British pair recruit North Koreans to paint Beijing as a socialist utopia

British duo mix paintings of iconic buildings with socialist elements added by North Korean artists, but local reaction far from enthusiastic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 4:27am

There can be no doubt that modern China owes its rise to the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and his successors. But what if, by some twist of fate, the country had reached the same level of development by following the road of Mao Zedong, and what would such a China look like today?

Three years ago, a pair of British expats, long-time residents of Beijing with an interest in socialist art and icons, explored an artistic experiment in how a socialist China might look.

Dominic Johnson-Hill, a designer, and Nick Bonner arrived in China in the early 1990s and immediately fell in love with the capital.

Both men are avid collectors of socialist art and icons, and recognised the potential of interpreting, on canvas, a Chinese socialist utopia with North Korean characteristics. They sketched some ideas and gathered photos of Beijing's most striking modern buildings, which Bonner took to Pyongyang. There he obtained permission to commission local official artists to complete the paintings. The government department that organised the deal was paid €300 (HK$3,150) for each painting.

The result was The Beautiful Future, a collection of six works depicting Beijing architectural landmarks - including the China Central Television headquarters, the "Water Cube" National Aquatics Centre and the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium - juxtaposed with revolutionary themes by the North Korean artists.

The exhibition, staged during Beijing Design Week last October, earned warm reviews in overseas publications including The Guardian and even Business Insider, which described the paintings as "incredible".

The reaction from locals was less enthusiastic, with scores taking to weibo and other sites to decry kitsch images of a "China frozen in the 1970s".

But Bonner and Johnson-Hill view them differently.

"The Beautiful Future is a socialist urban planner's idealised world projected onto paper," said Bonner. "The level of physical beauty and social contentment shown in the paintings can only take place in the imagination."

Bonner, who trained as a landscape architect before arriving in the capital, is better known as the founder of Koryo Tours, which has taken thousands of foreign tourists to North Korea.

Having spent much time in China and its troubled neighbour, he has witnessed the obvious differences in their development.

"North Korea has seen changes in fashion and architecture, but there's been very limited exposure to the outside world," he said. "These very gradual shifts are nowhere near as dramatic as what has gone on in China, in terms of social and physical change."

Johnson-Hill runs Plastered 8, a gallery nestled in the artsy hutong district of eastern Beijing that sells T-shirts he designs from communist motifs.

"We wanted to create a vision of 'socialist China' through the lens of the North Korean style of painting," Johnson-Hill said.

As the paintings arrived in Beijing, the duo could hardly contain their excitement.

"As an artist, it felt like a dream come true," Johnson-Hill said. "The attention to detail, and the unique socialist vision, went beyond my imagination."

He said he was touched by the "timeless beauty" of the paintings, which reminded him of the vanishing old culture of Beijing that he fell in love with on his arrival two decades ago.

"The hutongs are being torn down, and many places of interest are now closed to the public," he lamented. "As the city develops, the beauty of the culture and of ancient times is disappearing."

The delight of the Britons was not shared by Chinese internet users, who for the most part said the paintings portrayed an obsolete vision of China.

"North Korean artists have limited access to China and may view China as if it was still in the 1970s," said Lu Minghui , an expert in North Korean culture and art at Jilin Tonghua Normal University.

"North Korean painters undergo strict training and are dedicated in crafting images of perfection. Because the state pays all their expenses they can focus solely on painting."

Bonner said the North Korean painters told him that the Beautiful Future project was unique, and were unaware of the reception the paintings met in China.

"The dreams of ordinary North Koreans are no different from anyone else in the world," Bonner said.