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The Genie Of History In Three Acts (extract) - We Love Samsung And Kim Il-sung


By Raúl Zamudio

In August of 31, 2008, Riiko Sakkinen had just finished his installation for 2008 Yeosu International Art Festival of which my role was of artistic director.  Sakkinen’s piece, titled WE ♥ SAMSUNG AND KIM IL-SUNG (2008), consisted of a wall drawing and text superimposed with 24 framed works-on-paper. According to the artist, the elements of the installation referred to the following:

Samsung is South Korea's largest company and the world's second largest conglomerate by revenue. Kim Il-sung was the leader of North Korea from its founding in 1948 until his death 1994. He switched from a Marxist-Leninist ideology to his self-developed Juche idea and established a personality cult. The figure is from Animallow marshmallow package sold in Lidl, a discount supermarket chain of German origin.

After installing his piece, which was one of the highlights of the 86 artist exhibition, officials told us that the work needed to be modified or taken down. The reason for this, according to official statements, was that the national constitution prohibits anyone from “praising” Kim Il-Sung. And transgressing this national rule of law could lead to imprisonment. This charge was taken seriously for in researching the official, state position it was revealed that there was at least one instance of a South Korean teacher arrested for downloading North Korean posters from the Internet for pedagogical purposes, which was misconstrued by anticommunists as condoning North Korean ideology. In April of 2008 Lee Samsung of the Samsung conglomerate was being investigated for bribery, illicit transfer of ownership and the creation of slush funds.  This was the same Samsung who funded Seoul’s beautiful museum by the same name. The piece by Sakkinen, however, not only questioned Kim Il-Sung’s personality cult, but also the relationship between art, politics and commerce. There is precedence in this particular critical framework that makes Sakkinen’s installation that much more compelling. 

Hans Haacke’s important work that was censored by the Guggenheim Museum in New York City is one example. Titled Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, the piece traced the real estate holdings of Harry Shapolsky from 1951-1971; and implicated how his criminal dealings including investments acquired from slums in Harlem and other low income, high minority neighborhoods, was being protected by politicians with connections to the Guggenheim Museum. Like the censoring of Haacke’s conceptual artwork par excellence, the attempt to remove Sakkinen’s installation reached a feverish pitch: requests for pulling the work amounted to more that 50 phone calls a day to the venue’s administrative offices from all areas of South Korea. Since Sakkinen had already returned to Spain and gave me permission to take any action I thought appropriate, I finally agreed with trepidation to have one of the artist’s works-on-paper cover Il in the name Kim Il-Sung. I allowed this to happen after I gave a TV interview in front of the exhibition hall at the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.  I found it ironic that I was giving a statement against censorship in a city that in 1980 over 200 students were killed in the now famous pro-democracy movement? In all fairness and sensitivity to those who lost loved ones during the Korean War and not because I bowed to right-wing, anticommunist pressure, I allowed the work to be modified by one single work-on-paper in agreement with the Yeosu International Art Festival Committee. However, I did ask in return for compromise that the YIAF Committee, which was the exhibition’s administrative body, issue a press release stating that the work was misinterpreted. And that the artist and I were not attempting to disrespect anyone’s memory of the past or trivializing the horror experienced by Kim Il-Sung and the Korean War. The statement to the press that officials agreed to send out was never released. After returning to New York City, I found out that the work had been so drastically altered that it looked vandalized. Not only did the YIAF committee condone the artwork’s destruction reminiscent of the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamyam, but it was left in this state throughout the remainder of the exhibition for all to see.

Raúl Zamudio is a NYC-based curator and critic.

The essay The Genie of History in Three Acts was originally published in Framework Issue 10, June 2009.