On my mother’s birthday.
As a Korean, the idea of having two artistic identities, South Korean Mina Cheon and North Korean Kim Il Soon, is an obvious reflection on the country’s state of being divided. It makes all the sense in the world that if a country is split so should the artist in practice. As a political pop artist, I’ve created artworks that responded to the global political climate, using pop imagery that circulates on the Internet, news, and entertainment as the source of my work. As a South Korean new media artist Mina Cheon, the political pop art (Polipop) includes the perspective of a South Korean-American who travels between the East and West, bringing out things that usually go unnoticed or said in media culture. As a North Korean social realist painter, Kim Il Soon lacks access to technology and adheres strictly to the propaganda painting style of North Korea.
While the Korean peninsula may be demarcated by a 38th Parallel, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the history and culture is nevertheless shared, the country is united by one country’s people and language. Moreover, Korea is ubiquitously tied by the never-ending heated debate on reunification and national identity, whether we are at war, armistice, trade, or peace. This is our business.
The world may find our country (countries) amusing, the radically divided, globally useful as separated communism and capitalism states, fanatically obsessing over sports or military or pop culture. Our history is made by other countries and cultures, the Western influence has been severe, whether through China, Japan or America, it makes sense that other worlds and countries deem to hold stake at what should remain – a country divided – and what shouldn’t happen – reunification. Who are those who dictate what should happen? Who are fit to lead the way towards unification, when cultural divides remain not only from South and North but also between East and West, and even between the left and right politics.
Sweet Revolution, graphic inspiration behind Let’s East Choco·Pie Together, a 10,000 piece Choco Pie Installation by
Mina Cheon AKA Kim Il Soon at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts for “CHOCO·PIE PROPAGANDA”, 1/23/2014, Chelsea, NYC
What does economy have to do with it? Probably everything. It benefits some for Korea to be separated; it benefits others for us to unite. Mostly, humanitarians would like to see Korean reunification for the purpose of global peace. We are those people, Kim Il Soon and Mina Cheon, and everyone else who support the cause of this political pop art campaign which include the slogans and ideas, “Eat Choco·Pie Together,” “Squirt Water Not Bullets,” and “Make Art Not Missiles.”
In 2004, I traveled to North Korea from South Korea, busing passed the DMZ with very large windows without curtains so that North Korean military soldiers can see us through the glass. The tour was to the glorious and mystical Mountain Kum Kang San, a place that is now forbidden ever since 2008, when a South Korean female tourist was shot twice by a North Korean officer for straying her path. With the same name as the number one Korean restaurant in New York City, the Kum Kang San Restaurant in K-town where you dine Korean BBQ over a massive faux mountain made out of Styrofoam and a mechanically pumped waterfall, the passing into North Korea was its own simulacra, a copy without an original since the sky seemed bluer, the mountains looking just like the images we are so familiar with through posters and calendars of hallmarking beauty of North Korea. Being at the actual site only reinforced the image of the place, it was all a reproductive moment. And the woman who got shot, could have been me, as I am told repeatedly.
While the tour was restrictive and highly programmed, my direct interactions with North Koreans were nothing like the axis of evil, uncle killing, actress raping, fan of Dennis Rodman, rogue enemy. Instead, they were warm. I felt akin, like being with my own family, they were like sisters, and like my mother, who after all was from the North and came down to the South at the brink of war.
Many of the North Korean female workers around the Kum Kang San’s Hyundai Resort, or even the security were friendly. They called me “unni” meaning older sister and even showed signs of affection by slightly holding my arm when speaking to me. I did not feel foreign in this country.
Three Graces, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 48” x 1.5 by Mina Cheon AKA Kim Il Soon at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts
Exhibition: “CHOCO·PIE PROPAGANDA” Opens: January 23rd, 2014, Chelsea, New York City
Soon after my trip, I started creating my first series of political pop art on North Korea with a series of 99 Miss Kim(s) doll installation of North Korean military femme bots that superseded American Barbie dolls in beauty and appearance, as well as an interactive media installation piece, Half Moon Eyes that archived all the videos from that trip, including footages that I had to retrieve back after confiscation. The term “half moon eyes” references the shape of North Korean female eyes that make them remarkably beautiful. The work I did then was dedicated to my mother whose maiden name is Kim, as well as all of the Kim names of North Korea. Miss Kim was also myself, as a Korean embodying North Korean history.
By 2012, it was no accident that meeting Ethan Cohen who also has a history with North Korea, encouraged me to elaborate further with Miss Kim, Ms. Kim Il Soon. Her name Kim Il Soon bequeath to her by the supposed Dear Leader, means “eternal purity” and sounds similar to Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea whose name means “eternal sun.” Kim Il Soon is a nationally recognized painter, which means she has a bit more artistic freedom than some. She is also a two-starred Lieutenant Commander, scholar, devout citizen, hardworking farmer, a mother of two, and most importantly, a human being.
The artwork created in this persona is a deliberate political move, the art is activism that brings awareness about North Korea and it is Kim Il Soon’s intension to resume painting until Korean reunification. She is my artistic persona, alter ego, a new media avatar, and this is our performance. With the work ethics of a good North Korean, Kim Il Soon spends a hundred hours with each painting. Since she is recognized as a national painter, she has assistants, but nevertheless labors over the work.
Kim Il Soon appeared publicly in the United States for the first time during the Pulse Art Fair in New York 2013 with Ethan Cohen New York, and the painting Sons of Joseon: Squirt Water Not Bullets was exhibited alongside her performance, as she passed out political peace buttons. North Koreans call their nation “Joseon” but they do not directly relate themselves or acknowledge the history of the Korean Joseon Dynasty. The two boys in the painting is her son Kim Si-un, and the doubling of his appearance signifies the twin effect, a country split into two. This painting was soon thereafter acquired by the Smith College Museum of Art, and housed in the contemporary art section, a fitting place for housing their very first North Korean female artist’s work.
Let’s East Choco·Pie Together, 10,000 Choco Pie Installation, 153″ x 159″ by Mina Cheon AKA Kim Il Soon
Site specific, interactive, audience participation installation. Installed at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts,
Sponsored by Orion Co., Korea. Exhibit: “CHOCO·PIE PROPAGANDA” Opens: January 23rd, 2014, Chelsea, NYC
So, here we are. Kim Il Soon’s very first solo exhibition at Ethan Cohen New York gallery opens. In varying sizes, her paintings resemble North Korean propaganda posters. In Happy North Korean Girl, she proudly poses in front of the DPRK flag. She is happy because she can serve her nation with pride. In 2011, the North Korean Chosun Central Television announced the results of a new global happiness index reported by the national research team, and it states that North Korea is the second happiest nation aside big China which is supposedly the happiest due to the mere number of people; South Korea being in the 152nd place and “the American Empire” in place 203, which would not be a surprise if it was dead last place.
The paintings of Happy North Korean Little Boy and Happy North Korean Little Girl show Kim Il Soon’s children, Kim Si-un (son) and Kim Si-a (daughter) who sing their hearts out for their country on stage. While blessed with two children, Kim Il Soon is only married to the state, and by default married to the Dear Leader, in perpetuity.
Another painting In Honor of The Great Dear Leader Father includes Kim Il Soon raising the red flag under the blazing sun of Kim Il Sung, and other Dear Leaders appear in other paintings such as in Strength and Military, where Kim Il Soon holds a North Korean rifle while embracing a portrait of dictator Kim Jong-il in front of an industrial complex. In the painting Lil’ Kim, the February 2012 Times Magazine’s front cover of Kim Jong-un is framed while Kim Il Soon is taking notes and sketching in her little red book.
From other paintings such as the Three Graces that reference Western beauty amidst a North Korean flag to Kim Il Soon as a farmer in The Seven Years Plan, the doubling and tripling image of self signifies the multiplication process in reproductive culture, lacking individuality and promoting collectivity and succinctness in unity repeated in North Korean imagery. Whether lining up in painting Line Up or spiraling in 007, Kim Il Soon includes herself into North Korean military iconography that includes the “Juche” ideology that one is all and all is one.
And, whose Choco·Pie is it?
The installation of 10,000 Choco·Pie for the audience to eat was kindly donated by Orion Co. in support of the installation Eat Choco·Pie Together that promotes Korean reunification and global peace. Kim Il Soon unconsciously exposed to the outside world, had her Duchampian moment of making a good decision. Duchamp selects a toilet and she selects a relevant intercultural consumer object of our time, the Choco·Pie.
This South Korean moon pie-like confectionary has become an overnight sensation in North Korea as a smuggled favorite snack and is worth three bowls of rice, and favored especially by the elite class North Korean women. Comparable to the American Twinkie, Choco·Pie has been sought after in North Korea, ever since South Koreans gifted Choco·Pie to the North Korean laborers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex as a token of appreciation. Symbolically, the Choco·Pie has opened up North Korea and formed a loving exchange between the North and South, something that even the Korean governments have failed to do. Truly this is a postmodern co-national co-operation, one that is a viral and an addictive kind.
The Chinese character “Jung” on the packaging means love and friendship. Choco·Pie is ours to eat, for North and South Korea, and for America – Let’s Eat Choco·Pie Together – for “Han guk” means “one country,” not Republic of Korea, not Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This is a “Sweet Revolution.”