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Crossing Over: Artist Mina Cheon Envisions Spaces of Democracy and Exchange

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Ten thousand individually wrapped Chocopies lay across the gallery floor in an overwhelming but neat configuration. Like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, artist Mina Cheon accumulated a vast array of edible treats and made them freely available to the public, but this is where the similarity ends. Eat Chocopie Together, 2014, installed that year at New York’s Ethan Cohen Gallery, was intended to visualize a harmonious future, rather than mourning the loss of a loved one. For those unfamiliar with the Chocopie, it’s a marshmallow-filled cookie dipped in chocolate made by the South Korean confectionery company Orion—essentially the Twinkie of South Korea. They’re so beloved on both sides of the DMZ that they are a popular item on the North Korean black market.

“When I first brought the Chocopie into the gallery, it was to have people understand that there is communication and love between North and South Korean people,” says Cheon. “This is so different from the existing narratives in American politics and media. This piece is about a shared belief in unification, and part of the activism that is ongoing in Korea.” Cheon explains that the Chocopie is a common item sent by balloon and other means from South to North in care packages. “Tasting this South Korean cookie is one way for North Korean people to realize that something exists outside their government regime and the restricted messaging they hear,” she says.

For Cheon, a Korean-born artist based in Baltimore, the Chocopie is a cultural symbol for inter-Korean peace and diplomacy, the focus of her multidisciplinary arts career which includes paintings, sculpture, video, installation, and performance. Cheon manifested the piece again, with 100,000 Chocopies in a massive installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan for the 2018 Busan Biennial, Divided We Stand (curated by Jörg Heiser and Christina Ricupero), where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and First Lady Kim Jung-sook were among those who ate Chocopies. In this piece and many others, Cheon invites audiences to share in her aspirations for Korean reunification and to consider food as art, healing, and a bridge towards understanding.

Cheon’s practice is rooted in the tradition of activism and protest central to the history of modern Korea. Cheon speaks often about the transgenerational trauma and legacy of Yu Gwan-sun, a young woman who protested Japan’s occupation of Korea after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, which ended in two separate Koreas. In 1920, at the age of seventeen, Yu was martyred for the cause of Korean independence. Just as Yu never experienced a free Korea, Cheon has never known a unified one.

 

Eat Chocopie Together, 2018 100,000 Chocopies for audience to eat Sponsored by Orion Company Busan Biennale 2018 Image courtesy of Mina Cheon Studio and Busan Biennale 2018 (Photograph by Lee Sang Uk)

Cheon was born in 1973 in Seoul, two decades after the end of the US-backed Korean War, to parents originally from the North. Growing up, Cheon was immersed in art, culture, and travel to the West because of her cultural attaché father and art historian mother. At some point in her early career, Cheon worked alongside Fluxus artists including Nam June Paik, assisting them with international projects in South Korea such as the 1993 Fluxus Festival in Seoul and the InfoArt Pavilion of the first Gwangju Biennale in 1995.

When she moved to Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA program after earning a BFA at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Cheon was a self-proclaimed “diehard painter,” focusing on the intersection of art and science. Under the guidance of then director Grace Hartigan who helped her to “work big and think big,” she was ambitious about what could be accomplished through painting.

“When I was in grad school, I did this project called Fifteen Billion Years of the Travelling Atom, a seventy-two-foot-long painting that was eight feet tall,” she recalls. “It was a painting about the origin of the universe, but I was interested beyond the surface and included sound and bubble machines. I was itching to go beyond 2D into environments that explored the complexities of blurred space.” In this case, Cheon wanted to question empirical scientific knowledge, which also functioned as an allegory for growing up in a country with complex and contradictory boundaries around space, identity, and nationality.

Cheon’s curiosity about digital media led her to the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Imaging & Digital Arts program (now Intermedia & Digital Arts), where she created videos, sound art, and interactive environments, and graduated with a second MFA in 2002. “I wanted to address the space of democracy that is created when artwork is interactive,” Cheon says. “I was invested in the politics surrounding one’s choice in artistic medium and I continued to explore the theme of scientific knowledge, questioning it as a form of absolute truth, pointing out how it discounts different cultural perspectives.” The contrast between truth-telling and pluralistic worldviews led Cheon to focus more intently upon geopolitical spaces, and from there, more specifically on Korea.

After this formative education, Cheon experienced a consequential moment in her artistic development when she and her American husband, architect Gabriel Kroiz, were selected to visit North Korea in 2004 as part of a government-sanctioned tour. Although it was restricted and surveilled with camera checks and implicit governmental threats, Cheon’s interactions with North Korean people were familial. “They treated me like family and called me big sister,” she says. Cheon collected video footage which she later incorporated into the video Half Moon Eyes, 2004, offering a first-hand look into the DPRK during Kim Jong-il’s reign. Sprinkled across the twelve-minute video, various stealthily captured scenes depict North Korean acrobats, waterfalls, mountains, and tour bus footage arrayed in peripatetic sequences.

“The complexity of the relationship between North and South Korea is such a huge example of the challenges in perception that I want to represent in my work,” she says. “That trip was transformative in focusing my attention on interactive moments where the art is an interface, where I can subvert scientific theories or history or Western politics because there is no logic that makes sense.” The stories Cheon tells do not easily equate to the simplistic way that the West perceives North Korea, and it is an ongoing challenge to make this complexity palpable for viewers.

 

Umma Rises Towards Global Peace, 2017, Dip painting with new IKB custom paint on archival print on canvas 40 x 30 inches Image courtesy of Mina Cheon Studio
UMMA : MASS GAMES – Motherly Love North Korea, Solo exhibition at the Ethan Cohen Gallery New York, Includes banners, drapes, print on fabric, vinyl print on wall, paintings, and installations made of C+C router and MDF, silent siren, Arirang Mass Games vinyl art print at the top right, lower gallery space includes notel players with Art History Lessons by Professor Kim, 2017-2018 Image courtesy of Mina Cheon Studio and Ethan Cohen Gallery New York
It makes sense that if a country can be split, so can an artist’s practice.
Mina Cheon

Since her venture to the so-called Hermit Kingdom, Cheon’s practice has advocated for the humanity of its denizens by highlighting commonalities across borders while exuding hope for peaceful reconciliation, despite the South’s official stance deeming the North as a perpetual foe. Influenced by the political awareness of the Minjung art movement, which began in response to the 1980 Gwangju Massacre and emphasized democracy and unification, Cheon’s best-known works may be her politically oriented Pop art paintings, referred to as “Polipop” and “DPRK Polipop.” These brightly colored paintings present a singular blend of images from Korean culture with the formal typologies of American Pop art and socialist realism, as well as the propagandistic state art promoted in North Korea.

At times, Cheon’s faux propaganda has been so convincing it has prompted South Koreans to consider her a North Korean sympathizer, while art critics have approached it as direct satire. But neither interpretation is accurate. “This work looks like state propaganda,” Cheon admits, “so some people think I am painting them on behalf of North Korea, but really I’m thinking about the spectrum of propaganda art, the nuances and omission that exist in between the obvious political messaging.” Cheon explains that it’s incredibly difficult to describe all of the subtle differences between North and South Korea, between East and West, but that she is using the language and subject matter to embed contradictory layers of information that political discourse intentionally leaves out.

For over a decade, Cheon has been making what she describes as the dream paintings of the North Korean artist Kim Il Soon—an artistic persona and alter ego à la Cindy Sherman. Wearing North Korea’s dark-green military uniform, Cheon made her first public appearance as Kim during the 2013 PULSE Art Fair, and her doppelgänger’s graffiti-meets-Yves-Klein paintings have been subsequently shown at the Korea Society in New York in 2021 and in the inaugural Asia Society Triennial 2020–2021 We Do Not Dream Alone (curated by Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe and Boon Hui Tan). “As a Korean, the idea of having two artistic identities, the South Korean Mina Cheon and North Korean Kim II Soon, is an obvious reflection of the country’s state of being divided,” she says. “It makes sense that if a country can be split, so can an artist’s practice.”

 

Arirang Mass Games, Installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Busan, Busan Biennale 2018 An installation of paintings, digital prints, and new media, with a photographic print as a vinyl wall on the background 33 x 11 feet, Image courtesy of Mina Cheon Studio and Busan Biennale 2018 (Photograph by Lee Sang Uk)
Video still from Art History Lesson 4 Abstract Art and Dreams by Professor Kim (Il Soon), 2017, Art History Lesson videos sent to North Korea by various media carriers, Image courtesy of Mina Cheon Studio
What really motivates me is the idea of crossing over, the sending and receiving of information across barriers.
Mina Cheon

Cheon also created Video Art History Lessons by Professor Kim beginning in 2017. The series of videos on contemporary art were sent into North Korea in different media carriers through intermediaries and across the South Korean border. A mash-up of Art21-meets-Snapchat, Cheon’s lectures are likely the only information about contemporary art that many North Koreans have ever seen, groundbreaking examples of subversive cross-cultural exchange.

Reflexive to current geopolitical issues and the pandemic, Cheon’s art practice continues to evolve. She created the latest iteration of EatChocopieTogether.com digitally in 2020, in part to support organizations fighting anti-Asian violence in America during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conceived as part of the Asia Society Triennial exhibit, Cheon offered five new designs for virtual Chocopies, where a viewer can click to consume it, and then share it with a friend, accompanied by a message of care. Each digital share raised two dollars, and the proceeds, which reached $5,000 in a month, were donated to the Korean American Community Foundation COVID-19 Action Fund.

“What really motivates me is the idea of crossing over, the sending and receiving of information across barriers,” Cheon says. In her work, she strives to cultivate a nuanced understanding of what it means to be Korean, the complexity of blurred boundaries and separation, as well as the transgenerational trauma of having one’s family be divided by political violence. This crossover also occurs through her own artistic journey from painting to digital expression and performance, an indication of her desire to learn more and enact a loving exchange with others.

Though people are divided in seemingly insurmountable ways, Cheon’s prolific and often maximalist output acts as a lodestar for reconciliation, understanding, and unification. Her work reflects the dangers of political and national divides in general and specifically how Korean people—aunts, cousins, and siblings—are separated on opposite sides of the DMZ. Rather than envisioning the other side as the enemy, Cheon presents them, and herself, as kin. Cheon’s work offers proof that what we share as human beings is infinitely greater than the arbitrary political lines that divide and hold us hostage. We can all enjoy eating Chocopies together, North, South, East, and West.

 

Mina Cheon (aka Kim Il Soon), Dreaming Unification: Oori (우리) Protest for Peace, 2019–2020, New IKB custom paint, stencil, spray paint, sumi ink on canvas Diptych, each panel: 60 x 40 inches Installation view of Asia Society Triennial: “We Do Not Dream Alone” at Asia Society Museum, New York, October 27, 2020–June 27, 2021. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2021, courtesy of Asia Society

Header Image: Mina Cheon (aka Kim Il Soon), Missiles Good Bye, 2017, Dip painting with new IKB custom paint on archival print on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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