Tag Archives: Art

“I Can Tell That We Are Going To Be Friends,” Maggie Smith

What’s your favorite TV show? Mad Men or Millionaire Matchmaker? GIRLS or Bad Girls Club? Downton Abbey or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills?

I find the teenage mothers on Teen Mom to be immature, UNrealistic (ironic, huh?) and incredibly annoying. However, I can easily escape into the aristocratic world of Downton Abbey, imagining being BFFs with the Dowager Countess of Grantham. I can’t even laugh at Honey Boo Boo because I find it so ridiculous. On the other hand, I identify with a lot of the struggles that Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa deal with on a weekly basis in the HBO hit GIRLS.

Why is that? Why can’t I watch TV just for entertainment purposes? Why can’t I just turn on the boob tube and zone out? I think it’s because I want to watch things that I can imagine — but don’t exist for me. My utopia. Utopia is a place with perfect qualities — that doesn’t exist.

Dystopia is an undesirable or frightening society. Nothing describes this idea to me more than living in a house with seven strangers — and having our lives taped. You couldn’t pay me enough to move to the Jersey Shore or compete on The Bachelor.

I love Mad Men because of the formal dress, the formal language, and the simpler times. You don’t see men walking around dressed head to toe like Don Draper and Roger Sterling. Women may stress about clothes — but aren’t expected to wear a dress/skirt every day and heels. I wish we did.

In my mind, Downton Abbey would be an amazing place to live. Someone else to help make my hair look perfect every day? Okay. Walking around on those gorgeous grounds with that perfect Labrador Retriever? Count me in. Calling lunch luncheon and having tea every day? Swoon.

Each of our ideas of utopias are relative. What works for me, doesn’t work for someone else. What is euphoric and relatable and realistic to me isn’t necessarily the same for you.

In American Utopias, Mike Daisey explores the ideas of three different utopias: Disney World, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street. Chances are the people who enjoy a character breakfast at Disney World don’t like sitting in a cuddle dome at Burning Man. Likewise, those of us who love The West Wing don’t enjoy Kourtney and Kim Take Miami.

– Robbie Champion, Claque member


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Interview with Korean Pop Artist Song Byeok

In partnership with Sandbrush Inc., Woolly Mammoth’s lobby is doubling as an art gallery through the run of You for Me for You, featuring an exhibit by Korean pop artist Song Byeok. Once an Official State Propaganda Artist of North Korea, Song’s faith in Kim Jong-il was ultimately betrayed when famine struck in the 1990s. Millions of people, including Song’s father, mother, and sister perished. Song endured brutal torture at the hands of the regime he once praised in his work. His crime: attempting to cross into China to find food. Now dedicated to promoting freedom, he paints acrylic pieces that satirize oppressive regimes worldwide. Song has been featured in major international media including CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera.

Woolly recently hosted Song in DC, where he made appearances at American University, the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and the University of the District of Columbia. Song spoke with Woolly’s Literary Manager, John M. Baker, about defecting from North Korea and his art, then and now:

John M. Baker: How did you come to be a North Korean propaganda artist?

Song Byeok: I taught myself how to paint in high school, focusing predominantly on landscapes, and this developed into a personal hobby that I pursued independently. Upon graduating, I joined a smelting factory as a laborer, yet continued to paint in private when time was available. Later on, at age 24, a government official saw my artwork and recommended me to a superior office whereupon I was selected to become an official state propaganda artist. I never received formal artistic training inside the DPRK; instead, I was given a manual that dictated the style and content of all my professional work.

JB: Back then, what did it feel like to create art for North Korea?

SB: I was born and educated in North Korea. As such, I felt great pride supporting my home country in my art; moreover, I was honored to serve Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, in particular, by way of my talent and technique. This overflowing sense of pride oftentimes inspired me to paint all night.

JB: Why did you first attempt to cross into China? What was the experience like?

SB: I attempted to cross into China with my father in 2000 to find food for our family. I remember that it was after Kim Dae-jung, the former president of South Korea, visited North Korea. When my father and I tried to cross the Tumen River, which was swollen because of heavy rains, my father was swept away by a powerful current. I ran to nearby guards begging for help.  Instead of saving my father’s life, they forcibly marched me to a prison. Soon after I was detained in a labor camp.

JB: What made you decide to defect?

SB: Human rights did not exist in the labor camp.  Men were stripped of their dignity and the sanctity of life was completely ignored. I realized that responsibility for this cruel circumstance lay not with the prison camp, but with the authoritarian Kim regime that had constructed and perpetuated the social conditions necessary for such a place to exist. Becoming disillusioned, I made up my mind to escape North Korea even though I was aware of the grave personal risks involved.

JB: What was your life like in the labor camp after you were caught attempting to cross into China? 

SB: I was already aware of the labor camps, but I never imagined that I would find myself behind barbed wire—this was the destination for criminals and traitors, only. I neither committed a crime, nor treason. The state, under Kim Jong-il, had failed to provide for its own people and my family was starving as a consequence. While my attempt to cross into China to secure food was born from necessity—and not initially a political act of defection—it ultimately led me to the labor camp because of a repressive law instituted by the government. My family’s starvation, and the starvation of millions of North Koreans, revealed the Kim regime’s failure, which the state made every effort to hide from the world for fear of delegitimization.

Never had I been treated that way before. In the prison camp, under extremely poor conditions, the imprisoned became subhuman.  In fact, we were told by the guards that we were inferior to animals. Forced labor, harsh beatings, and group punishment became routine. No man could bear more than three months. Upon collapsing, prisoners did not receive medical treatment and could only await death by starvation. I witnessed five individuals pass away in such a manner before the guards hauled their corpses away. When I finally collapsed and experienced the death of a prisoner lying beside me, I was overwhelmed by a physical, mental, and spiritual deathblow. This moment, in particular, prompted me to reflect on the failure and hypocrisy of the Kim regime. I then made the decision to escape North Korea if I ever left the prison camp alive. To me, the freedom to dream and hope was worth risking my life for.

JB: How would you describe the transition from living in North Korea to living in South Korea?

SB: When I finally arrived in South Korea, I initially experienced post-traumatic stress as a result of my parents’ death, my separation from family members, and an acute awareness of the horrifying reality in North Korea. These memories continue to haunt me. South Korea, in contrast to North Korea, has instituted democratic freedoms and presently benefits from abundant resources. Beggars I encounter on the street never request food, but money. The stark differences between North and South immediately raised a number of fundamental questions like—Why does North Korea suffer so? What is the root problem? North Korea, like South Korea, triumphs human rights, personal dignity, and democratic freedoms. North Korean propaganda constantly proclaims these conditions exist in society by virtue of the Kim regime’s benevolent leadership and protection. But where? They surely do not exist in bowing to a statue of Kim Il-Sung or worshipping Kim Jong-Il as God. Here, in South Korea, I was immediately struck by how blessed the citizens truly are. It wasn’t easy for me to understand South Korea at the outset because of dramatically different social norms, worldviews, and fashion. Especially fashion. A few years after I arrived, I saw a fellow student at my university wearing jeans with noticeable tears. Feeling deep compassion for his unfortunate circumstance, I handed him money to purchase a new pair. He paused, and then informed me that jeans with such tears cost more than jeans without. Truly baffling. In fact, my first “culture shock” moment was seeing teenagers with dyed red and yellow hair.  I was terrified. My transition and subsequent embrace of South Korean society did not take days, weeks, or months, but years.

JB: What were our first impressions of the United States?

SB: While growing up in North Korea I was instructed that America is a place where criminals rule and the general public is under constant threat of gun violence. As such, citizens need to exercise extreme caution to avoid getting shot to death. To be honest, I revisited these fears before my first international exhibition; however, my greatest concern was how an American audience would receive North Korean art.

After executing successful exhibitions both in Atlanta and D.C., and accepting invitations from professors to lecture at a number of universities, I was very impressed with the warm-hearted attendees willing to reach out, communicate with me, and share their ideas and compassion while always smiling. I was quite fascinated with how communities with different perspectives can communicate and collaborate through art. I also learned how America plays an active role in innovation across various fields, including arts, literature, politics, and economics, as well as how problematic it is for the North Korean people to see the U.S as an enemy. I am now thinking a lot more about my role in a global community.

JB: In North Korea, you were never allowed to sign your paintings. Now you’re able to, but you sign them with an alias. Why?

SB: I was not allowed to sign my paintings until I arrived in South Korea, where I now use a personalized stamp to mark my artwork. Song Byeok is an alias I designed to help me start over as an artist after escaping North Korea. Now I’m open to experiencing new life in a larger, more interdependent world, and my alias symbolizes this personal transformation. Song is my family name and Byeok means “blue” as in the Chinese character “碧,” and “wall” in the Korean “벽.” Every human carries a wall in his or her mind in the same way that every country has boundaries. It’s this wall that breeds conflict, violence, and war. I named myself Byeok because I hope my art will play a part in transforming our beautiful, blue earth into a global community.

JB: How does the sense of purpose behind your art now differ from the sense of purpose behind the art you used to make?

SB: My art in the past was committed to sustaining a totalitarian state where freedom of expression does not exist and artists are required to create works in service of authority.

In contrast, my art today is dedicated to free expression, universal human rights, positive change in North Korea, and reconciliation between nations. I want to deliver a message of hope and change to the oppressed throughout the world. I want to play a constructive role in our global community as a contemporary artist. This is my motivation and my direction.


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Spotlight: DC Artists’ View of a Post-Electric World

As part of the connectivity programming around Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, we’re curating a small gallery exhibition which is being featured in the upper lobby catwalk (where the Season 32 artwork has hung this past year). The cool part? This is our first time doing this. We’re really excited to be displaying the work of three amazing, visionary DC artists: Gregg Deal, Dafna Steinberg, and Kelly Towles.

I found our three artists in a rather serendipitous way. When we decided we wanted to commission three local artists, I happened to open my ScoutMob daily email and discovered The Water St. Project, a ten-day art/music event… which led me to the website… which featured links to all of the great local artists participating. After some clicking around and some cold emailing, we stumbled upon Gregg, Dafna, and Kelly – three artists with a variety of aesthetic tastes and mediums. And we lived happily ever after.

We also knew that this project wasn’t just about the artists’ work mingling with the themes of the production; we wanted to engage our community experts in our panel discussion, “Speculating an Apocalypse,” as well. We assigned each artist a particular infrastructure that would be affected by an apocalyptic event (which we estimated would wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population); water, architecture, and electricity, of course. Dafna tackled water; Gregg tackled architecture; and Kelly, electricity. They each illustrated the changes that would occur over time, from ostensibly the day after the apocalyptic event, to seven years after that, to 75 years after that.

Discovering new pockets of the DC community – like this vibrant visual art micro-community –bringing them to Woolly and engaging them with the work we do is what I love so much about my job.  That is connectivity for you.

“The Day After Yesterday,” Dafna Steinberg

“7 Years,” Kelly Towles

“75 Years Later,” Gregg Deal

~Melanie Harker, Connectivity Assistant

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The Art in Deliberately Making You Uncomfortable

Making someone deliberately uncomfortable for the sake of art is a concept that is not new to me. Antonin Artaud’s philosophy of Theatre of Cruelty employs tactics which are meant to shock the audience, with the idea to create a more intense theatrical experience. Jana Sterbak stitched together a meat dress in her art piece “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic,” which could have very well been the inspiration for Lady Gaga’s Video Music Awards outfit last September.

In A Bright New Boise, Felipe Cabezas’ character Leroy wears shirts that display expletives to evoke a very specific response. An art major at Boise State University, Leroy describes his self-made t-shirts as art, using words and phrases such as “YOU WILL EAT YOUR CHILDREN” juxtaposed against the purchasing of cheap craft-store supplies to make a dramatic statement; to make Hobby Lobby shoppers deliberately uncomfortable.

A Bright New Boise’s Assistant Dramaturg, Cameron Huppertz, informed me that Sam Hunter’s inspiration for Leroy’s artistic statement comes from the work of Jenny Holzer and her focus on text as art. Her technique of using provocative text/language/placement to elicit a response from the viewer has been received with great acclaim, garnering her awards and landing her art real-estate in a number of different locations, from the lobby of 7 World Trade Center, New York, to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, around the corner from Woolly!

I find it interesting to think about other aspects of our lives that are specifically manufactured to make us feel uncomfortable, one aspect which is coming up very soon—Halloween. Our entire culture has been built around the idea that Halloween is a day when people want to be scared, surprised, made nervous, and/or uncomfortable. Elaborate costumes are sold in costume stores that pop up especially for Halloween. Fog machines, spooky decorations, music that will make your skin crawl are put together in Haunted Houses which can be found just about everywhere in the week leading up to All Hallow’s Eve. Is this idea about finding pleasure and entertainment out of experiencing fear and discomfort any different from Leroy and his t-shirts?

What do you think about art making you uncomfortable? Do you think it’s cool? Is it not art to you? Does it deepen your connection to the piece by creating an emotional response, whatever emotion that may be?

~ Melanie Harker, Connectivity Assistant

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Apocalyptic Art Through the Ages

Creating art about the end of the world doesn’t seem the most cheerful or popular subject, however, this past weekend, I was reminded it’s a theme that is often used for artistic inspiration. As much as I’d like to compose a multi-page paper on the topic and do my BA in Art History and Dr. Ayer proud, I’ll keep myself in check and limit this to a very brief overview.

This past Saturday, a friend and I visited the Maryland Renaissance Festival, as part of an annual ladies’ outing (yes, we dress up, it’s more fun that way. You should check out my ridiculously awesome hat in Woolly’s Facebook album.) One of the first booths you encounter through the gate, to your right, is Pyrated Prynts, a fine purveyor of Renaissance reproductions. I’m always drawn to the store, particularly the Albrecht Dűrer prints. He was a German engraver, painter, and printmaker who lived from 1471 to 1528 and is considered one of the primary artists of the Northern Renaissance. While Dűrer’s artwork addressed both secular and sacred topics, he did a series of 16 woodcuts with the Apocalypse as the subject, one of the most recognizable being The Revelation of St John: The Four Riders of the Apocalypse.

The print depicts, from foreground to background, Death, Famine, War, and Conquest. John’s writing in the Bible describes the riders on varying-colored horses but as the piece is in black and white, Dűrer relies upon symbolism and personal characteristics to identify the riders. Death and his horse are emaciated and he carries a trident, which has now been replaced by the more commonly used scythe.  Famine carries scales that would be used to weigh bread during times of need. War carries a sword and wears armor while Conquest holds a bow with arrow drawn. I really enjoy this print, not so much for the subject matter but for the incredible amount of detail, the impact of the black ink and white spaces, and how dynamic the characters are. I think the Beast eating the clergyman in the lower left-hand corner is a nice touch, commenting on the equality of the end times affecting both the weak and the powerful.

The following day, Sunday, we hit up the Smithsonian American Art Museum and browsed several exhibits. On the first floor, they have a great permanent display of American Folk Art. These were folks that, unlike Albrecht Dűrer, did not study under great artistic masters and have workshops or studios devoted to their livelihood of creating pieces. These were people who often created art with found materials in their spare time, drawing from their personal experiences and basing them on subjects that meant a great deal to them. There are several pieces that have religious themes, particularly about the Apocalypse, Revelations, and the Tribulation. The work And the Moon Became As Blood by the Reverend Howard Finster is particularly striking.

Painted in 1976, Finster illustrated passages from Revelations, incorporating the text into the painting. Although, if you were unable to read, you could gather very quickly that the work was primarily about blood and that the end of days would involve a large quantity of it. The cartoonish quality of the art and the addition of color makes the painting less intimidating than Durer’s print. For people who are unfamiliar with the Bible, this might be more approachable and render an audience more open to Reverend Finster’s message of redemption through Christ.

It’s very easy to type “apocalypse” into Google and plethora of images are the result. As I was doing research for this post, art from the video game Fallout 3 would come up and I was reminded of the controversy about the promotion of its release in Washington, DC. Bethesda Softworks, the company who wrote the third installment of the Fallout series, bought out the Metro Center station for a month around the release date of October 28, 2008. There were floor clings, banners, and, probably most attention grabbing, illuminated dioramas containing screen captures  from the game, which happens to take place in a post-apocalyptic, nuclear-ravaged Washington, DC.

The reaction to the ads was mixed which reflects my own personal feelings to the ads. On one hand I really like the muted color palette, the creativity of distressing items with which many of us are familiar, and the social commentary that nothing is sacred, buildings are not indestructible, even landmarks. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to see the city I live and work in destroyed. In today’s security climate, is a genuine possibility we all live with every day and we’re reminded by the suspicious packages, the bomb threats, the white powder, jersey barriers, bollards, checkpoints, and law enforcement with tactical shotguns, to name a few.

In reminding us of our mortality, these images from a video game are really no different than the enamel painting on fiberboard of a Southern preacher or the meticulous woodcut print of a Renaissance-period German. Whether or not the agent or agents of the end of civilization are four horsemen and rivers of blood or a nuclear explosion, the apocalypse has been and will continue to be a subject that compels people to express themselves through many artistic media.

~ Kate Ahern Loveric, Graphic Design & Web Manager

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