In Beijing’s 798 Art District, abutting Originality Square and just across from the Danish-owned Galleri Faurschou and New York powerhouse Pace Beijing, there sits a beige pedestal. Thick and wide, the pedestal rises in a strict geometry to a height of over six meters. It protrudes so high that most passersby don’t realize there’s something on top of it, although it’s worth looking. Up above is perched a statue of the Chollima, a smaller version of the mythical winged horse able to travel a thousand miles a day that looks over Pyongyang, with a male worker and a female peasant seated on its back. They ride the horse with unimaginable swiftness into North Korea’s future.
This particular statue marks the entrance to the Mansudae Art Studio Museum, a gallery managed by North Korea’s Mansudae Creation Company, itself North Korea’s largest “art creation company,” an amorphous group of large, departmentalized art studios under the administration of various government organizations. (There’s no such thing as underground or independent art in North Korea.) Mansudae comes under the guidance of Kim Jong-il, making it the most prominent of the country’s art creation companies, and responsible for its highest profile public art works, such as the mural programs decorating the Pyongyang subway, and the Chollima statues in Pyongyang and 798.
Foreigners have been able to buy art by North Korean artists for at least as long as they have been allowed to participate in state-chaperoned tourism— the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang is a DPRK-approved destination for foreign tourists, who are free to purchase from its gift shops. Selling artwork has long proven one of the state’s most hassle-free means of generating foreign exchange (the Euro is the preferred currency), and growing Asian interest in collecting as a means of investment has allowed the price of North Korean art to rise.
Mansudae’s business abroad has taken off in recent years, a growth explained by a variety of factors. International economic sanctions against the state have left it with few other options for generating foreign currency, and it increasingly relies upon Mansudae’s overseas offices for these purposes. Mansudae’s cheap rates and utilitarian craftsmanship have also made it a popular choice with the leaders of various African autocracies, who commission ambitious monument and memorial projects from it— the most notorious example is certainly Senegal’s Monument to African Renaissance, rising to a height of fifty meters (taller than both Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer and the Statue of Liberty) on a hillside near Dakar’s Yoff International Airport, whose murky financial arrangements are estimated to have cost the Senegalese government between USD 25 and 70 million.
The Mansudae Art Studio Museum is the first outpost to appear outside the DPRK; indeed, Beijing is probably the only place in the world culturally and politically friendly enough to support the gallery’s presence. Most styles of art produced in Pyongyang are available in Beijing, including bronze sculpture, oil, watercolor, ink, and a North Korean specialty that involves painting with powder from ground jewels. Accordingly, the works on display at the gallery are smorgasbord of these styles, the resulting eclecticism a far cry from the curated shows on display elsewhere in 798. At Mansudae’s gallery, one encounters three-meter-long scrolls depicting hale North Korean miners feted by schoolgirls and confetti in the same breath as misty ink landscapes and schmaltzy oil portraits of girls sitting in sunshine-filled parks surrounded by droves of adoring doves. If Mansudae seems a curious neighbor to sleek art-world players like Pace and Faurschou, it’s worth pointing out that 798 is home to stranger institutions— one storefront across from the UCCA specializes in stuffing and mounting dead pets.
Aside from artwork, the Mansudae gallery also sells stamps and postcards, again running the full gamut, from images of flora and fauna to others of cars driven by Kim Jong-il. The most pronounced theme in the stamp and postcard selection is political, emphasizing good relations between the countries, with stamps of every Chinese political leader to have ever visited North Korea, and even celebrations of achievements that are entirely China’s own— Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, the first Chinese man to walk in space.
Different audiences respond to the gallery on different valences, and Mansudae embraces them all. For the Westerner looking for politically exotic kitsch, there are postcards of Jiang Zemin beaming next to a stoic young Kim Jong-il. For the mainstream Chinese viewer like those who increasingly populate 798, there are familiar and easily legible visual styles, especially paintings in a Sovietinfluenced socialist realism not unlike that still taught in the dominant curriculum in many Chinese art academies. And for nouveau riche Chinese collectors, there are opportunities to invest in contemporary art for beginners: competitive prices, and no prior knowledge of the field required. Indeed, Chinese collectors are quick to praise the art’s romanticism and its artists’ attention to detail. North Korean artists “write reality” (as xieshi, the verb for realist creation, literally translates), and do not shy away from laborious tasks like painting leaves on a tree, or every hair on a tiger’s back. There are no shortcuts in theme or technique, and the lack of abstract or experimental styles makes the work palatable to collectors who have trouble stomaching art history’s many departures from representational form during the twentieth century.
One Wednesday afternoon, I went to the Mansudae Art Studio Museum to ask for an interview with the gallery’s director, Jin Zhengtai. There was nobody else in the space save for three Chinese employees, sitting around a white plastic table gossiping as they stuffed glossy envelopes with crisp North Korean won. I didn’t ask about the cash, but I did ask after the director, who wasn’t available, and was subsequently either at the hospital or with important customers each time I checked back. In the absence of a response, it isn’t clear exactly when Mansudae first opened a gallery in Beijing, how long it’s been there, or even its legal name. There have been at least two other art galleries in Beijing with Mansudae in their titles, and possibly a previous location in 798.
I would have liked to meet the man behind the operation, placed as he is on a precarious but increasingly prominent precipice. Across China, there has been a pronounced increase in exhibitions of North Korean art, popularizing it in cities including Chengdu, Dalian, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Yantai. In Beijing, the Mansudae gallery participates in the annual Art Beijing fair (see page 44), bolstering its legitimacy abroad. As tense diplomatic relations slow tourism to a trickle, Pyongyang is increasingly dependent on Beijing to bring in sales. But the stability of the operation, predicated on not just cultural but political affinities between the countries, remains to be seen.