explanatory notes
The Sun of Choseon
When Sunmu still lived in North Korea, he dreamt of meeting the great leader Kim Il-sung. This portrait is in tribute to KIM Il-sung. The colour pink symbolises the future, utopia as a pink, transfigured world. KIM Il-sung in a black suit with tie is an unusual sight. Normally North Korean heads of state wear the uniform of the people. Sunmu symbolically transfers the deceased leader who has become iconic into retirement.
Kim Il-sung´s Flower
This red orchid is called Kim-Il-sung flower« in North Korea: It was a gift from an Indian botanist to Kim Il-sung on his 70th birthday. His son Kim Jong-il gave the orchid the name. Sunmu intentionally hangs the picture under the portrait of Kim Il-sung. The flowers’ branches spell ›no‹: No to the »Sun of Choseon!« What use is it when people are dying of hunger?
*Explanation: Choseon
Korea called itself »Choseon« from 1392 until 1897. Shortly before annexation by Japan, King Kojong proclaimed the empire »Daehan Cheguk« (»Great Han«). After annexation, Korea disappeared from the map; it became part of Japan. When subsequently divided, South Korea chose the name »Daehan«, the full name being: »Daehan Minguk« (»Republic of Korea«); North Korea retained the old name »Choseon« and gave itself the name »Choseon Inmin Gonghwaguk« (»Democratic People’s Republic of Korea«).
Park Chung-hee 1
The work was previously exhibited along with the portrait of Kim Jong-il. It is a jibe that a South Korean dictator would barely differ from the dictator of North Korea.
explanatory notes
Who are you? I [Kim Jong-Il]
Who are you? II [Kim Jong-Eun]
The North Korean heads of state Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un can be seen on a red background. Mickey Mouse smiles from the moon, the place at which, according to North Korean iconography, the great leader Kim Il-sung should be portrayed. By doing this, Sunmu wants to express the desire for North Korea to open itself to the capitalistic world.
Let‘s play together
It is the artist‘s hope that closed North Korean society
will enter into a relationship with the outside world. He
wishes that the Walt Disney characters, symbols of capitalism, will play with the North Korean self-images!
The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Park Geunhye of South Korea greet the viewer arm in arm, like they would a participant in a mass political event. Colourful balloons fly up to celebrate their success. Painted on the balloons are the faces of all previous presidents on the Korean peninsula: Kim Il-sung, Kim Gu, Kim Jong-il, Kim Dae-Jung, Kim Young-sam, Roh Mu-hyun, Rhee Syng Man, Park Chung-Hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-Woo and Lee Myung-bak.

North Korean heads of state
  • Kim Il-sung(1948-1994)
  • Kim Jong-il (1994-2011)
    Head of state of the exile government and provisional government
  • Kim Gu (1940-1947)
South Korean heads of state
  • Rhee Syng Man (1948-1960)
  • Yun Bo-Seon (1960-1962)
  • Park Chung-Hee (1962-1979)
  • Choe Kyu-Ha (1979-1980)
  • Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988)
  • Roh Tae-Woo (1988-1993)
  • Kim Young-sam (1993-1998)
  • Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2003)
  • Roh Mu-hyun (2003-2008)
  • Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013)

Sunmu – born in 1972 in North Korea, he was trained by the North Korean Army as a propaganda artist; later he studied in an art college. During a severe famine in the 1990s he fled to China and later via Thailand and Laos to South Korea. Since then he has lived and worked as a painter in Seoul. In Seoul he also took up a second course of study in visual arts. In 2007 (together with photographer Suntag Noh) he took part in the exhibition “We are Happy” in the Gallery Curiosity, Seoul.
In 2008, he had his first solo exhibition under the same title in the Alternative Space Chunggeong gak, Seoul. Out of concern for the family he left behind in North Korea he uses the pseudonym »Sunmu« instead of his real name and does not allow photos of his face.

My Notebook

I, too, have a heart given to me by my parents.
Somebody pinned a red portrait badge over it.
I was grateful and happy to be somebody’s subject.
It became everything to me.
The world made me into an orphan who wasn’t an orphan.
It gave me the pain of parting,
It gave me new encounters,
It gave me huge courage.
The badge that somebody had pinned over my heart fell away.
Now I have a heart that beats only for me
I am Sun Mu.

It was all I believed.
It was all I knew.
It was my whole life.
If that is happiness, I won’t be happy.
If that is everything, I don’t want to live.
Now my self recognizes its own and what it is not.
Now, I cry out to the world.
I am Sun Mu.

After the separation I never wanted, I flung myself into the wilderness.
I spent every day in fear of being discovered and deported.
Then, spending one New Year away from home, I wrote a letter to my family.
With no hope that it could ever be delivered, I pray that its spirit, at least, reach them.

I didn’t want the pain of separation.
I didn’t want the life of a slave.
I didn’t want to die.
The sun in the sky shines dazzlingly,
But the struggles of those living in the darkness
Bring pain to my heart.
Whom is the ideology for?
Whom is the politics for?
Whom is the war for?
Let the sky be my witness.

2014 in Beijing, China

Translated from the Korean by Ben Jackson


나에게도 부모님이 주신 심장이 있다
누군가 그 심장 위에 빨간 초상휘장을 달아 주었다
누군가의 신하된 것에 감사하며 좋아했고
그것은 나의 전부가 되였다
세상은 나를 고아 아닌 고아로 만들었고
리별의 아품을 주었고
새로운 만남을 주었고
크나큰 용기를 주었다
누군가 달아주었던 내 심장 위의 초상 휘장은 떨어졌다
온전히 나를 위해 뛰는 심장이 내게도 있다.
나는 선무다

오직 그것만을 믿었습니다
오직 그것밖에 몰랐습니다.
오직 그것이 삶의 전부였습니다.
그것이 행복이라면 행복하지 않겠습니다.
그것이 전부라면 살 생각이 없습니다.
그것이 아닌 나를 알았습니다.
이제 세상에 대고 소리칩니다.
나는 선무라고

원치 않은 리별을 하며 이 몸을 광야에 던져버렸다
챈쑹의 두려움과 공포속에 하루 하루를 보내야만 했다
가 닿으리라 생각지는 않치만 해도 넋이라도 전해다오
타향에서 새해를 맞으며 부모형제들에게 삼가편지를 씁니다.
나는 리별의 아품을 원치 않았다
나는 노예의 삶을 원치 않았다
나는 죽는 것을 원치 않았다
저 하늘의 태양은 찬란한 빛을 주지만
빛 잃은 어둠 속에 삶들의 몸부림은
이 가슴을 아프게 하는구나
누굴 위한 리념//인가
누굴 위한 정치인가
누굴 위한 전쟁인가
하늘이시여 굽어 살펴주소서

2014년 여름 중국 베이징에서 ….


- From the notes of the artist Sunmu

(...) I was curious to see how my pictures were exhibited.

Before the Opening Ceremony for the 2008 Busan Biennale, dozens of Busan officials went through the exhibition hall with the curators. After they had completed their tour of inspection, I went to the place where my pictures should have been hanging. They were not there.

I looked round and saw one member of the team carrying my pictures into the store-room. I naturally went up to him and asked him why he was hiding my pictures. Only after some hesitation did he admit that the curator had ordered him to take them down.

When I tackled the curator on the issue and asked for the reason, I received – no answer. So I went to the Director General of the Biennale and asked him. He was having the pictures taken down, he said, because there was the danger that institutions higher up would put in a complaint.

I was speechless.

What significance does art have in the confrontation of ideologies between North and South Korea?

What can I actually achieve? (...)

December 2008

(...) The Prime Minister of South Korea cancels his visit to the European Chamber of Commerce in Seoul. The reason is said to be that ›portraits‹ of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on display there.

How stupid this all is. (...)

December 2011

Translated from the German by Richard Humphrey

Sunmu – Beyond the Border

Kim Jong-Gil

I resist the evil will, inherent in all political and ideological power, to conceal or falsify the truth, whatever its provenance may be – from the left or the right. I try to discover the truth and to make it known to the world. That is the aim of my writing and I pursue it unswervingly. Truth can be recognized only through a sense of balance – just as a bird’s left and right wings have to work simultaneously to achieve an unswerving flight to the planned destination.

From: »The bird flies with the‚left and the right‘ wing«, by Rhee Young-Hee

Now here is a person named Sunmu. He grew up in North Korea, but today lives in South Korea. His life used to be hardly any different from the life of other North Korean youths, but now, in South Korea he leads the life of a South Korean. For us Koreans, such a life-story is barely imaginable. For us there is a forbidden border between North and South Korea that may not be crossed.

The artist named Sunmu

Crossing symbolic lines and borders and talking with people from ›the other side‹ have always been topical issues in South Korea. During her election campaign, the current President met people from the ›other‹ political camp on a daily basis. She several times repeated how important it was to form one great unit and to communicate with one another. As long as one says, however, as she does, that the interlocutors are ›from the other side‹, it still means that they are ›not from this side‹ and that they still deviate from one’s own identity. Just because one crosses a symbolic dividing line does not mean that one has already communicated, let alone become united. In order to be able really to overcome a border, it is not enough to know that it divides: one must also be fully aware of what it divides.

I think that for us, the Koreans, the demarcation line on the 38th parallel is the most important political symbol. After liberation [from Japanese colonial rule] on 15 August 1945, the line was drawn by the UN trustees, the USA and the USSR, as a mere administrative boundary. Once the onset of the Cold War between these two powers had produced the Korean War (1950-53), however, it became a barrier which has remained insuperable up to this day. It is not only the symbol of the division between North and South Korea, but also a wound in the consciousness of the Korean people that refuses to heal.

On 2 October 2007, the then President of South Korea, Roh Moo-Hyun, crossed the demarcation line on foot to take part in the second summit meeting between the two Koreas. It was a symbolic act of utmost political importance that he crossed the shining yellow border line in front of the TV cameras.
I can still remember the moment when the President’s foot crossed this line. The close-up picture filled the entire screen and made the simple crossing of the separation line into a demonstration of the will to overcome the tragedy of partition. The last time it had happened was in 1947, when Kim Gu, the resistance fighter returning from exile, crossed the line to testify to the world the dream of a united Korea.

The artist Sunmu from North Korea took this full meaning of the border to heart. He dreamt of leaping over the line, of tearing down barriers, of the border disappearing. His present name he took on when he began working as an artist in South Korea – Sunmu means ›Without border‹ / ›Borderlessness‹ and is, for the artist, a symbol of re-unification. Two of his works entitled ›Over the Border‹ carry a double burden of meaning. On the one hand, they mirror the merciless reality in which he first had to swim across the border river – the Tumen River – and then overcome countless other borders before finally reaching South Korea. Crossing the Tumen, which took him illegally to China, was a moment in which he had to look the threat of death in the eye. On the other hand, the works are imbued with the borders to which Sunmu is subject in his day-to-day creative work in South Korea. South Korean society too now lives in a world determined by the neo-liberal form of capitalism – which, for Sunmu, means a confrontation with borders on a day-to-day basis. People are categorized in oppositions such as black or white, left-wing or right-wing, right-wing conservative or left-wing progressive, pro-Japanese or pro-American. South Koreans live in a pre-shaped experiential world, in which a person’s attitude is not judged without he or she being assigned to the one or the other side of such a classification.

Sunmu, the artist, however, listens for the interim nuances, and notes things that belong neither to the one side nor to the other. He goes inside the distinctions and looks from inside outwards to either side. Standing on the border, Sunmu’s aesthetics portray the two sides as neither foreign nor hostile. He summons the nation from North and South to take up position on the border and to meet one another again as one nation.

Thus his aesthetics are indeed an aesthetics of ›borderlessness‹ – Sunmu, 線無. Against the background of political rupture and dichotomy, however, they become an aesthetics of hope.

Translated from the German by Richard Humphrey

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