Archives for the month of: December, 2011

What do we mean when we say, ‘life is imitating art’? Does some conventional causal logic flip around? Is art fancier than life, in a gilded, auction-house-happy kind of way?

If art once ennobled life by dramatizing it in stylish ways—the Woah Factor—early 21st century life has seemingly rendered art an impotent imposter to the real thing. The more art enumerates its importance—petulantly, waving a wad of cash in the air, citing Another French Philosopher—the less important it actually is.

This starts, for me, with those pictures from Abu Ghraib prison. Beyond announcing the reality of systemic torture by the US Army, the stylizations of the photos were an idiot-accident-collage of Francis Bacon’s flesh-mounds, Pasolini’s pleasure fascism in Salo and, most chillingly, the carefree snap-happy amateurism of soldiers on holiday. Thumbs Up! Thumbs down: this was no Disneyland. It was Iraq.

I challenge you to find any artist authored images from that moment on that can rival the unadorned wrecked humanity of these pictures. This is a trend—if that’s the right word—that has escalated since, empowered by those precious little witness-machines we carry in our pockets: mobile phone cameras.

We make searing images in a milli-second. We consume difficult images everywhere. We laugh. We shudder. We don’t need artists to do any of this. Do we?

Things once cordially hidden or silenced have made their way to the surface of our attention-deficit attentions. The word ‘leak’—once limited to usage by plumbers or seafarers—is now prefixed by ‘Wiki’, or Al Jazeera. Our ignorance has run out of excuses.

Take the Arab Uprisings. When foreign journalists were not allowed in to Libya or Syria, we relied on discordant choruses of mobile phone clips. We become remote-witnesses. These clips are chaotic, unedited, over saturated with clashing sounds and terrible, true images. There is nothing artful about this ‘style’—and yet they convey a fragmentary sense of what it is like to be a mortal body caught in mortally threatening situations. Goodbye artifice.

The natural habitat of these documents is not the gallery or the museum but television, in its expanded form. Here these documents are immediate, their witnessing still raw. The emotional effect is also immediate. If indecipherable, unverifiable.

The poet Rilke wrote, ‘Events move in such a way that they will always inevitably be ahead of us. We shall never catch up with them.’

You only need to try and piece together the death of Muammar Qaddafi to discover how true this is. The best approximation to his last few minutes comes shaped in a series of non-continuous amateur video clips. The roar of the crowd is deafening, but that’s also because the microphone on the camera is not sensitive enough. Qaddafi is alive. Then he is pulp. A universe of non-special effects make this a cinema of the most ethically and aesthetically troubling kind.

When asked, why do novelists tend to prefer writing historical stories, Hillary Mantel replied that because a novel takes so long to produce, if you try and write about the present, it always slips through your grasp. The novelist needs a target to appear to be fixed so they can reveal the slippery secrets repressed by history.

If there is going to be a substantial response by contemporary art to the currents events in the ‘region’ it is, sadly, necessarily only once the life of those events has subsided into the past—for better or worse, with body counts as tragic proof that the present happened. Until that moment, life wins.


Published in the first issue of Harpers Bazaar Art


Kim Jong-il’s cinephilia was one of the few things the outside world knew about the inside of North Korea. You could have asked his first consort, the famous 60s actress Sung Hae-rim, who bore him his first (later discredited) son. You could have asked the South Korean producer and director, Shin Sang-ok, who, along with his ex (and then future) wife, the actress Choi-Eun-hee, was kidnapped in 1978 on the orders of Kim Jong-il.

Not yet ‘Dear Leader,’ five years earlier, in 1973, Kim had written this book:

It is an elegy for Kim’s love of film, as well as a manifesto on how, following Stalin’s proclamations half a century earlier, cinema was to be Communist Party social cement. The story of the story of Shin and Choi’s four year long incarceration, and then instant beatification by Kim as spearheads of his nationalist cinema dream, is the stuff of cinema-fantastique.

It’s all there: megalomaniacal hubris, North Korean C-movie versions of Japanese B-movies, the entrustment of vision not seen since Hitler appointed Albert Speer as B.F.F. And then, the final, sinewy plot twist: Shin and Choi’s betrayal by defection. Of all the insights revealed by Shin in his memoirs of this period, the one that stands out for me is that Kim was fully aware of the artificiality – and limitations – of stagey Communist theatrics. At the 1983 dinner where Kim explained to Shin and Choi why they had been kidnapped (four years prior), he confided that:

“The North’s film-makers are just doing perfunctory work. They don’t have any new ideas.  Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”

On another occasion, a bevy of young women on stage were jumping up and down, screaming: “Long live the great leader!” Shin remembers that Kim shook his arm, pointed at the fawning display, and said:

“Mr Shin, all that is bogus. It’s just pretence.”

Fast forward to Wednesday 28th December, 2011, and the outside world is given a rare, brief peer into Pyongang, North Korea’s capital city. Why: it is the state funeral of Kim Jong-il. As snowy as Dr Zhivago and Dubai’s indoor ski-slope all combined, we see the funeral cortege comprised of American stretch limos (circa The Godfather), an immense billboard of the deceased Dear Leader, rendered in Social Realist Smiling style, schlepped slowly on a car-roof (viral movie poster). The corpse – which has been lying in a glass casket redolent of Lenin’s, which itself is a copy of Snow White’s – is ceremonially hauled through the city atop a padded, floral wig. There are hoards of soldiers too, frozen still not by the foreboding cold, but by unfaltering duty. Or, they’re CGI-clones, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic.

And of course, there are The People. In their teaming masses – perhaps all 24.45 million of them – “crying and sobbing” hysterically, the kinds of tears shed for a mother, or a father, or a brother, or a sister, or a husband, or a wife, or a daughter, or a son.

Or – the kinds of tears shed by actors.

No. Let’s be more precise than that.

By extras.

Amateur psychologists like to explain Hitler’s power crazed death-drive by the fact that he was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna – not just once (1907), but twice (1908). And that Albert Speer’s role of imagineering the grand, neo-classical pomposity of future Germania was in fact Hitler’s unrequited, unfulfilled alter-ego: that of a Great Artist.

Applying the same, shaky logic to Kim Jong-il’s unrealised dreams would have made him a wannabe Great Cinema Director who never truly consummated his true destiny.

But what if he did – by other means? By harnessing the resources – all 24.45million of them – made available to him once his father, Kim Il Sung, passed away in 1994? What if this most secretive and likely pernicious place on earth is a real-life, structured reality predicated on the directorial whims of the (now deceased) Dear Leader?

It makes the subjugated North Korean masses ‘extras’ in a similar – but distinctly different – way to all those extras employed on the TV set of The Truman Show. There, the entire planet – which included the cast, the crew, the other actors, a whole town of extras and the millions of viewing audience – was in on the fact that Truman Burbank’s life was made entirely for the edification of the camera. The only person that didn’t know was Truman himself. Seahaven – the town where he lived – was a solipsistic stage-set manicured around the delusion of his own (un)happiness.

In contrast, it could be said that Kim Jong-il’s epic production of North Korea (as much of a bubble as Seahaven ever was) inverts the Truman Show’s solipsism. Here, everyone – except Kim Jong-il – was to be in a Truman-like state of reality-delusion.

Film-set, real-life. What’s the difference? Just act the part you’re given. The best method-actors become the character they’re trying to play. I didn’t say ‘CUT’? That’s OK. The cameras are always rolling. You’re always on film. Remember that. I can see everything because I invented you, I wrote your part, your dialogue, your inner thoughts, your devotion. Remember – I’m the director. The producer. The leading man. You? You’re the extras. 

Extras. Think about the word – sanctioned by the film-industry everywhere. Extras: non-essentials, supplementary, add-ons. In a film – think Birth of a Nation or Gladiators – extras give the impression of crowds. Yet, the crowds assembled at Kim Jong-il’s funeral are not the same crowds that power revolutions (though they share filiality). These are crowds as unified, de-centred disempowerment. They are both essential and extra to absolute power. In Kim’s own words, they are “bogus…[ ] just pretence.”

“All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.” Kim Jong-il, 1983

Then, who did? It is too easy to dismiss the mass of mourning at the (cinematically charged) funeral as state-controlled and stage-managed. It fits the fantasy of a Western imagination to contrast ‘our’ free-will versus ‘their’ programmed predestination. It probably also allays the fear that we’re all most likely acting out roles we’ve been given by this superstructure or that, if we can point somewhere, over there, somewhere lost in 20th century time, where crowds beat their chests, wailing with all their breath, and the opposite of breathing, for the death of their beloved Dear Director.