Mina Cheon Is Sending Contemporary Art Lessons into North Korea

How might the works of Marcel Duchamp, Ai Weiwei, or Barbara Kruger be received in North Korea, a country notorious for the tight grip its ruling regime keeps on information? Would the images of and ideas behind their work spark new ways of thinking amongst a population reared on a steady diet of state propaganda?

Artist Mina Cheon, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), is working to answer those questions. She has successfully sent hundreds of USB sticks containing short videos of contemporary art lessons into North Korea as part of a new art project. The videos will be on view starting October 20th at New York gallery Ethan Cohen as part of “UMMA: MASS GAMES - Motherly Love North Korea,” a solo show of Cheon’s artwork curated by Nadim Samman.  

There are 10 lessons, each roughly 10 minutes, with different lessons on different USBs. They provide a thematic history of contemporary art, beginning with Duchamp’s seminal Fountain (1917). Arranged by thematic subjects such as art’s relationship to power, food, feminism, and money, the lessons trace major movements including pop art and abstraction. The episodes are narrated by the artistic persona Professor Kim, the teacherly incarnation of Cheon’s North Korean alter-ego Kim Il Soon.

North Koreans who watch all 10 videos will be introduced to the works of around 50 artists, a varied range that includes several Korean artists, including Cheon, as well as the Guerrilla Girls, Jackson Pollock, Dread Scott, and Damien Hirst. Political work is not the focus of the videos, although it does appear, notably in the work of Ai. Episodes end with assignments, simple artistic tasks that spur creative thinking while remaining conscious of the reality in which North Koreans live. For example, one assignment is for viewers to write down their dreams and “make them come true in abstraction,” an instruction that is left nebulous, to avoid creating anything concrete for the authorities to find.

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