Before and After Mansudae Master Class: A Conversation with Onejoon Che and Sohl Lee
March 5, 2015
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Sohl Lee (SL): Onejoon will present his earlier photography works first, then we’ll discuss our experience of working on his most recent film, Mansudae Master Class, which began in 2012 and for which I worked as a line producer in December 2014.
I remember the first time I saw Onejoon’s work. It was when you did the solo exhibition at the Il Woo Art Space (the Korean Airline Foundation Gallery) in 2010, which included an archive project, among other things?
Onejoon Che (OC): Yes, you are referring to the exhibition ‘Red Cloud,’ where I presented alternate histories and archive information related to abandoned military facilities in South Korea, in the area surrounding Seoul.
SL: To briefly add here, Seoul is actually only a dozen miles from the DMZ, which explains an abundance of army bases near Seoul.
Though I don’t want to make a general statement about South Korea and photographers, or artists working in the medium of photography, I detect, among many artists, a sense of capturing landscape, an everyday landscape, where you might see objects and human figures as part of this landscape, almost always giving new meaning to everyday life. These photographs have emphasized the subjective perspectives of the photographer, so depending on who that photographer is, many different types of photographs can be produced at the same site. But in the case of Onejoon, I feel that his work is very architectural, where these man-made structures define his photographic perspective. They are mostly devoid of human presence, and that’s something I feel is particular about Onejoon’s work and I wanted to hear more of that. Today, you plan to show some of these photography projects, right?
OC: Yes. First of all, I want to thank everyone for coming to this presentation, and to say that I’m not that good in English but I’ll try my best…
SL: It’s always better to hear from the artist himself rather than through translation.
OC: OK. Let me start by sharing my background and how I became an artist. I never studied contemporary art; I studied photography in vocational school for one year. I previously studied jazz, but my father really hated it, so I changed my dream to commercial photography. The vocational school is not a regular school—it’s different from a college or academy. I was taught how to make color prints, and how to take a studio portrait, and how to control light. After that I went into the military, as part of the mandatory draft system required for South Korean males. There are several options and routes, and I chose to work under combat police force. I was working with the combat troops, and then they selected me as an evidence photographer because I had a color portrait license. Normally, someone who studied in a college wouldn’t have such a license, because it’s unique to commercial photography. My main mission was to photograph illegal protesters in possession of illegal weapons like steel pipes. Because of my portraits of them, they went to jail, and I realized the power of photography. I started to study photography while at the police station, reading Hannah Arendt, Foucault, and Barthes, who were very trendy in Korea at the time.
SL: So you’re reading these books while still serving in the military? What year was this?
OC: 2002. After military service, I made the decision to become an artist. I was researching lots of photographers from all over the world, because there were only a few artists who worked with photography in Korea—maybe just twenty people, and everyone else worked in commercial photography. I met some artists such as Chan-kyong Park. He is an important artist, critic, and filmmaker, and he introduced me to the work of Allan Sekula, with whom he had studied at Cal Arts. I was interested in how to approach socio-political issues, so I was analyzing Allan Sekula’s documentaries, but I didn’t like his technique. His approach is good but to me, he’s more of a critic. I wanted to learn German photography because I like the deadpan style. An American female critic whose name escapes me now has said that when the Nazis killed the Jews, they didn’t feel any emotion because the Jews weren’t humans in their mind. Metaphorically speaking, German photography represents this absence of warmth, this very cold eye and deadpan approach to the world. I adopted their techniques and combined it with Allan Sekula’s approach, Foucault’s theory, and many other influences.
Let me talk more by showing you my work, starting with Texas Project (2004-8). This is a red light district in Seoul. When I visited, I was a little surprised at the women’s behavior, because they sit on the cushions inside and the men make their choice from behind the one-way glass. So I set up the camera in the customer’s position. I was documenting this place at the time that the government declared an anti-prostitution law and destroyed all these shops. As I was developing this project I was focusing on how the pimps sold the women using strange interiors, in a sense the architectural renderings that housed sex work. In the past, there were about 270 shops for sex work, but now they have become grocery stores or delivery stores. I was documenting this area over the transitional period of three years.
SL: This place is called Miari Texas, combining Miari—the name of the district—and Texas—after the name of the American state Texas. Sex work in post-war South Korea has been generated by the presence of the American military bases across the country, and a lot of the sex work districts are named after places that exist in the U.S.
OC: The government wanted to build an apartment complex in this area, so they started destruction followed by construction. When the second opposition party government came to power in 2004 (the first was in 1998), one of the first things that the then President Roh Moo-hyun did was to institute a ministry for women’s rights. Part of their agenda was the crackdown on sex work, which was of course controversial. After this project, I became curious about the military districts and abandoned places under the government’s jurisdiction. Now I am showing you the series Unfinished Project—Island. One day in 2005 I found some news articles about how some construction workers discovered a mysterious bunker in the heart of Seoul during the construction of a bus station.
SL: What is interesting is that Seoul was the capital of the last pre-modern dynasty, Joseon dynasty, for 600 years (1394-1910), so each time you try to construct a large building with a stable base, you’ll end up discovering pre-modern artifacts. But here they discovered a military bunker, which has been unused since the 1960s, right after the Korean war. The discovery made big news at the time.
OC: So when I entered this bunker with a journalist, there was nothing, no traces of the military. I documented this bunker before the government just covered it up. This sign on the ground now says ‘Dangerous.’
SL: They discovered the bunker while building the bus transit stations, so instead of doing something about it they just covered it up, right?
OC: Yes. I took pictures in 2005 and again in 2007. When the government had just covered up the bunker in 2005, no one had stepped on the sign ‘Dangerous.’ Two years later, people ignored the sign and walked over it, so the text became more illegible, as you can see in these photographs. Even though technically the Korean peninsula is still at war—it was a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, that the Korean army and the U.N. signed in 1953–most South Korean citizens are desensitized to this situation because more than half a century passed by.
Now I am showing you the series Undercooled. After the bunker project, I started researching military facilities like ‘protection walls’ and ‘protection lines’ near Seoul, that is, the Gyeonggi province, which shares a border with North Korea. There, I changed my camera from a 4×5 to a 5×7 because I wanted more realistic images—I needed bigger film than before. This structure looks like contemporary architecture, but in fact it is a protection wall. In case North Korea attacks Seoul again, the South Korean military would destroy this wall whose remains will then block the road thorough which Northern tanks might march South.
SL: It would be easy to imagine seeing such architectural structures in a war zone, but these military markers are everywhere around Seoul, especially in Gyeonggi province that encloses Seoul and meets with the DMZ. Here, what Onejoon has captured within a single frame is both a park for the residents and the remnants of the military past, which coexist in the same space and conjure a jarring landscape.
OC: The construction company tried to destroy these protection lines when they landscaped the park but because it’s a military facility it’s illegal for them to destroy any government-sanctioned military structures. So they built a bike lane around the protective lines, and sometimes in-between.
SL: And there was a rumor that the South Korean government even has a plan to collapse all these high-rise apartment buildings near the DMZ if it has to prevent the North Korean tanks from entering the capital, right?
OC: It’s not a rumor! The Ministry of Defense announced it twenty-five years ago, then the residents in the area demonstrated, so he apologized. Many people moved to other provinces because of fear of the war.
This is an interesting bunker. So many bunkers were built by the dictator Park Chung-hee during the military regime. Actually the North Korean government sent terrorists and spies to South Korea many times. They killed many people and caused lots of trouble, so the government built lots of bunkers to block their route.
SL: Just to give a historical background, the South Korean military has discovered multiple underground tunnels that the North Koreans dug to send their spies across the DMZ. After all, the DMZ is 160 miles long but only 2.5 miles deep.
OC: I chose to depict those bunkers in autumn and winter, because there is a visual parallel to camouflage.
SL: Just like how the sex work districts were destroyed to make space for high-rise apartment buildings, for redevelopment and gentrification, it seems like the same thing was happening at the military facilities. They were destroyed to open up the way for residential buildings.
OC: President Roh Moo-hyun, who instituted the Ministry of Women, wanted to protect this particular part of the protective wall as a modern history heritage site, but apparently they ended up demolishing this as well. The idea of post-war history as something worth preserving is very new in Korea, so usually everything is destroyed except pre-modern, pre-colonial artifacts. While I was visiting those sites I found an abandoned U.S. military base. When the Iraq war began, U.S. troops went to Iraq, and they retreated from South Korea, leaving an oil spill. Lots of chemicals and oil were left behind in the American military bases, causing lots of environmental problems, especially for the city Paju. There were about 14 U.S. military camps after the Korean War. They left for Iraq and Afghanistan and abandoned their military facilities.
SL: Was it easy to enter these military zones?
OC: I was trying to get permission from the Ministry of Defense but they refused, so I had to enter those sites without permission. There are very interesting traces; when they left they erased all text and signs inside their camps, which I photographed.
I was collecting lots of [archival material], footage, and books. The funny thing was when the Americans named the camp Camp Howze, they borrowed the name from the Larry Bond novel Red Phoenix. I thought it was interesting that Camp Howze is in a very important position in Korea, but the Americans named it after a fictional place. For this project, I installed the Korean newspapers alongside a few fiction novels and contracts between the U.S. and South Korea.
SL: Where did you find those official documents?
OC: Unlike South Korea, the U.S. makes all these documents public once the military camp ceases to exist. So all these contracts with the South Korean government, were online at globalsecurity.org. As far as I know, the U.S. military never publicly revealed the oil spill or other illegal actions done to the site. Another camp was called Giant, after the famous James Dean movie. In the movie, James Dean made lots of money from oil in Texas, but in reality the Paju people suffered from this oil spill problem. So I juxtaposed the Paju people’s problems with the James Dean movie clips. I even bought their emergency food. I titled the project Excrement.
One day a famous Korean historian offered to collaborate with me on a project about the KCIA, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. I was researching their illegal incidents and I found out that their old building is near Seoul. This stairway leads to a torture room.
SL: This is an abandoned torture facility, right? There are multiple interrogation sites that belong to KCIA across Seoul but Namsan is the most prominent one that appears in lots of testimonies of activists. So now Onejoon will show a clip of a film he made by collaging Korean fiction films that make reference to the KCIA. Because how we remember history is always through these fictional devices, especially cinema, as cinema is such a big part of Korean life.
OC: The black and white footage is what he shot and the color footage is from the actual films. All of these are Korean films, except one that was directed by the Japanese director Sakamoto Junji. The black and white footage is very low in resolution. That was intentional, to make the merging of the two smoother. If you want to see more, I can share the video link. After this project, I became curious about how the dictator influenced Korean society. The dictator Park Chung-hee was shot to death in 1979 after ruling from 1961-1979. As you might know the current president, Park Geun-hye, is his daughter. I made some mockumentary films about the imagination of the artist and the imagination of the dictator. This is my alter ego.
A Korean curator asked me to find out more about the bunkers. He wanted to show my new bunker photographic series combined with old archival images. I found out some new information about a bunker located in the Mullae area. Mullae-dong is a very small steel manufacturing area. It’s a district with a lot of small metal workshops congregated in one area. Each one of them only works on particular techniques, so they all collaborate to produce a product. Their projects are most always commission-based. This district is currently undergoing gentrification. Lots of artists move here into empty metal workshops that have been vacated because the owners could not sustain the business. This district was first created by the dictator Park Chung-hee to help the metal industry flourish, so there’s a bunker in this district as well as a statue of the dictator. In the film, the main character is an artist who made a new sculpture using the dictator’s miniature statue. So here, he is melting the sculpture to transform it to a gun. In this scenario, the artist fortuitously stumbles upon the bust and purchases it and wants to transform it into a gun. What you see here are real metal workers in the Mullae district. And they are able to produce a gun in the film. Actually, in reality, there was at one point an incident, where the metal workers in Mullae produced illegal guns for gangsters.
SL: Because in Korea, possession of a gun is illegal outside of the military.
OC: This is an actual statue of Park Chung-hee still standing in Mullae-dong. Under the statue is a military bunker. The dictator’s supporters built his statue above the bunker after he was assassinated.
SL: Spinning Wheel is a direct translation of Mullae, the name of the district, and this was your first sizable film production, right? It is from 2010, executed with the production grant from the Hermes Art Award for which you were one of the three finalists.
OC: Yes. Soon after this project, my interest extended to the symbol of the dictator and the meaning of monuments, so I was researching North Korea’s monuments and statues. When I was in Paris in 2010 during a residency, I read interesting news about the African Renaissance Monument in Senegal. North Korea built a huge monument in Senegal in collaboration with the Senegalese. Many European art critics and journalists criticized the African Renaissance Monument, because Senegal is a Muslim country and yet this statue looks almost naked. It’s a controversial issue in Senegal too. Many Muslims demonstrated against the dictator Abdoulaye Wade but he had already signed a contract with North Korea.
SL: In the film, you use archival footage of North Korean monuments and buildings within North Korea. Where did you find all these images?
OC: For example, I used as my source a catalog of the North Korean artist studio Mansudae which I found in their gallery in Beijing.
SL: To explain further, the Mansudae Art Studio is located in the district of Mansudae in Pyongyang. It’s a unit of the propaganda ministry, which is in charge of producing all of the propaganda posters, statues, mosaics for North Korean citizens. But starting in 1974 the Mansudae Art Studio began to operate a sub-division called Mansudae Art Studio Overseas Project, which produced works for African countries, or anyone for that matter, who gave the Studio a commission–hence the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, which was completed in 2010. Starting in the mid-1970s the Mansudae Overseas Project built numerous monuments in, according to Onejoon’s research, at least twenty sub-Saharan African countries, sometimes as donations propelled by diplomatic interests. The history of the Mansudae Overseas Project is available through preliminary scholarly research, as well as Onejoon’s film in which an interviewee—who is a former North Korean diplomat—narrates this African-North Korean history. The Beijing branch of the Mansudae Overseas Project is operated by an ethnic Korean Chinese businessman and located within the 798 art district.
OC: In the 1960s North and South Korea were competing in the United Nations because of the borderline issue and the U.S. army issue. At the same time in the immediate aftermath of the post-colonial period, these newly independent African nations all gained a seat in the UN and they joined the non-aligned nations. North Korea and South Korea were competing for support in the UN for unification on each of their own terms, and Kim Il-Sung is famous for having said that a small African country with 80,000 citizens has one vote at the UN. America, with 200 million citizens, also has one vote at the UN. Let’s have all these African countries support us, the North, and have North Korea be recognized as the official Korean nation, instead of the South Korean nation. So there was a diplomatic war that the North and the South fought in Africa in the 1960s and very fiercely in the 1970s. Those monuments and architecture present the hidden history of this diplomatic war; at the same time they present the social realistic aesthetics in Africa. While making a documentary film, I also took photographs in the countries I visited. On the right is the Heroes’ Acre in North Korea and on the left is in Namibia.
This is the three-channel version of the Mansudae Master Class, different from the single channel version currently on view at the New Museum. I’m presenting a new single-channel version in the theater at the New Museum but I produced the two versions at the same time, the single-channel version for TV or theater and the three-channel video was produced for gallery [viewing]. When presented in art gallery, the project consists of video, photography, sculpture, and archive. I’ll be showing this film in Copenhagen at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in London at Calvert 22, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and in Paris.
SL: You plan on editing the 40 minute single-channel film into a feature-length film—when will that be ready?
OC: This year.
SL: Really?! He works all the time, plunging himself into work. That is how it was when I travelled with his team to Gabon and Ethiopia this past winter, documenting monuments and interviewing local artists, historians, and other individuals involved in the complex history of North-South Korean conflicts.
With concerns of time, perhaps we can now proceed to a conversation with the audience.
Xiaofei Mo (XM): You found the Mansudae catalog in Beijing, and as we are all aware, China is doing many infrastructure projects in Africa. When you travelled to Africa, did you notice these Chinese projects?
OC: Unfortunately Africans dislike Chinese, so they hate me because I look Chinese. Passersby in Gabon, where the national language is French, would shout out ‘Chinoise’ in a very pejorative sense. Sometimes in Ethiopia, where English is a more prominent language, little kids would throw stones at us and call us ‘Chinese’ The general perception in most of where I travel is that the Chinese stole their jobs. In Addis Ababa, I witnessed large-scale construction projects all by the Chinese now.
It was always frustrating for me too, because in Zimbabwe, for example, they called me ‘Ching Chang Chong,’ and I was shocked. Have you heard of this ‘Ching Chang Chong’?
XM: I think people say that in India also.
Berny Tan: It happened to me in Istanbul; it happens all over, it’s supposed to be a funny imitation of the Chinese language.
OC: Really? I thought it was slang and it was kind of a ‘fuck you’ to me. It made me angry.
Audience Member: Can we get a little bit of background or context about the monuments [you mentioned] and how they were built? Did North Korea send laborers to African countries who spent time there to actually construct the monuments? And have you dealt with any of these laborers and asked about their experiences?
OC: I was trying to meet North Koreans in Africa and I met some North Korean building workers. I tried to talk with them, but they ignored us because they recognized that we were South Korean, and if they talked with me they would get into trouble with their government, and would be punished. In the case of the Heroes’ Acre in Namibia, I saw North Korean laborers working far away, when the monument was still under construction. The footage included in the film is what I shot of North Korean workers, using a telephoto lens.
In the film, what I wanted to do was to talk about North Koreans and North Korean art through Africa. I can’t access North Koreans and I had little information about North Korea, so I wanted to see it through Africa.
SL: The contextual information is that the tenets of the National Security Law, established in 1948, the founding year of the country, are still strong in South Korea. Any direct contact by South Korean citizens with North Korea is illegal that can put you in jail for committing ‘national treason.’ And you cannot possess any North Korean publications either. Starting in 1998, things eased a bit. For example, South Koreans gradually began to collect North Korean art, hence the flood of North Korean paintings that are now in South Korea. But even today for a South Korean artist to research North Korea in a serious way is definitely difficult. Africa almost becomes a faraway land where an artist like Onejoon can find the traces of North Korean people and artists.
OC: And in South Korea there are only three experts on North Korean visual culture, one in visual arts, the other in architecture and the last one in cinema. So I’m quite close to all these experts now and we share information.
Audience Member: Can you talk about what you consider your own role in presenting the Mansudae Master Class project? Because in a way you are presenting some other artists’ work, in not a very different context but also focusing on what they were doing. I felt that it was really interesting because you mentioned this project in the Venice Biennale in the pavilion, but is it called the Korean Pavilion or South Korean Pavilion?
SL: I can address the question about the Venice Biennale, but maybe you can address your role as an artist who is documenting another artists’ works?
OC: I never considered North Korean monuments as ‘art’ that stands alone and occupies the film’s center stage. Those monuments and architecture are a kind of bridge for me to reach out to North Korea. Therefore, they have not been the priority of my work, nor has my interest been to emphasize the authorship of the North Korean artists.
SL: My take on it is how the deadpan style of Onejoon’s camera functions in Africa on North Korean monuments is a little bit different than how he employs the same technique for South Korean military bunkers. Of course, each shot always encapsulates what’s around that particular architectural work, in South Korea or in an African country. And yet, for Mansudae Master Class each site’s sociocultural and political context becomes very important, which is why Onejoon has interviewed Zimbabwe soldiers who are trained by North Korean military personnel, and Zimbabwe sculptors who have problems with North Korean artisans taking their work. We also interviewed an Ethiopian sculptor in Addis Ababa who participated in designing the Tiglachin Monument, a spectacular public park in the middle of the capital. Archival footage and documentary photographs found in these allies of North Korea are also incorporated in the film.
The thing about the Venice Biennale is that the pavilion says ‘Corea’ on the marquee but it’s run by the South Korean government. When it was erected in 1994 and inaugurated in 1995, there was an attempt on the part of the South Korean government to reach out to the North Korean government to collaborate on building the national pavilion for both Koreas. That was the premise and why the Venice Biennale Foundation allowed the Korean pavilion to be built as the last pavilion in Giardini. Since then, no other permanent pavilions have been built on the grounds of Giardini. China couldn’t do that either; China is still renting a temporary space in the Arsenale. Back in the 1990s, there was a certain diplomatic gesture on the part of the Venetian and Italian bureaucratic network to allow the two Koreas to approach closer to unification—as the fall of the Berlin wall was in the recent past. But what happened in the process of negotiations was that Kim Il-Sung died. It was a chaotic situation for North Korea and the deal for an inter-Korean pavilion fell through, which led South Korea to keep its sole authority over the pavilion. I could talk more but that’s the gist of the history. Last year’s architecture biennale was the first time North Korean-made works were exhibited in the Korean Pavilion. It was a show about looking at the modern architectural history of the Korean peninsula, both North Korea and South Korea, which is why the curator wanted to feature Onejoon’s video.
Audience Member: When you were talking about the bunkers, [and saying] that lots of bunkers were going to be or have been demolished, [it made me wonder] what’s the purpose of demolishing these bunkers? For a living space or library use? What’s their condition?
OC: Only in those districts where urban redevelopment projects take place are the bunkers being demolished to make way for apartment buildings. But the remaining ones are kept because we’re still at war.
XM: I was thinking of the Bandung Conference in the 50s and the connection between Asia and Africa. Is that something [you were thinking about] when working on this subject?
OC: I’m really not interested in the relationship between Asia and Africa; I’m only focused on the relationship between Korean and African countries.
SL: And even the relationship between North Korea and each African country is very different depending on who is in power in the nation. For example, in the case of Ethiopia, during the Communist regime between 1974 and 1991, North Korea played a pretty big role in terms of Ethiopia’s communist art and theater productions. North Koreans gave the North Korean party outfit to the Ethiopian party leaders, so we actually found anecdotes and photographic evidence of the exchange of fashion code. North Korea also sent propaganda experts to Ethiopia so that for the tenth anniversary of the [Ethiopian] Communist regime, which took place in 1984, North Koreans prepared the parade with what they’re famous for: thousands of people holding placards to make slogans appear. Each country and each region has a very particular relationship with North Korea so it’s hard to generalize.
Berny Tan: How is South Korea involved? Do they have any kind of response to this North Korean relationship with African countries?
OC: I will show some of the footage. This is a very rare archive film directed by North Koreans. When I first saw this film, I was fascinated because in the 1960s they promoted their regime and their dictatorship to African countries. As I told you, Kim Il-Sung built many monuments and buildings as gifts, for free!
– Video – Archival footage produced by North Korea
XM: Did you find this footage in North Korean, South Korean, or African archives? Or somewhere else?
OC: I found this film on YouTube first, but there was just a short clip. Later I found the whole film in Canada. Of course North Korea has their own films, but I don’t have any North Korean connections.
SL: So, the single-channel version of Mansudae Master Class currently on view at the New Museum has different types of archival footage—by North Korean Film Council, South Korean Broadcasting Company during the dictator Park Chung-hee’s regime, as well as African footage—found in African broadcasting companies and archival sites.
Audience Member: You say that you’re trying to show the film on television so was it partly funded by a television station? Also, you’re going to release a gallery version of the video. You’re able to actually show the video in these different channels?
OC: I’ve been making photographs for over ten years, and I’ve been really poor. John Akomfrah sells his film to BBC. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul is a little bit different but also sells his films in the market. I want to expand my genre at the same time. I’m getting older and I need to make money. Honestly, that’s all. Artists can be TV producers, why not? A TV producer can be an artist.
SL: Onejoon, I think he’s curious how you were able to execute this large project, if the funding came from a TV station, and if not how you raised the funding.
OC: I have already hired a producer and he’ll know how to get money; it’s complicated to get funding.
SL: As far as I know, there was no commercial funding source up until today.
OC: This film has been funded by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the New Museum here and the Asian Culture Complex in South Korea. Luckily, several institutions have supported my work.
Onejoon Che (b. 1979, South Korea) has participated in a number of exhibitions in Atelier Hermès, PLATEAU (Seoul), the Palais de Tokyo, and the Musée du quai Branly (Paris), as well as the Seoul Media Biennale (2014) and the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2014).
Sohl Lee, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in contemporary East Asian art and visual culture at Stony Brook University, New York, and her interdisciplinary research interests include aesthetics of politics, activist art, vernacular modernism, postcolonial theory, historiography, and curatorial practice.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Berny Tan.