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Kingdom of Kitsch
The oversize public monuments and buildings in the capital of North Korea confirm the subservience of the citizen to the state and display the ghastly aesthetic imperatives of totalitarian art.
By ERIC GIBSONBrowse the travel section of any bookstore and along with old reliables such as Michelin you'll find a plethora of other titles and brands covering just about every destination and taste. Surely the strangest addition to this genre is the two-volume "Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang," edited by Philipp Meuser, a German architect and architectural historian. Strange because Pyongnang is unlikely to be on anyone's "see before you die" list and because, even if it were, it's not an easy place to see. The capital of the Hermit Kingdom receives only a few hundred visitors a year, the bulk of them officially sanctioned and accompanied every step of the way by government minders.
Architectural and Cultural Guide: PyongyangEdited by Philipp Meuser
DOM, 368 pages, $49.95
Why write a guide to such a place? Mr. Meuser's stated aim is to "lend normalcy to the abnormal." He writes of the "pervasive feeling . . . of bemusement and perplexity in the face of the totalitarian regime" when you visit North Korea. Some of this feeling stems from the near-ghost-town character of Pyongyang. A city of some 1,200 square miles (about double New York's geographical size), it has a population of about three million. Although the book's photographs show vast residential areas populated by thick clusters of high-rise apartment buildings, the streets are virtually empty. One of the most memorable images in the book is of a traffic cop on duty at an intersection, without a single car in sight.
But the city's air of unreality derives in the main from the fact that Pyongyang is a suffocating propaganda hothouse where everything—the layout, buildings, monuments, billboards, signage—is designed to express the ideology of "Juche," or national self-reliance. As such, everything is geared to glorifying the state and its leader and reminding all the citizens that their primary raison d'être is to continue the revolutionary struggle. Mr. Meuser tries to understand all this by taking us through Pyongyang's streets "as though exploring this city were no different from rambling through Tokyo, Copenhagen or Berlin."
The book is not so much a Baedeker—there are no transportation tips, no business hours, no walking tours or other standard guidebook information—as an attempt to parse a city that Mr. Meuser describes as "an architectural cabinet of curiosities. . . . arguably the world's best preserved open-air museum of socialist architecture."
The first volume of the book consists primarily of photographs and is divided into sections such as "Urban Planning," "Residential Buildings" and "Monuments." The second is a collection of essays, three by Mr. Meuser and the rest by two other architectural historians, one South Korean and the other, like Mr. Meuser, German. As a bonus of sorts, "Architectural and Cultural Guide: Pyongyang" includes a 10,000-word excerpt from a manifesto titled "On Architecture" (1991). It was written—or so we are asked to believe—by Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader from 1994 until his death in 2011. "It is more important that architectural structures reflect revolutionary ideals," reads a typical sentence.
For all its mix of elements, Mr. Meuser has produced a book that is at once unique and invaluable, the most in-depth study of totalitarian art and aesthetics since the Russian art historian Igor Golomstock published his sweeping history of the subject 12 years ago. Only this book has the advantage of being focused on work that is still standing and visible, unlike the material from the Nazi and Soviet eras discussed by Mr. Golomstock.
Pyongyang was 90% destroyed during the Korean War. So its later, ground-up rebuilding as a communist capital makes it a textbook showcase of totalitarian kitsch—that perverse byway of genuine art. The animating principle of totalitarian kitsch is the glorification of the state and its leader. The style borrows its vocabulary from the forms of legitimate art—the figure, the equestrian statue, the landscape—but it empties them of all but the most cloying, shallow emotion, relying on an inflated sense of scale and an off-the-shelf, formulaic realism.
Indeed, totalitarian kitsch uses scale as an autonomous aesthetic element. This quality is abundantly on display in Pyongyang, in its 60-foot statues of Kim Il-sung, the country's founding leader, and in the official buildings, with their floor areas running to hundreds of thousands of square feet. The idea here is that size is the message. By dwarfing the populace, such gigantism conveys the subservience of the individual to the state. Still, when it comes to size, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were pikers. Pyongyang's Arch of Triumph (1982) is about equal to Paris's Arc de Triomphe. The triumphal arch that Albert Speer designed for Hitler—part of a redesign of Berlin that was carefully planned but never built—was so vast that Paris's would have fit snugly into its aperture.
In Pyongyang, sometimes straining for the Big Statement has backfired, as in the case of the Ryugyong Hotel. Under construction since 1987, this 105-story, 6,000-bed pyramid is still unfinished, partly because its source of funding dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Looming over the city like a portent of doom, it is a daily reminder of the biblical Tower of Babel,'" writes Mr. Meuser. Or of a Potemkin village. Unusually for a building of that kind, the hotel is made entirely out of concrete. But "while a steel construction would have made better structural sense," writes Mr. Meuser, "it would have cost three times as much." Over the years, Pyongyang has moved away from Soviet-inspired concrete-block structures, seemingly the bastard children of Le Corbusier and a government planning bureau, to more modernistic structures like this hotel, all in an effort to appear more cosmopolitan.
If North Korea could be said to have made any "contribution" to the totalitarian-kitsch aesthetic, it is in Pyongyang's two giant memorial complexes, the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill (1972) and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Memorial (1993). Both consist of enormous plazas, some 450,000 square feet in area, dominated by a statue and subordinate sculptural groups. The Mansu Hill monument features, at its center, a 60-foot-high statue of Kim Il-sung; flanking him are two 150-foot-long sculptural groups, each with more than 100 figures parading ecstatically alongside a stylized, 75-foot-long flag. The war memorial is similarly designed but even more elaborate.
These memorial complexes allow us to speak of something totally new: the theater of totalitarian commemorative art. They are a hybrid form, a fusion of the traditional, stand-alone, single-figure monument and the Party rally. Think Nuremberg, only with dictator and martial attendants frozen in a perpetual act of exhortation. Visitors to these monuments become participants in a display of coercive propaganda as much as if they were attending a live outdoor assembly.
It's easy to make fun of Pyongyang's Ozymandias statuary, its comical anachronisms (such as the monument, unveiled in April, showing the late Kim Jong-il astride a rearing charger) and its government buildings dolled up with Vegas levels of glitz. But this book takes us beyond the laughter to see the cost to the Korean people of this preening ideological environment. Public monuments and buildings in Pyongyang are illuminated at night, but private residences are largely dark. Artists aren't independent creators but cogs working in teams with hundreds of others to crank out propaganda images of the Kims. Official buildings may be constructed of lavish materials—quarried stone and solid-gold door pulls—but housing for "the masses" is made from pre-cast concrete that quickly begins to crack and leak. The $100 million cost of the mammoth Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace (1989), notes Mr. Meuser drily, "exceeds the total monthly income of the entire working population of North Korea." No wonder this book carries a warning.
One day the regime will fall and democracy will come to North Korea. We can only hope that, when it does, the successor government will preserve the monumental, public, propagandistic Pyongyang in all its perverse glory. It would be a real tourist destination, the world's only totalitarian-kitsch theme park—a kind of lopsided Disneyworld—and an object lesson in what happens when art is hijacked by the state, and the individual is ground beneath the wheels of a repressive ideology.
—Mr. Gibson is the Journal's Leisure & Arts Features editor.
A version of this article appeared December 29, 2012, on page C9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Kingdom of Kitsch.