Why is North Korea holding an art exhibition – in Ealing?

On a suburban street in west London, North Korea's embassy is hosting an exhibition that is sure to attract visitors – though maybe not for the paintings, says Nathalie Olah

Nathalie Olah
Tuesday 04 November 2014 20:30
North Korean artist Kim Hun (Rick Findler)
North Korean artist Kim Hun (Rick Findler)

It is a first and in all likelihood it will be the last. The inaugural North Korean embassy art exhibition opened its doors to the public this morning. While most foreign embassies occupy grand buildings in the Belgravia-Knightsbridge-Kensington triangle, North Korea has shunned such excesses of Western decadence, preferring instead to set up home in a converted suburban detached, situated a little after Topps Tiles on Gunnersbury Avenue in Ealing, west London. I am buzzed in through the electric gates and a diplomat appears from behind the double-glazed door before quickly ushering me inside.

There are many rumours as to why the Supreme Leader would sign off on this spot for the country's London embassy, one of the more convincing being that Heathrow can be accessed in under half an hour, should they be expelled. First purchased in 2003 for £1.3m, the seven-bedroom property may not be humble by living standards, but for a country famed for its monumental statues and architecture, it's an unexpected choice for their foreign ambassador. However, the work in this exhibition, which depicts scenes of London life as painted by North Korean artists, is as bland and resolutely cheerful as you'd expect from a country that is one of the most repressive in the world.

Large screens, installed for the purposes of mounting said works, have been erected along the magnolia walls of the hallway and into the main reception room, partially concealing cabinets containing leather-bound volumes. A succession of embassy workers dressed in identically inoffensive suits politely nod us in the direction of the exhibition proper, which is to be found under the tungsten glow of a five-point living-room ceiling light. Cream blinds are lightly stained and frayed along the edges.

North Korea’s embassy on Gunnersbury Avenue, W5

On the back wall, portraits of a smiling Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un watch over us. It is an image echoed on the insignia of badges worn by all of the artists who stand before us in a line as the show's curator, David Heather, talks us through the exhibition's inception.

Heather persuaded North Korea to authorise an exhibition of works from the Mansudae studio in Pyongyang, and organised a trip for a select number of its artists to create works in response to British culture. The trip has yielded results as rose-tinted as any propaganda poster – soft-focus scenes of children picking flowers or playing on the street. One painting depicts a dreamy, Impressionist-style snapshot of people on their phones outside a branch of Caffe Concerto in Covent Garden, London. It would most accurately be described as Jack Vettriano crossed with Thomas Kinkade for the Apple generation.

Oil painter Hong Song Il's work, for instance, seems to be in the spirit of the Impressionists, which he denies. When I ask artist Ho Jae Song if any other artists – and any Western artists – have inspired him, he tells me that his sole influence is now himself. Hong Song Il adds that since being in London, he has not particularly liked or disliked doing anything.

The artists' enthusiasm may be lost in translation but David Heather, too, seems vague when I ask what disciplines are taught at the Mansudae studio and what subjects, themes and styles underpin North Korean art as a whole.

"The artists have been encouraged to express themselves, and to use their own styles," is all he tells me.

I ask if the works have been created from life. "Yes, from life," he replies, "we walked around London taking photographs and the artists worked from those."

In the gap between screens, the PVC patio door has been left ajar and it is possible to see the perfectly tended garden – with a lawn so neat it looks as if it has been trimmed with nail scissors – and a plastic, sand-weighted basketball hoop. Images of Dennis Rodman and his campaign of "hoops diplomacy" come to mind as the soft red of a small alarm censor, common to homes all over the country, flashes on and off above the net curtain. There's no sign of any water slides, as satellite imagery of Kim Jong-il's mansion picked up.

Through the door on the opposite side of the room, women dressed in white gowns shuffle across the hallway. When Heather tries to lead us in the same direction, a colleague from the embassy reminds him that all other rooms are out of bounds. The passage to the toilet, when I eventually ask to go, is precisely lined with more screens. A limescale-encrusted glass sink, discarded cleaning sponges and mismatched towels dispel any expectation of gold-plated luxury.

Although seeing as an official biography posted on the North Korean state website once stated that Kim Jong-il did not defecate, that could be why they don't bother to clean the toilet.

While a few female artists had been selected for the exhibition, they are conspicuously absent from the proceedings. Many of their works are exhibited on the screens in the hallway, which we are not allowed to photograph. Heather says he was keen to include women and thinks they have been fairly represented in the show, the real purpose of which, I must admit, remains unclear.

Before leaving, I ask Heather if he thinks he will receive a good turnout. "I had a dream," he tells me, "of people queuing up around the street."

Perhaps that will come true, but maybe not for the reasons he hopes. While the North Korean art scene will interest some, many more will want to glimpse this slice of the secret state, tucked neatly away at the end of the North Circular.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments