What’s your favourite of Kim Jong Un’s photo opportunities? I like the pictures of the cuddly psychopath inspecting a lubricant factory. One of them has Kim rubbing his hands with glee as pipes squeeze lube into an oil drum. Classic stuff.
As one who keeps a close eye on the Dear Leader’s state visits, I was a bit put out when the Dear Leader of the very, very Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea disappeared for six weeks. There were reports of regime change, gout and epic cheese binges. It was a relief, then, when business returned to usual. This week, Kim appeared in his most impressive propaganda shots to date, walking round an orphanage smoking a fag. The Mail’s coverage identified a Thick of It-style balls up in the official images. You laugh, before wondering what happened to the unfortunate snapper tasked with the shoot.
This is all by the by, though. I mention these images because articles about Kim are almost as clickbait-worthy as those on his Kardashian namesake. Why are we so gripped by North Korea? Precisely because we know so little about it. The hermit regime is probably the most secretive state in the world, both to its own citizens and to the outside world. (And even of that we can’t be sure.)
What we do know, though, is that the Hero Republic’s mighty tentacles stretch all the way to Acton. The DPRK’s London embassy is a semi-detached house on the North Circular. It’s the kind of set-up you might associate with a terrible 70s sitcom – even the huge North Korean flag on the patio looks like it’s been placed there for comic effect.
I went there yesterday afternoon to see the embassy’s exhibition of North Korean artists. I surmised that it was probably the only opportunity I’d ever have to set foot on DPRK territory, and the idea of having a nose around was too good to be true.
So what’s it like inside this outpost of the Evil Axis? Much as I’d love to report back with tales of rigorous security checks and spontaneous outbreaks of goose-stepping, the answer is: like a normal suburban home, disappointingly. There’s a lot of imitation marble and some deeply 80s light fittings. Out back, the garden has been converted to a basketball court. Otherwise, it’s not much to get excited about.
And as for the show? I went with an expert on Asian art history. Did he have an informed perspective on the work’s significance? No, came his reply. And no wonder. There’s a lot of knock-off impressionism and an equal number of pictures that straddle that tricky gap between photorealism and Soviet kitsch, all pinned up on blue fuzz boards. Some of the artists painted scenes of their visit to Britain– Trafalgar Square, the poppies at the Tower of London, that sort of thing. No searing attacks on capitalist piggery. Portraits of Kims Il-Sung and Jong-Il are the only indications that you’re on enemy territory.
The most memorable was a London street scene, which depicted a branch of Garfunkel’s (‘Legendary and loved – by whom?’, as the food critic Marina O’Laughlin once asked) and a Café Concerto – cutely mis-spelt as ‘Conerto’.
State-sanctioned art is always going to be crap, but in truth this isn’t a million miles from the stuff that gets displayed along the railings of Hyde Park at the weekends. In terms of emotional response, the best I managed was getting pissed off about my failure to steal a souvenir. It’s drab, make no mistake – but I’ve seen much worse than this elsewhere in London.
DPRK’s art exhibition will be open from 11am to 5pm from 4-7 November, 73 Gunnersbury Avenue, Ealing, London