Only a few kilometers north of Seoul, the concepts of freedom and art are different. Around 1,000 North Koreans make their way to the South every year, one of them was Sun Mu. Born in 1972, Sun was trained in the North Korean Army to be a propaganda artist and assigned to paint murals and posters for the Communist government in the North and to honour Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-un

Having defected from North Korea in 1999 amidst a deadly famine, Sun now uses his experience as a former creator of propaganda for one of the world’s most repressive and isolated nations to create satirical art that blends images of North Korea’s Communism with pop aesthetics.

Sun Mu has seen his art cause major uproars due to the subjects that it touches on. In 2015, an exhibition of his work in China was unexpectedly shut down, an incident that he believes was orchestrated by the government of North Korea.

This autumn, his works are on display until 20 October in a solo exhibition at the Kunstraum in Munich, Germany. In an exhibition titled “Look at us”, Sun addresses the recent summits between the two Koreas and the United States. He also shows the interrelationship, the similarities, and the differences between the South and the North, as well as their tangible dependence on the US. 

New Europe’s Federico Grandesso was joined by Tatiana Rosenstein as the two spoke to the curator of the exhibition, Alexander Steig, and Sun about the project.

New Europe (NE): How did this project come about?

Alexander Steig (AS): The curator and artist Jae-Hyun Yoo introduced me to Sun Mu at Haus der Kunst in Munich back in the summer of 2018. I brought up the topic (of having an exhibition of Sun’s art) at one of the board meetings. Of course, I informed my colleagues about the political background. We decided that the artist should reside in Munich in one of the state provided artist residences to produce works for this exhibition.

Sun Mu (SM): In February of this year I had an exhibition in in Los Angeles which was founded by an American scholar of European history as a Museum of the Cold War. I wanted to exhibit there to ease the relationship between our two countries. One day I saw a woman who was standing in front of my painting and crying. I think she was from East Germany. I felt that the reaction to my work in Germany would be different. The crying woman understood something that many others do not understand because art is always something personal. The more personal it is to people the more they are touched by it.

NE: What discussions do you want to stimulate?

SU: I escaped from North Korea because I was hungry and not because I disagreed with the political regime. I started to paint because I wanted to express myself, because art is a form of expression that shows our differences in the best possible way. My themes come from my life and my reality. What you see is still reality for me. I have been living in South Korea for such a long time. I studied there. I have my family and kids there, but when I Google myself I still read “The artist from North Korea”. I thought, “I speak the same language as they do in South Korea, but I am not ‘South Korean’. The 70-year division has created a cultural divide.

AS: The Kunstraum in Munich is a political art space. Artists deal with the critical examination of their own countries and state politics. You have to work critically as an artist and report on things if you think they need to be considered. Last year we invited Friedrich Burschel (a German historian and political scientist who focuses on neo-Nazism and ideologies of inequality and totalitarianism). He talked about “Forensic architecture”. In addition to the exhibitions, we offer a framework programme. For Sun Mu’s exhibition, we invited Dr Du-Yul Song, a South Korean sociologist who was arrested for wanting to arrange a meeting between North and South Korean academics. He wanted to initiate an attempt to talk on an intellectual level. The more polarisation that takes place in society, the more responsibility we have to offer art that reflects on the topic. We do not dictate anything; we just make offers. We do not look for scandals, instead we want to make a contribution.

NE: What can you say about the paintings?

SM: The freedom to have political and artistic expression in South Korea gave me space to create paintings filled with strong satirical messages aimed at the North Koran regime, but it also attracted controversy and threatened the safety of my family members living in North Korea. Under the Communists’ “three generations of punishment” – three generations of a family can be disciplined by the North Korean government if a relative has gone against the state. For this reason, I work under a pseudonym and hide my face. Instead of my birth name I am using the pseudonym “Sun Mu” which means “without borders” or “boundlessness”. I hope for art without borders. I write my own texts, but the inspiration comes from North Korean logos that say: Long live our leader; We work for the people; We live our way; Our path is not easy, but we have to carry on. I want to make the point that there is a “North Korean society”. People do live there, too.

AS: Sun Mu’s paintings are inspired by the propaganda images of his homeland, but he questions their content and ideological messages. At first glance, the images look like a pop art variant of North Korean Workers’ Party propaganda, but in his homeland, his art would be a capital crime because painting the faces of the Great Leader (Kim Il-sung) without the Communist Party’s permission is absolutely forbidden and nobody is allowed to do that.

His art features the symbols of Communism, like North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, juxtaposed with symbols of Western capitalism like a Coca Cola bottle or Donald Duck. As a leitmotif for our exhibition’s poster, we chose a picture with a female traffic police officer. I think the idea of the artist’s work is perfectly caught here. The canvas is divided into two parts – an abstract depiction of the two Koreas, marked by red and blue. In the middle of it we see a woman wearing a specific uniform. You feel as if she is playing a certain role representing the power of state. Over her figure we read: Come to the North. Come to the South. Let’s meet in Panmunjom.

NE: Do you want to have some influence on Korea’s reunification with your art?

SM: No. Even if I do hope for a reunification, it sounds politically impossible. How could we be united when we are so different? I just wish we would slowly get to know each other.

AS: Artists may create incredulousness, and Sun Mu does. Artists can act differently, but they can reach impact political and social events. Perhaps they can make contact faster than the politicians who constantly have to follow complicated diplomatic ways. Compared to politicians, artists can send direct and open messages with independent positions.