Piecing together the propaganda. A special post by Koryo Tours' founder Nicholas Bonner.
Travelling around North Korea is rewarding in terms of visiting a unique system and culture. There are individual elements that fascinate people (we have travelers who have visited just to revolve in the three revolving restaurants or simply to ride the double corkscrew rollercoaster) but it is the architecture, monuments and museums that the majority find of interest. Many of these have mosaics as an integral part of the design, as decoration but also as propaganda.
THE BACKGROUND Mosaics have been made in DPRK since the 1970’s, influenced by the Soviet Union. The Korean artists soon made mosaics their forte and they were particularly suitable for Korea’s variable climate and would remain glistening on the streets in rain, sun and snow (as well as the grime of the metro).
The imagery is typically to remind the onlooker about the revolution, to pay homage to the Korean leadership, victory in the Korean War, the values of collective labour, the beautiful and powerful country/city, pride and optimism and even as information boards in parks… but rarely simply for aesthetics.
MAKING A MOSAIC The assembly takes place on the studio floor following a painted design. The artists lays out a sheet of paper (approximately a 70 x 70 mm section of the entire mosaic) with the outline only of the mosaic. The outlines lines are glued directly onto the paper but the rest of the coloured glass (smalti or tessera) are infilled loosely. Once competed glued paper (50 x 50) is placed over what would be the outward face of the mosaic. When dried this section can be transported and fixed in place via mortar. After assembly of all the sections the glued paper is simply scrubbed off and the work is grouted.
Early works may include smalti and tile work (relatively large irregular pieces) however this has in recent times been replaces by consistent rows of same shaped smalti usually 5mm x 5mm which allow greater detailing of light and shade and details of hands and ears. The changes can be seen in the early more propaganda style imagery used in the metro to the more delicate socialist realism pieces today
Smaller and finer smalti are used to portray the leaders’ image so as to get the detail perfect (the same is for the backdrop in the Mass Gymnastics – the students in the centre squeeze together to ensure no gaps).
Koryo Studio were commissioned to make a 3.5 x 7.5 mosaic for the Brisbane Modern Art Gallery ‘Asia Pacific Triennial’ in 2010. The North Korean mosaic artist were invited to the opening and to assemble the piece however the Australian Government banned their visit. The gallery found two Italian mosaic artists who assembled the piece which now is in the permanent collection of the gallery.
The Koryo Academy is a regular posting on Korean history, culture, and language.