No-Place: A Clandestine Exhibition in North Korea
All the Lights We Cannot See, organized by Random Institue at Yanggakdo International Hotel
April 9 to 12, 2016
Pyongyang, NK, +850 2 381 2134
In April of 2016, there was a sudden flurry of banal images across my Instagram — a fluorescent train interior, a bleached highway, a public monument — that would not have garnered further attention were it not for the accompanying hashtags: #northkorea, #pyongyang, #exhibition. These may well have been tagged #mars, but such is the reveled territory of Zurich’s Random Institute, an enigmatic art project by Sandino Scheidegger and Luca Müller. The Institute often holds exhibitions within such inaccessible areas of no-place (the transliteration of utopia): places of the virtual, the impermanent. Using the artist and the exhibition as medium, each project imagines new borders to trace the untraceable elements of our world through art, and even exhibition, as idea, challenging the viewer’s belief that the show happened at all. Pairing with curator Anna Hugo, Random Institute’s most recent project, “All the Lights We Cannot See,” is perhaps their most pioneering trek into such intangible terrain.
“All the Lights We Cannot See” exhibited the work of nine international artists in Pyongyang, North Korea from April 9 to 12, on the 23rd floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The show was not discussed in North Korean news, or anywhere at all. According to the omnipotence of Google, this exhibition is virtually nonexistent and yet, virtually, it is: a slick photo stream on Random Institute’s website reveals the chalk pinks and cheap lacquer of a vaguely Asian, two-bed hotel room. The photos seems a bit like an Airbnb ad, yet within the normality, punctuations: Ragnheidur Karadottir’s bubblegum-pink ball sporting cheerful streamers, Birdie (2016), balances on the edge of the nightstand; a jacket called Naked Bombers (2016), by Simon Mullan, hangs from the wall like the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew in Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement (1536–41), turned inside-out and molting its flocked flesh. There is an iPhone or two pictured that are deceptively mundane, but then a levitating fork pricks the wall, Juan Betancurth’s Movement No.6 (2016); an ominous chocolate bar rests on the velour settee in Alison Kuo’s Personal Chocolate (2016); and a row of paradisiacal beach towels, Sulking Souvenir,(2013) by Clifford E. Bruckmann, bear the names of imaginary getaways as seemingly inaccessible as this clandestine art project.
Bruckmann’s sculptures are a poignant centerpiece to the exhibit as utopia. The no-place seems to be the non-existent ideal that Random Istitute is frequently tracing: just as Bruckmann creates a souvenir from the paradise he never saw, RI has created an exhibition that, according to them, “went virtually unnoticed.” “All the Lights We Cannot See” directly injected the intangible ideals of utopia into the dystopic reality of North Korea, and most covertly: even the black sheets of the poorly made hotel beds are the work of French artist Achraf Touloub, highlighting the demand for secrecy on the part of both the art and its environment. Indeed, these objects are as careful as they should be, all falling within the limits of allowance when traveling to North Korea (e.g. visitors are advised that chocolates make a lovely gift for North Korean women). Thankfully, definitions of contemporary art are more generous than state security.
The artists of the North Korean exhibit are contractually obligated to silence by the Institute, their only legal response to questions about it being: “I’m not supposed to talk about it.” Outside of Random Institute’s website, searching online for “All the Lights We Cannot See” will only direct you to a New York Times best-selling novel of the same name (the proverbial red herring), or a few of the participating artists’ CVs. So we are presented with the shell of an exhibition, the lamination of an event, but also the muffled experience of non-experience; only Scheidegger and Hugo, and perhaps a North Korean maid or minder, bore witness to this show. Random Institute has archived “All the Lights We Cannot See” and moved on (though they recently released their exhibition catalog: a limited edition of the Pyongyang Times that has been implanted with a mocked-up review of the show).
Other Random Institute projects have occurred within similarly remote contexts of the no-place: furniture catalogs, a transatlantic Filipino boat, in a book buried underground, or traced — by rock, dream or GIF — within a barren patch of Iceland the RI has named Kunsthalle Tropical. A “non-profit exhibition field that does not belong to anyone,” Kunsthalle Tropical examines the immaterial and the ephemeral or, as filmmaker Chris Marker describes such phenomena, “the impermanence of things”: museums that will melt under the rare rains of the Icelandic desert, remains of hovering helium from a 1969 exhibition by Robert Barry, and verbal artworks to be shouted, via megaphone, from the sky (attempted and failed five times). The insistence is a detachment of the art from its physical audience, isolating — or even disappearing — the art(ist) to the essential element of idea.
This is a far cry from the heavy-handed, wine-fueled mobs of the typical gallery scene: these exhibitions ask for silence and faith over networks and market values. Being of absence and no-place, this is a new approach to the art space that materializes that virtual space we are all too familiar with. They redefine the gallery, the museum and the library as physical spaces newly transformed (updated) by their virtual counterparts. It is a grand and impressive effort to materialize nascent philosophies of the virtual world physically, to weigh that which is hanging in the air.
There is little difference between “All the Lights We Cannot See” and a missed exhibition caught up with online. Having stared across so many white walls, the audience may be just as keen to stare into the MacBook’s own rare rectangle. Perhaps what Random Institute understands so well in its utopic tracing, better than many post-Internet artists, is the definition of virtual: not physically existing but made to appear.