Koen de Ceuster

Professeur invité de l’EHESS

Koen de Ceuster
Leiden University Korean Studies

Koen De Ceuster is a university lecturer in Korean Studies at Leiden University (Netherlands). His research has focused on the socio-cultural history of colonial Korea, the historiography of modern Korea, and more broadly the politics of memory. He is a keen observer of, and (international) commentator on inter-Korean affairs and has become a recognized authority on North Korean art, reading North Korean art and art practices through the lens of North Korean art theory. He has (co-) curated exhibitions of North Korean art in various countries, established an annotated digital database of North Korean posters (hosted by the Asian Library, Leiden University), and published on North Korean art theory and practice. Following ethnographic fieldwork among North Korean artists in 2018, he is currently working on a book project From the Painter’s Perspective: Explorations into North Korean Art.  

Conférences

The visual rhetoric of North Korean poster art

  • Le 14 janvier 2022 de 10h30 à 12h30,  Séminaire « Intelligences de la Corée », Campus Condorcet, Bâtiment EHESS, 2 cours des Humanités, Aubervilliers, salle 3.09.

North Korea has a long tradition of poster culture that is said to originate in the leaflets that were surreptitiously printed and circulated among a largely illiterate population during the (1930s) anti-Japanese struggle. Because of that revolutionary pedigree, poster design and production continue to thrive as a political communication tool. Annually, a poster exhibition is held on occasion of the Great Leader’s New Year’s speech where the new goals (and slogans) for the coming year are disclosed. With hardly any commercial advertising, propaganda posters (and billboards) are nearly the only graphic art that enlivens public space. Despite their purpose and their prevalence, North Korean posters have hardly been studied. When posters appear in (research) publications, it is most often as mere illustration, with the shocking imagery as some kind of visual exclamation mark. Rarely is the poster itself properly analysed. This seminar takes a closer look at posters and tries to unlock what makes posters effective. It does so by looking at the dynamic between text (slogan) and image, the composition, the colour schemes and the iconography. Beyond the immediate political message, a close reading of historical posters provides useful insights in North Korea’s changing economic and social ideals and practices.

The makings of an artist in North Korea

  • Le 20 janvier 2022 de 9h30-12h30, Séminaire « Habiter les villes d’Asie » (Valérie Gelézeau et Françoise Ged), campus Condorcet, Bâtiment EHESS, 2 cours des Humanités, Aubervilliers, salle A302.

North Korean art theory clearly spells out what is expected of an artist. An artist serves the people, the revolution, the party, and above all the leader, by providing a correct understanding of the past and present as set by the Workers’ Party of Korea. An artist further operates in a tightly circumscribed environment, in terms of style (i.e. realism) and subject matter, but also professionally, as employee of one of the state-led Art Studios, where his work constantly vetted by the (North) Korean Federation of Artists. At the same time, North Korean art theory proclaims that only great talent begets great art, and acknowledges the need to stimulate individual creativity and talent. Such apparently contradictory notions are less incongruent when reading the North Korean art world through the lens of French 18th century academy practices. In this seminar, the abstract insights in art theory are matched with the lived experiences gathered through interactions with individual North Korean artists and staff of the Pyongyang University of Fine Arts over the course of fifteen years.

Narrative painting in North Korea

  • Le 20 janvier 2022, de 14h30 à 16h30, campus Condorcet, Bâtiment EHESS, 2 cours des Humanités, Aubervilliers, salle A302., Séminaire d’Alain Delissen : Histoire de la Corée moderne : transitions historiographiques

Art for art’s sake is a non-starter in North Korea. With the Workers’ Party of Korea as patron and the (North) Korean Federation of Artists as gatekeeper of the arts, the DPRK art world functions under a very different regime. The arts are part of a larger propaganda system. The role of the arts is to arouse an emotional response in viewers. Unlike posters, where the effect is meant to be instantaneous, paintings seek to affect viewers in a more subtle way. Rather than to mobilize viewers into action, paintings communicate an emotionally charged atmosphere or insight. In the latter case, the arts take on a didactic role, communicating a politically correct understanding of the past and/or reality coated in the right hue. This is particularly the case with narrative/history paintings, which visualise scenes and episodes of the country’s history/reality in a dramatized manner, where emotion trumps action. A close reading of a set of narrative/history paintings allows insight into how these paintings convey an ideologically charged understanding of the past and the present, and how in doing so, they confirm North Korea as a revolutionary haven created and graced by benevolent leadership.

North Korea as Gesamtkunstwerk: realism unbound

  • Le 28 janvier 2021 de 10h30 à 12h30, Séminaire « Intelligences de la Corée », Campus Condorcet, Bâtiment EHESS, 2 cours des Humanités, Aubervilliers, salle 3.09.

In October 2015, on occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a unique open-air “10,000-strong Grand Performance The Great Party and Bright Korea” was staged on a pontoon moored on the Taedong River in between Kim Il Sung Square and the Juche Tower. The background of the stage showed the Party flag unfurling, the flag embracing a huge screen where photos, documentary footage, and film clips were screened while on stage orchestras and choirs, dancers and actors performed. The stage was absorbed into the cityscape, history collapsed into a grand show. Spectators were taken on a roller coaster ride through the highlights of revolutionary history as told in art, literature and film. Not only the show itself was a total work of art, the performance was particularly striking for how it blurred the boundaries between different media, but also between fact and fiction, and ultimately between stage and the world beyond, blending the country into a total work of art/Gesamtkunstwerk. This single performance and its masterfully edited recording stand out as a particularly poignant example of how art and art performances are reinforcing normative ways of reading reality. A closed circuit of ever-repeated cultural and historical references shapes and becomes North Korean reality.


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