Written by Marley C. Smit
For his most recent project, entitled “Welcome to North Korea,” Italian artist Max Papeschi teams up with an unlikely collaborator – Amnesty International Italy. For the concept of the piece, Papeschi imagines he has been appointed “Ambassador of the Ministry of Propaganda of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” and tasked with creating a campaign to improve the regime’s public image. Using real information on the North Korean Yodoko concentration camp divulged by Amnesty International Italy, Papeschi creates a satirical multi-media campaign that exposes the very injustices in North Korea it claims to diminish.
Two weeks before the official inauguration of “Welcome to North Korea,” billboards appeared around the city of Milan, Italy to pique public interest in the project. The billboards displayed the face of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un in the style of a Warhol screen print, complete with brightly colored eye shadow and lipstick. Next to Un’s face read the words “The Leader is Coming,” “Enjoy North Korea,” or “Follow The Leader.” While the makeup softens and brings humor to the face of the dictator, it stands in contrast with his sullen expression. The accompanying captions seem playful and welcoming at first, but upon closer inspection they read more like commands than invitations. “The Leader is Coming” becomes more of a looming threat than an eagerly anticipated event. The tension created between the lighthearted nature of the “propaganda” and the real atrocities the campaign brings to light is a theme that persists throughout “Welcome to North Korea.”
The performance and installation portions of Papeschi’s campaign centered around “Pyongyang Playground” – an inflatable bounce-house modeled after the Yodoko concentration camp. The walls of the bounce house are adorned with painted barbed wire and a large inflatable bust of Kim Jong-Un’s head sits at the top, overseeing all. The audience is once again confronted with a contradictory juxtaposition: the playful nature of the bounce-house and the harrowing living conditions of prisoners at the Yodoko camp that the installation is inspired by. “Pyongyang Playground” is accompanied by a performance piece in which all of the actors wear masks of the Supreme Leader’s face. A foam mascot in the shape of a missile named “SpongeBomb” completes the ensemble.
No propaganda campaign would be complete without an art exhibition honoring the Supreme Leader. Max Papeschi meets this challenge with “The Leader is Present,” a body of work incorporating Kim Jong-Un into iconic modern and contemporary artworks such as Andy Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ series and Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present.” “The Leader is Present” projects the impression that these artists chose to pay tribute to the North Korean Leader themselves. The ubiquity of Kim Jong-Un’s face throughout the exhibit parades as an homage, but the viewer is instilled with a sense of something inescapable, echoing the way the people of North Korea must feel living under the oppressive thumb of Un’s regime.
“Welcome to North Korea” successfully draws attention to the human rights violations occurring in North Korea in a way that is palatable and engaging for audiences. The satirical propaganda campaign shoulders the responsibility of bringing these injustices to public attention where the mainstream media has often fallen short. Max Papeschi and Amnesty International Italy have created a fine work of anti-propaganda; usurping the tools dictators have historically used to aggrandize themselves and using them instead to expose the abuses perpetrated by such a regime.