A Curatorial Challenge: Bringing North Korean Art to a South Korean Audience

Assistant Curator Katie Nairne describes the delicate challenge of bringing North Korean art to a South Korean audience.

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  • Katie Nairne
  • Exhibitions, Feature

In late 2018 House of Illustration’s exhibitions team faced a delicate challenge: to put on Made in North Korea: Graphic Design from the DPRK at Hongik Art Center in Seoul. We were working with Korean touring company ‘Culture and I’ to bring this potentially controversial exhibition to South Korea, so I boarded a plane for a mad 24-hour visit to Seoul to meet the ‘Culture and I’ team.

Touring exhibitions always involves the logistical challenge of looking after artworks which need to be kept in specific environments with monitored temperature and humidity. But the specifics of putting this particular exhibition to this particular audience meant more than checking Hongik Art Center’s environment. While collector and co-curator of the exhibition, Nicholas Bonner, had asked that the design and content of the exhibition remain the same as the show in the UK as much as possible, some curatorial changes had to be made.

All exhibition text had to be reviewed before and after translation to ensure that the right vocabulary was used to describe North Korean territory and people in the most respectful way. Explanations of Korean symbols that were required for a UK audience were not all necessary for a Korean audience due to the shared history between North and South Korea. It had to be made clear that the exhibition was focused on graphic design rather than politics, and so some of the more politically-charged works such as comics, tickets and a toy gun were forbidden entry to the country – the exhibition therefore had to be reconfigured to accommodate these changes.

We were lucky enough to be able to work with the team from Fraser Muggeridge Studio again so that the original colourful design for the exhibition could be adapted to the new larger space at Hongik Art Center. It seemed best to use printing and production companies in Seoul, so samples had to be sent to the UK and back. For the final installation in December, a member of the Fraser Muggeridge team came out to ensure that everything looked perfect, and to make last-minute changes to printed material as necessary.

The exhibition opened on 23 December 2018 after an incredibly quick installation by a large team of Korean technicians and art handlers. I travelled out to supervise customs, condition checking and installation – less glamorous than it sounds, with two days in customs warehouses and offices, long hours at the exhibition space and fighting four days of jetlag! ‘Culture and I’ were kind enough to take us for a celebratory meal after the opening, and it was great to see a little bit of Seoul while I was out there.

The exhibition is open at Hongik Art Center in Seoul until 7 April 2019. 

House of Illustration regularly sends exhibitions on tour throughout the UK and internationally. For more information click here.