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Real DMZ Project brings art to Cheorwon

The county of Cheorwon is an unlikely venue for art. Located in the northwestern corner of Gangwon-do (Gangwon Province), it offers visitors the chance to get close to North Korea and gaze into the secretive state at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It is also the host for the Real DMZ Project, an artistic collaboration taken on by artists from Korea, France, Germany, and the UK.

“I was attracted to South Korea because of the situation of Korea,” said French artist Amandine Faynot, a video artist who contributed the video installation 248 to the project. “After 60 years they are still at war. In the army they learn how to fight, but here they learn how to keep the peace -- it is a paradox. They are trying to protect the status quo.”

Cheorwon is a significant location on the divided peninsula. Once a county of North Korea, it was planned as the site of a future capital by North Korean leader Kim Ilsung, had both Koreas united as one. Instead, it ended up straddling the Military Demarcation Line, cleaved in two by the four-kilometer-wide DMZ.

“It was not what I expected,” said Korean artist Lee Jooyoung. “We were basically in a warzone but I felt life goes on in the DMZ.”

Due to the political situation, the ecosystem of Cheorwon is clean and undisturbed, becoming an unlikely habitat for many species of plants and animals, and the South Korean government has been paying farmers to utilize the land. The thriving tourism industry takes visitors to various locations where they can see North Korea from afar, but also the region is a popular destination for a variety of outdoor activities, from rafting to ATVs.

“It used to belong to this heavily militarily observed area but now it’s free,” said Kim Lyang, a Korean artist based in Paris, France.

The Cheorwon Peace Observatory offers a glimpse into North Korea.

Organized by the contemporary art initiative Samuso, the eleven collaborators have spent half a year preparing a variety of artworks, on display throughout the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at locations including the Iron Triangle Tourist Office, the Second Underground Tunnel, the Cheorwon Peace Observatory, Woljeong-ri Station, and the Labor Party Building. All exhibits are open for tourists visiting the area, whose numbers reach 20,000 per month on average. The Real DMZ Project also offers its own weekend tours, departing from the Art Sonje Center in Samcheong-dong, Seoul.

“In my imagination the Cheorwon border would be very guarded, very tense, but it wasn’t like that,” said Park Jaeyong, who attended the first tour of the Real DMZ Project on July 28. “It was like a jungle. It was very different every time I was there so it offered many different feelings to me.”

The first stop of the tour is the Iron Triangle Tourist Office, an imposing Korean-style building in urban Cheorwon. The second floor features photographs by Korean artist Noh Suntag documenting the social and political contexts of everyday life in Cheorwon. His images can be seen throughout the DMZ tour, confronting visitors with portraits in unexpected places.

The Iron Triangle Tourist Office contains photos by Noh Suntag.

In 1975, a tunnel entrance was discovered in the hills north of Cheorwon, blasted out of the rock by North Korean infiltrators. The second of four discovered, it goes as deep as 160 meters underground. It is open to visitors, who are permitted to walk a 500-meter stretch of the tunnel.

“It’s quite a torture to walk all the way to the end of the tunnel,” said Dirk Fleischmann, a conceptual artist from Germany. On his first visit, he didn’t even make it to the end, thinking “It’s just a hole.” But he found himself wondering about people’s expectations of the tunnel, why they choose to go all the way to the end. It inspired him to install Chandelier 363-931, an installation piece presenting a chandelier to those hardy visitors who make it all the way to the end. The chandelier itself is a ready-made chandelier, reconstructed by Korean artist Shin Hyo-cheol.

Visitors must slouch through 500 meters of tunnel to reach Fleischmann's installation.

“Getting here, getting around was hard,” said Fleischmann. In order to reach Cheorwon and explore the DMZ, he rented a car, his first time driving in Korea. “I can’t read the signs; it was quite adventurous.”

In his explorations, Fleischmann took 150 photos of signs in the area, ranging from historic information to military warnings. Not knowing their meaning or author, he mused on their origins. “I wonder where this comes from,” he recounted. “In the newspaper you know the name of the author."

For his second contribution, he rewrote the text of the signs on the windows of the monorail at the Cheorwon Peace Observatory. Scrawled by his own hand, the messages warn against terrorists and spies, as well as littering.

“I simply wanted to create a new reading,” Fleischmann said. “It makes you see a person in this writing.”

The windows of the monorail at Cheorwon Peace Observatory are covered with warning messages written in Fleischmann's hand, such as this one warning about North Korea's continued desire to invade.

The Cheorwon Peace Observatory is the biggest venue of the Real DMZ Project, containing ten individual artworks. The main room of the observatory is a theater with seating, where visitors watch a video about the region with dramatic narration and music, and observe the nature of the North Korean side of the DMZ through a huge window.

“These places are the only place where you can see North Korea with your real eyes,” said Nicolas Pelzer, a German artist whose works intervene with politically charged locations. His piece, Dislocated Cinema, addresses his preoccupation with “How the landscape is presented when you’re inside the building.”

He installed a frosted-glass screen in one corner of the observatory, interfering with the view and challenging visitors to question what they see. “The use of glass in the observatories speaks of how glass can change the perception of something and how it creates an image. This landscape becomes like a picture.”

Pelzer's installation obscures the view in a small corner of the Cheorwon Peace Observatory and gets visitors to question how the view is presented.

Visitors may also peer into North Korea using coin-operated binoculars, which French artist Francois Mazabraud has co-opted for his own artistic contribution, Hidden Landscape. By inserting his own mini screen into the apparatus, he superimposes effects from the war video game Call of Duty. “When you look through a telescope you see a lie, so maybe this screen can show the truth about this area,” he said.

Several other exhibits are found in the observatory by the artists Noh Suntag, Lyang Kim, Amandine Faynot, Simon Morley, Lee Jooyoung, Hwang Sejun, and the art collective Part-Time Suite.

Mazabraud wanted to contribute an art piece that didn't immediately look like art, which he accomplished by manipulating the coin-operated binoculars.

Over at Woljeong-ri Station, a closed railway station in the DMZ, visitors can see works by Noh Suntag, British artist Simon Morley, and video installation artist Kim Sylbee. Kim created the video installation Friendly Fire, which presents a science-fiction story of fratricidal tragedy, paralleling the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

“It’s parallel from our current situation but also my own projection of the future from reading history,” said Kim. “I called this project Friendly Fire; you’re shooting not your enemy but your friend. There’s kind of a more tender feeling in [the name].”

The last stop on the journey is the ruins of the Labor Party Building, which was destroyed in war and has been allowed to decay without human interference. Set up in front, one can find Kim Lyang’s installation My Saintly Shelter, a Jewish Sukkot that represents the nomadic nature of Korea’s partitioning. Kim’s own father was born in North Korea, but he is separated from his hometown by the current situation.

“The art is small compared to the place,” said curator Lim Hyejin. “We just hope to make questions.”

For more information about the Real DMZ Project and to register for the tour, visit the official website. Visitors must register ten days in advance in order to receive military clearance.

By Jon Dunbar Editor

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