Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution Of Socialist Realism

On the very last day of the exhibit, my better half and I went to the Katzen Gallery (the art museum of American University) to see a visiting selection of North Korean. There was also an exhibit of contemporary South Korean but, as interesting as that was, the real driver of our desire was not the autocratic society’s democratic neighbors.

At the end of this, I’ll include links to an article about the exhibit, as well as the gallery’s page on it.

My own thoughts…

I really liked it. A lot.

I didn’t go in expecting certain things. Formal innovation, for example. Deep subtext. I went open to enjoying what I was likely to encounter (and did also encounter some stuff that surprised me).

The large scenes of heroic military and industrial figures, but despite the size, focusing on a small number of relatively nondescript people, so that the otherwise quotidian individual becomes the focus – the hero of the painting.

I expected that. I did not expect the small ink paintings (actually, they were all ink wash on rice paper in a style/technique called chosonhwa) of dismembodied flowers/branches/flora framing some rough calligraphy (I really wish they had translated the calligraphy for us; were they poems? paeans to the Korean people or leaders? mapquest instructions to reach a nearby gas station?).

My favorite was an unfinished painting of people waiting at a bus stop. It was so marvelously prosaic and contemporary looking. While obviously a painting of Korean people, it was not otherwise culturally distinct, which made it weirdly wonderful. Little touches, like a young man who seemed like he might have been glancing at a pretty young woman who was at the comparative center of the painting.

As an art lover and, more importantly, someone who believes in public support for the arts, North Korea’s massive investment in artistic production and support for the artist as a professional is enheartening… but this North Korea. You can’t say anything good about the regime, can you? It’s brutal, totalitarian, and directly responsible for so many deaths.

Artsy editorial on the exhibit.

Katzen’s page on it.


I had seen this painting before; I think it is relatively famous; the title is “Farewell” by Park Ryong

And Yet…

9781476772066The most recent (though probably not last) of the posthumously published collections of Christopher Hitchen’s essays lends itself to a sort of narrative arc, as the pieces inch closer to his terminal diagnosis with esophageal cancer and the reader’s mind naturally tends to see relationships (prophecy?) between his death and the chronologically later essays.

As someone who spent the first five years of the new millennium as a professional political campaign professional, the political essays around the 2004 election and shenanigans in Ohio were a painful reminder of a time that, until my memory was sparked, felt very long ago. Pleasingly, those and other discussions of then current events from the middle of that decade did not feel as dated as they could have.

His book reviews – at their best, excuses for lengthy rambles that show off, but provide the best platform for Hitchens ‘holding court’ – are the highlights, especially the long ones on biographies of Che Guevera and V.S. Naipul (Hitchens shows off his Britishness by referring to him as Sir Vidia).

It’s no secret that Orwell was a touchstone for Hitchens. As an essayist, he is often compared to Orwell; and I have often heard Orwell described as the great English essayist of the twentieth century.

But what have you read by Orwell? I’ll wager, gentle reader, that it doesn’t extend beyond his best known novels, 1984 and Animal Farm. And if you have read an essay, it was probably that short one he penned on the proper way to make tea. While an admirable tidbit, hardly what reviewers are referring to when they praise Orwell the essayist.

My point is related to a question that came to me when Hitchens died: how long will be remembered?

Having not written a pair of timeless novels, who will read his essays, beyond a handful of academic scholars, in twenty years? His reach will be less than that Edmund Wilson wields today (which, let’s not kid ourselves, isn’t much). His book length works are too timely, methinks. Maybe Letters to a Young Contrarian will be read, but it feels to self congratulatory to me to be the source of long lasting, posthumous relevance.

Another Bookstore Gone…

cq5dam.resized.270x180!While DC has been good about adding bookstores (like my neighborhood’s recent addition, East City Books), we do seem to be taking two steps back for every step forward (we lost Books for America and the downtown Barnes & Noble over the last year).

This time, it’s the only in DC World Bank Group InfoShop Bookstore.

That’s right. If you didn’t live in DC, you would never know such a thing existed. But it did. And it was super awesome.

In addition to World Bank publications, it had a fantastic array of very specialized books on economics and global development. I bought my copy of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land from that particular bookshop.

And just… what a cool thing to have in your hometown?

Ugh. Another one bits the dust.

Robert Irwin Exhibit At The Hirshorn Museum

After opening with one of his later, convex disc sculptures, the exhibit moved on to a series of thickly painted, mannered pieces, with a three dimensional effect caused by the thickness of the layers of paint and the areas carved out of the three dimensional layers (some seemingly carved with a palette knife). The appearance, then, of his classic, geometrical, and spare line paintings was like a Stendahlian explosion (as in the syndrome). In some, the lines were so narrow and precise that I had to look closely to convince myself that they weren’t glued on. The dot paintings that followed, though, left me cold. Even though close examination allowed me to see the diffusion. shapes, and patterns, they felt contemptful of the viewer. Likewise, his ‘light and space’ sculptures – mostly convex discs (like the first item) and a couple of columns only made me want to walk back and see the line paintings again. At the end was a massive, site specific trompe l’oeil installation that has to be seen to be understood, so I won’t try to describe it. If you can’t get here to see it, well that doesn’t feel much like a ‘me’ problem, now does it?

Contemplation, No Contemplation

While working for my better half at Eastern Market, I read Tseng Ts’an’s The Hsin-Hsin Ming, a poem illustrating some principles of Zen Buddhism. At the same time, I’ve been doing some very casual, very unsystematic tasting of some ancient, classical philosophers: Aristotle (The Rhetoric), Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Plato (Gorgias), Plotinus (glancing at, but by no means understanding The Enneads), Quintillan (Orator’s Education), and Cicero (On Duties). None of these particular works address the particular issue I was thinking of, though. However, in other works, all of them do express very clearly that, in some way, shape, or form, the best life (good life, virtuous life) is a life of contemplation and philosophy, through a combination of reading, study, and dialogue with others. Tseng Ts’an expressly forbids seeking ‘Englightenment.’ He expressly tells the reader not to meditate nor contemplate. He doesn’t want you studying, nor reading, not engaging in dialogue on things.

Ecce Homo

Re-reading Ecce Homo after reading Gros on Nietzsche has given me a new perspective. In my mind, Nietzsche was urban or housebound or almost an invalid. A cantankerous, mustachioed German. But Gros opened me up to Nietzsche the walker, the nature lover. And now, I can see his relationship with and affection for the natural world and he seems more like Thoreau than the Underground Man.

Also, as per Gros, rejects bookishness here, claiming he would travel with just a few books (this weekend, I refused to travel a mile to Eastern Market without three books). Later, when commenting on his earlier book, Human, All Too Human, he writes:

I was redeemed from the ‘book,’ for years at a time, I read nothing – the greatest favour I have ever done myself! – That deepest self, as it were buried and grown silent under a constant compulsion to listen to other selves (- and that is what reading means!) awoke slowly, timidly, doubtfully – but at length it spoke again.

Don’t know how I didn’t remember this, but he consistently rejects all things German and proclaims himself Polish and Poland his fatherland. He also constantly returns to Zarathustra, clearly rating it as his greatest work. While Birth of Tragedy does not get so much attention, Dionysos does, with the dionysian aspect being referenced again and again.

I’d been wanting to pick up the companion of my teens and twenties again, but Ecce Homo was probably not the best choice, especially since much of it is a commentary on earlier books by Nietzsche – books that I hadn’t read in a while (else a revisiting to him would be unnecessary).

Farewell To Old Siam/Nana Thai

A sad moment. I won’t say it was the best Thai restaurant, but it was good. Even when they changed the name to Nana Thai, it remained Old Siam to me. And so it shall in perpetuity, I reckon.

I didn’t even get one last meal in. By the time I had made up my mind to go, the furnishings were on the street and the staff were inside eating pizza.

This place was pleasantly close to my old apartment in DC, but after we moved to a house in the Atlas District, I apostasized and switched my loyalties to a Thai place called Imm on H.

The world keeps moving, I reckon.