Lessons from North Korea

A Norwegian artist seeks to bring Juche-style enlightenment to his countrymen – at their expense.

One of the many interesting aspects of living in Norway is that one is frequently exposed to pro-Cuban propaganda.  As I wrote in my book While Europe Slept, the Norwegian media routinely depict Cubans as “an unusually happy people who, in a world of bland, cookie-cutter materialism, have taken a different path, retaining their magnificent, vibrant uniqueness and staving off the influences of the vapid 'McDonald’s culture' that reigns only sixty miles from their shores.”

Legendary Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl was a good pal of Castro's, praising him as a man who “lives a spartan, simple life, and thinks only about doing what’s best for the poor people of Cuba.”  A while back, Norwegian taxpayers funded Habana Libre, a documentary about “the joy in life and the human spirit that breathes through an expressive culture that we usually experience only in fragments... here in the market-driven West.”

But all the frantic, fatuous enthusiasm for Cuba is amateur-night stuff compared to the positive picture that many mainstream Norwegian media paint of – believe it or not – North Korea.  Yes, North Korea.   In 2004, the country's biggest paper, VG, ran a splashy four-page feature on “the two faces of North Korea.”  One of those “two faces” was North Koreans' ubiquitous reverence for the memory of their late Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung.  The other face was – get this – fun, fun, fun!  VG filled a couple of pages with pictures of North Koreans laughing, singing, swimming, and having a gay old time at an amusement park.  Yes, VG acknowledged in passing that the people depicted in these photos were members of the dictatorship's privileged class, but that fact was glossed over, the main objective plainly being to shatter the notion that North Korea was really that different from any other country.

A few years back, Norway's government-run TV network, NRK, ran a report about a young North Korea man who'd fled to South Korea with his mother.  But NRK didn't frame it as a story of an escape from tyranny to freedom.  For while North Korea had its downside, we were instructed, so did South Korea, which was depicted as a neon madhouse of capitalism run amok.  What was needed in Korea, the report suggested, was a real Communist revolution.  That, at least, appeared to be the conclusion of the young man, who, in the report's closing shot, was seen standing on a hill overlooking those garish neon signs of Seoul, studying a book with a picture of Che Guevara on the cover.

And now, well, this.  In an article that appeared the other day in the Norwegian daily Dagbladet, Bjørn S. Kristiansen wrote about Norwegian artist Morten Traavik and his art project The Promised Land, which he has produced in collaboration with North Korea's Committee for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries, and which “culminates in a Norwegian version of...the familiar mass demonstrations in Pyongyang.”  In other words, those giant, ridiculous, robotic, disgusting, government-organized displays in which you've got to take part, or else.

Traavik says he is “deeply impressed by both the art form and the mentality underlying” those giant displays, saying that if North Koreans are subjected to propaganda, well, so are we in the West, for “there are mainly three things we hear about North Korea again and again: stories about famine and need, warlike North Koreans with atomic bombs, and ridicule of the cult of personality.”  In Traavik's view “it's time for the West to open its eyes to the fact that North Korea consists of more than just that.”

Traavik decided, then, to bring to Norway the excitement and artistry of those mass North Korean displays of subjugation.  With the help of North Korean officials who are in charge of organizing those grotesque mass public demonstrations in Pyongyang, Traavik brought together 256 people, almost all of them Norwegian soldiers, and taught them to mimic the Pyongyang demonstrations.  This part of The Promised Land project was called ME/WE.  According to the project website, ME/WE “puts our communal spirit to the test: Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one, if only just for some hours?”  Implicit here is that “individualist” is a dirty word and “collective discipline” of the Pyongyang variety is a good thing.

Although, according to Dagbladet, ME/WE was an artistic success, Traavik was not entirely satisfied.  “We tried for over two months to recruit between 250-300 volunteers, but got only a handful to take part who accepted the premise.”  Fortunately, the Norwegian military came to the rescue, apparently compelling soldiers to take part in this homage to totalitarianism.

Traavik hopes that his “art project” will help people in the West to recognize that their images of North Korea “are, at best, incomplete.”  During his collaboration with the North Koreans, he's made many friends among North Korean officials.  He hosted a dinner in Kirkenes, Norway, for a North Korean delegation, at which his six-month-old son, Tage, was “dressed in a tailor-made dark green Kim Jong-Il uniform that he had had made for his son in Pyongyang.”

In May, Traavik will return to Pyongyang with a group of Norwegian artists who will hold a Norwegian cultural festival there.  Traavik hopes that this will be the first of many cultural exchanges.   As the project website enthuses, The Promised Land “opens our minds for a possibility of dialogue, overcoming mutual suspicion. Traavik is yet again challenging established truths [sic] and prejudices we have about our selves and each other.”

A reader who posted a comment on the Dagbladet article about The Promised Land said that Traavik is one of those very few fortunate Norwegian artists who don't have to worry about making a living because he receives an annual stipend from the Norwegian government.  A quick search shows that Traavik did indeed receive 190,000 kroner ($33,350) in Norwegian taxpayer money in 2011.

I will close by quoting another comment from Dagbladet in which a reader defends Traavik's “art project” on these grounds: “If we did not have such art projects...we would be a flat, cultureless society.  We don't want to be the U.S., do we?”

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