious and stable. This thing [the Chinese government] that has been for 60 years may take several months” – that the Chinese Communist Party felt justified in subduing science fiction TV dramas and censoring new art that had the potential for ‘counter-revolutionary subtext.’ In the face of China’s continued efforts to censor positive news about the Egyptian revolution from China’s blogs and web forums, I am happy to report that various East Asian institutions are breaking through the censorship and disseminating the images of the Arab revolt. Activist groups such as the South Korea-based Fighters for Free North Korea have sent 200,000 balloons, across the heavily fortified North Korean border, carrying USB flash drives containing video of the recent wave of North African uprisings; the idea being that a North Korean might finally decide to defect after watching video clips of rebel forces in Libya rise against Muammar Gaddafi. A similar plan is being drawn up by both art professors and art students in Seoul to disperse edited images and sounds of London’s young people confronting the police.

It is precisely against this background, what the media historian Boris Groys has identified as a “resistance in the name of art’s autonomy, that is, in the name of the equality of all art forms and media” that the battle lines of the 21st century will be drawn. On one side we have the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il who thinks of himself first and foremost as an artist, the final arbiter of the public Image; his movies, paintings, sculptures, operas, and many texts speaks to the newest iteration of China’s public art theory that the nation state itself is the purest form of Art. On the other side we have a number of South Korean arts institutions attempting to remind the public of the egalitarian projects of the here and now, and how we can steel ourselves to resist the dictatorship of contemporary taste. It is my profound hope that this dual aesthetic understanding of the East Asian peninsula will further clarify how we understand the ongoing relationship between us, China, and the developing world.

From whatever angle you approach it, we can not underestimate the aesthetic virtue of the image – whether it is the particular image of London’s black youths in the streets forcing the police to back away or the general Image of the North African uprisings. A powder trail links what in each event has not let itself be captured by a teleology. If we see a succession of movements hurrying one after the other, without leaving anything visible behind them, it must nonetheless be admitted that a series of questions persists: How does a situation of generalized rioting become an insurrectionary situation? What to do once the streets have been taken? What is the practical meaning of deposing power locally? How do we proceed the day after? How do we decide? How do we subsist?

As defenders and patrons of the arts in the developed world it seems to certain of us, especially now, that we have approached the edge of a plateau. Revolutions recast twenty times suddenly take shape. At that point the bitter pill that normally seizes us when faced with the certainty of failure fades. We stop losing ourselves in the labyrinth of art fairs, new media art, and relational aesthetics. From one art opening to the next, it is suddenly enough for us to witness an uprising for a link to appear. Directions that seemed contradictory cease to be so. Of course, it is easy to be disheartened by the recent wave of mindless looting and violence in London’s streets. But don’t you go believing, reader, that art institutions can once again retreat into the background. Comrades, let us continue on this path we have stumbled upon earlier this year. If the Ayatollah’s call to murder a novelist was a hinge moment for a previous generation, the Chinese government’s kidnapping of a visual artist is our hinge moment. Ai Weiwei’s release is merely the beginning.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author of One Break, A Thousand Blows, Maxi Kim‘s forthcoming book Did Somebody Say North Korea? confronts one of the pervasive myths of our time: that North Korea is a Communist regime led by a Stalinist dictator that will, with time, disintegrate like the Soviet Union. He currently splits his time between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 19th, 2011.