Review: Artsonje North Korea / DMZ tour

Not a fan of stairs? The tunnel has hundreds - beware...

IN the book Les Miserables, the author expounds on the condition of Paris’ sewers for quite a few pages. For anyone that managed to finish the brilliant but sometimes boring book, I salute you. While this tour didn’t require as much patience, it wasn’t an experience I’d foist on someone for the same reasons.

Produced by Artsonje, the Real DMZ Project 2012 hasn’t yet received a lot of press in the English-speaking world. The aim is to connect art and artists with several destinations around Cheolwon and parts beyond the Civilian Control Line. For those of you tuning in from beyond the peninsula, this is extreme north South Korea, close to and inside the De-Militarized Zone separating the two halves of Korea. This is what fascinated my girlfriend, as one has to join a group tour or visit via private car – no public transportation option exists this far up north. In any case, our interest was to see the difficult-to-reach sights, with the art placing a fairly distant second.

The trip started off smoothly enough, albeit with delays due to traffic and rain (two things no private tour company can control). Upon arriving at lunch, we were nearly an hour behind schedule – again, forces outside their control, and something that shouldn’t be held against them.

Our first stop was the Iron Triangle Tourist Office – a multi-story building holding plenty of relics from the Korean War. We had approximately 10 minutes to enjoy the part of the museum open to us (the one room on the second floor which held the art we came to see). A single piece (not pictured) titled “To Survive vs. Once Arrived” by Suntag Noh portrayed some of the poison capsules and needles, though I didn’t really get a good sense of what the point was.

Let it be on the record that I’m no art critic – not that it’s a hard-and-fast subject to begin with. Being in the eye of the beholder makes most opinions valid, even if they don’t start from an esteemed or well-known person. In any case, the one piece on display here seemed less interesting to the busful of Koreans and handful of foreign artists than the cases holding decades-old weapons.

The next stop, a trip to the 2nd tunnel, offered up a 500 meter walk approaching the actual military demarcation line separating the two countries.  The art here is a combination of lights and deconstructed chandelier created by Dirk Fleischmann (entitled “Reading Meaning”). By this point, the handful of non-Korean artists on the trip began looking around, as if to ask where the rest of the art was. To be fair, there aren’t too many genres of art that could comfortably reside in a cool, wet tunnel for three months and reasonably be transported through the same.

Turn right from the deconstructed chandelier – you’re a mere 300 meters away from the border. I’m not sure why that gave me a cold chill, but it did.

Our next stop, the Cheorwon Peace Observatory, had the most art and a monorail ride to boot (tracks seen above). The facility itself was impressive as well – upon reaching the higher building via monorail, we were led up to the second floor to the observatory. This would ordinarily be an excellent place to observe the northern neighbors, and felt more like a movie theater with a window in place of a screen. Although the fog obscured most anything more than a kilometer or so out, you could see some wildlife via tourist binoculars (the sort you drop a coin in). No pictures were allowed out the observatory window, although no one seemed to be looking too closely.

And then there was the art – Nicolas Petzer with Dislocated Cinema 2012 – panels of opaque glass connected in a foldable style that signifying the lack of clarity between the two countries. It looked more like a fancy bathroom separator than an art piece. A couple other pieces were present:

Outside the observatory is a deck where photos aren’t allowed, but I figured one of the actual art on display wouldn’t hurt anything. Suntang Noh – To Survive vs. Once Arrived. The scene in the painting is very similar to what you’ll see on site, minus the soldier. He follows the “peculiar reality of the division”, as the artist statement reads.

Back at the monorail station, one piece was nicely done – entitled ‘Tour’ by Hwang Se-jun, it encapsulates landscapes and scenes from around the DMZ (including Nodongdangsa on the right). For some odd reason, they installed the piece by stapling the canvas to the wall – part of me wonders about the future of the piece as a result.

A video played entitled “Drop By Then” by an artist collective called Part-Time Suite. Three videographers rushed to get video, sketches, and audio of 10 days worth of traveling the border area. The result feels like something seen at a 48 hour film project – hurriedly shot and edited even faster.

The penultimate stop was Woljeong-ri station – part of the Gyeongwon line some decades ago. This is perhaps the ’art’ that made me ask WTF – entitled “The Peachy Bottom of the 2nd Underground Tunnel” by Suntag Noh, the piece “captures social and political contexts in contemporary Korean society”, and show his “desire to view the other side”:

In reality, it’s 11 shots of his butt, walking through the 2nd tunnel, along with a couple pictures of the figurines inside.

Woljeong-ri station itself was nice, however. It’s overgrown just enough to imply the passage of time, and clearly hails from a much different time.

With precisely two rooms and a small platform, you might confuse it for an apartment that happens to have some train tracks by the porch.

The last stop was Nodongdangsa, or the Labor Party building – we’ve already been here, but it was nice to come back again and snap some more pictures of the scene.

Entitled ‘My Saintly Shelter’ and created by Lyang Kim, it’s an installation in place. The installation supposedly held some sort of video playing, but we never saw it. We spent less time at each place than the schedule indicated, so we were able to catch up some time.

If you’re interested in getting to some of the sights that are only available on a group tour, this tour might be for you if you can handle the Korean tour guide style – the sort that explains the history of the area in a long-winded and redundant way. If you’re considering going for the art, however, don’t bother. Even assuming the pictures you’ve seen encourage you to see the work for yourself, you’ll spend the vast majority of your time traveling, with little time offered to thoroughly enjoy the pieces.

Not recommended.

To learn more about the Artsonje Real DMZ Project 2012, go to Tours are 30,000 won, and include round-trip bus ride, a vegetarian-friendly lunch, and English-speaking tour guides. They goes every Saturday through September 16th, leaving from Seoul around 9:30am and returning around 7pm.