August 13, 2017

I Am Sun Mu: He's Not the Only One

I Am Sun Mu isn't just about Sun Mu, a North Korean artist who defected to the South and now makes Warhol-esque pop art with a sly political bent. Adam Sjoberg's multilayered documentary is also about Liang Kegang, the risk-taking director of the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing who decides to mount a fairly large show devoted to Sun Mu's work. And it's also about Cui Xianji, a Chinese-Korean artist who helps make this exhibit happen. Of course, it's also about Sun Mu's wife and his two kids because you can't be creating work causing such strong sociopolitical reverberations without impacting those nearest and dearest. As such, Sjoberg's doc is a portrait of a time and place as well as it is of a particular person.

The present power of North Korean loyalists in China is felt; the censorship of the Chinese government is seen in action; the courage of a few talented artists taking chances despite the monolithic nature of the institutions set against them is witnessed and then archived and thereby publicly acknowledged. Watching I Am Sun Mu you become aware of how much fascist regimes are intent on restricting their populace's very thoughts by preventing certain countercultural images from ever reaching the masses. It also reminds you that commercial art is really just a form of propaganda serving a less-obvious regime that's backed by the almighty dollar. (I know that it's not Korean but can everyone please check out the mind-expanding PBS doc Trudell?)

I worried about Sun Mu's saftey though. Throughout this doc, he never shows his face. He's seen from behind or blurred out or in silhouette. But his wife and kids are seen clearly. Surely his anonymity has been compromised. You can hardly call this an attention-seeking stunt since he's literally putting his life and livelihood on the line. And you can't say that his art isn't agitating his former homeland, otherwise why would the Chinese government have been so quick to shut the exhibition down?

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