Korean-American new media artist, scholar and educator Mina Cheon (born 1973, Seoul) is known for her bright, colourful, often provocative “Polipop”—that is, political pop art drawing inspiration from global media and popular culture. The daughter of a diplomat and cultural attache, the artist—who is on the faculty of Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore—grew up in the cities of Seoul, New York, Copenhagen and Ottawa.
A life across the East and the West, says Professor Cheon, gave her “a lens of cultural comparative”. Her projects reveal the complexities of contemporary geopolitics in a fun, eye-catching manner. Themes that are frequently explored are the relationship between Asia and the West, the North-South Korean schism and the connections among Korea, Japan and China. The artwork also has an economic side, it buzzes with references to our consumerist societies. Choco-Pie, Pokemon and McDonald’s all find a way to be featured alongside the Kim dynasty.
Active in social concerns and interested in sparking conversations, Professor Cheon explains her approach: “I work with ‘Polipop’ (short for political pop art) not as a direct propaganda, but as a way to advocate for a cultural message. I use politics and popular culture because these are the two things people are surrounded by in our daily lives. They influence us to a degree that we talk about them all the time. With my work, I would like to show the two are connected. However, there exist so many contradictory messages depending on which culture you are associated with. Therefore, my works may look very political from one perspective but I am using political images to discuss the differences between reality and media.”
The artist’s latest project is “UMMA: MASS GAMES – Motherly Love North Korea” (curated by Berlin-based art historian Nadim Samman) on view since October 20 at Ethan Cohen Gallery in New York. It will run till December 10, 2017. The exhibition boldly subverts the North Korean cult of personality and the spectacle of the Arirang Festival. This is a grand event of mass gymnastics (with 100,000+ participants!) deployed for nationalistic propaganda—and particularly aimed at tourists—that is held at the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang usually every year. (If you want to learn more about the splendidly, impeccably choreographed Arirang performances, do check out this clip from a 2011 VICE documentary at the 10:11 mark).
Programmes similar to Arirang are organised in “UMMA: MASS GAMES – Motherly Love North Korea”. They are supervised by the eponymous character. Umma is a magnanimous figure, hovering over the landscape, standing by the cityscape. She is an all-consuming, redeeming force who sets right the militaristic agenda of the Hermit Kingdom’s globally phobic government. She provides a purpose to the nation’s children and youth.
“The recent war of words between North Korean and US leaders has only hardened the people’s attitudes to demagogue Father figures,” states Ethan Cohen in a press release. “With this exhibition, Cheon establishes the personality cult of UMMA (‘mommy’ in Korean), whose maternal love is deployed as the only acceptable solution for global peace and Korean unification. Whereas South Korea’s modernity was pushed forward by a chima baram (skirt wind), UMMA’s matriarchal strength is offered as a catalyst for developing North Korea. In this exhibition, Cheon (in the guise of her North Korean alter ego Kim Il Soon, the ‘Umma of Unification’) sends motherly love and education to her children in the Hermit Kingdom and the USA. In addition, she debuts artworks resulting from a series of dissident dreams.”
Umma is the antidote. The much-needed Mother who exorcises Fatherly sins. On the whole, the project turns around Korean schizo-imaginary into a reflection upon (cult)ure, love, education, art, motherhood and sport.
There is another interesting aspect to the exhibition. For UMMA : MASS GAMES, Professor Cheon has worked with underground networks to send hundreds of USB drives containing performance lectures on contemporary art history into North Korea—arguably the first such artistic ‘re-programming’ engagement with the nation to date. All ten lessons are on display at Ethan Cohen Gallery on Notel media players (devices commonly used in North Korea for watching foreign video content, such as K-pop, drama, and Korean Wave Cinema).
The Art History Lessons by Professor Kim (2017) endeavor to be relatable for North Korean and American audiences—borrowing from children’s TV show formats while showcasing today’s contemporary artists and critical perspectives. Carrying the vital messages “The world loves you, North Korea” and “Both art and lives matter,” lesson topics include Art & Life; Art & Food; Art, Money & Power; Abstract Art & Dreams; Feminism, Are We Equal?; Art, Lives Matter & Social Justice; Remix & Appropriation Art; Art & Technology; Art & Silence; and Art & Environment.
Today, there are several organisations both in South Korea and the United States that aim to free North Koreans from dictatorship. They regularly deliver to it content from the outside world—news, Wikipedia downloads, K-pop videos, K-drama, K-film, religious content, much more. Professor Cheon has developed her educational materials being aware of the fact that media—from faxes to magazines—has opened and transformed closed societies like Soviet Union and China in the past.
She adds: “As a new media artist, USB Art Intervention : Sending Art History Lessons to North Korea is the most important work that I have done. While I have transmitted art information that has been aired in North Korea on Voice of America in previous years, this the first project to directly send art into the North. My dedication to sharing art with North Koreans equals my dedication for humanizing North Koreans in the eyes of the world. For most Koreans, whether in the North or the South, we are one: we dream of unification. With this project, we advocate that North Korean lives matter; and we plead, please do not destroy North Korea for the sake of global peace.”
The USBs with contemporary art lessons have entered North Korea via two routes, through the land border with China and by balloons from South Korea. The content is also being copied and shared within North Korean defector communities based in the South. Hopefully, these valuable resources will somewhere somehow galvanise someone with hidden talents into revolutionary creative activity.
More about the artist – Professor Cheon obtained her BFA in painting from Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea, her MFA in painting from Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art. She holds another MFA, in Imaging Digital Arts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She received a PhD in Philosophy of Media and Communications from the European Graduate School, European University for Interdisciplinary Studies, Switzerland in 2008.
She has authored a book titled Shamanism and Cyberspace (Atropos Press, Dresden and New York, 2009) and contributed to publications like ArtUS, Wolgan Misool, New York Arts Magazine and Artist Organized Art (New Observations Magazine). The artist is on the Board of Directors of the New Media Caucus of the College Art Association and an Associate Editor of the Media-N peer review academic journal.
Images used with permission.