• People
  • Oct 08, 2018

Reading Between the Lines: Interview with Sara Sejin Chang

Portrait of SARA SEJIN CHANG (Sara van der Heide). All images courtesy the artist.

From December 11, 2015 to April 10, 2016 South Korean-born, Amsterdam- and Brussels-based artist Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide) reconceptualized the German Information Library in Guangzhou (Deutsche Informationsbibliothek Guangzhou) as the _German Library Pyongyang_ (2015– ), after an ambitious Goethe-Institut project sponsored by the German government that had taken place in the North Korean capital between 2004 and 2009. With its own history in mind, the German government had believed that it could provide an example for the possible reunification of the Korean peninsula. The Goethe-Institut’s library in Pyongyang included academic literature related to science, technology and medicine (at the request of the North Koreans) as well as canonical works of German culture (at the insistence of the German government). Chang’s imaginative transformation of the existing German Library in China featured an exhibition of works by international artists and a day-long seminar program including a reading, lecture, and cooking performance. The underlying question for the artist was whether a library—and culture more broadly—can promote peaceful relations between the divided Koreas. 

Can you describe the project’s genesis?

In 2013, I was invited to participate in an exhibition weekend at the Goethe-Institut Amsterdam, and, during conversations with the organizers, learned that the Goethe-Institut was the only Western cultural institution that had opened a language and culture center in Pyongyang. I was immediately intrigued, started to read more about the conditions and context of the library there, and began to ask questions. For example, how does the library in Pyongyang fit with the Goethe-Institut’s history and aims, especially within a global context? There was the genuine idea that, by opening a German library in North Korea, Germany could help establish peaceful relations between the two Koreas. I thought that was an extremely beautiful idea, but at the same time problematic and naive.

Then in 2015, I was invited to participate in the 5th Guangzhou Triennial in China by co-director and chief curator Henk Slager. That year coincided with the 25th anniversary of German reunification, and I thought that my reconceptualization of the Pyongyang German library in China could open up new and interesting interrelations and juxtapositions. Economically and politically, China is in transition, slowly opening up its markets, but still maintaining its one-party system of central governance.

What were your selection criteria for choosing artists?

I thought about how I would run a Goethe-Institut. I was interested in bringing together artists who share both a criticality towards Western capitalist hegemony and a sensitivity in their art-making. It was important that forms of resistance were built into their art practices. I also wanted artists who had firsthand experience of the Berlin Wall or the Korean Demilitarised Zone and whose artistic practices were shaped by those experiences. Gabriele Stötzer, for example, was at the forefront of the Erfurt Women Artists’ Group (Erfurter Künstlerinnengruppe) in then-East Germany, an underground movement that organized fashion shows in churches (the only venues in which the State was not present). The group also fought against the inhumane and repressive system in the German Democratic Republic (GDR); Stötzer was arrested by the Stasi at one point. All in all, the artists were from the former East and West Germany, and South and North Korea, but also China, and the Netherlands, where I was based at that time, among other countries. 

In your exhibition materials, you mention the idea of an “artistic intervention.” How does your exhibition function as an artistic and linguistic intervention?

Language plays such an important role in defining national culture and is essential to the Goethe-Institut’s mission. Language can connect and be used poetically, but it can also exclude and even be used as a colonizing or imperialistic tool. I wanted to look into these various aspects of language.

For the duration of the biennial, the German Library in Guangzhou was transformed into the German Library in Pyongyang, but it was, of course, an imaginary transformation. However, I wanted library visitors to imagine for a moment that they were in Pyongyang. I removed all of the Chinese library signs and printed matter and replaced them with Korean ones, so it was as if you were in Pyongyang. Initially, I wanted to bring together all of the books that were originally in the Pyongyang library, but that seemed impossible. So then I requested lists of the library’s media and books holdings, made a library index card system for each book or DVD, and ordered the cards according to the Goethe-Institut’s library system, for which we used a North Korean font. The German language is a stable factor in all of the 159 Goethe institutions globally. German books, German media, the recognizable green Goethe-Institut logo are identical in each location. 

I was also interested in practices that could help us to unlearn our understanding of North Korea and the former GDR and practices that offer insights into the conflict beyond an American-centric point of view. When visitors entered the space, books and artworks were integrated into a fully operating library. Photographs by Hans Haacke were hung on the library’s pillars in the same display manner as Goethe-Institut posters promoting Germany as a holiday destination, or German language courses. Alongside the library banners, there were banners that featured North Korean artist Chang Ho Choi’s painting of sacred Paektu Mountain on the China-North Korea border, which is considered by many Koreans as a place of ancestral origin and also served as a base for guerrilla fighting against the Japanese. For her printed text Abstract Reading (2015), Sora Kim selected words from books that were part of the German library and created a new type of abstract language, which offered a unique experience each time they were spoken. South Korean filmmaker Kyungman Kim’s Long Live His Majesty (2002) showed government footage of former South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee, which used to be screened in elementary schools in order to indoctrinate young children with hate towards North Korea and its citizens—we usually only think of this as a North Korean practice, but it was done in the South too. 

SARA SEJIN CHANG, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Has a House in 169 Places (detail), 2015, 169 business cards, displayed in alphabetical order.

Does your own background as a South Korean-born female artist based in Europe impact, influence or even determine your relationship with the subject(s) of the piece? 

The fact that I was born in South Korea, adopted by white Dutch parents, and grew up in the Netherlands has made me look critically towards Europe and its global role, both past and present. I am part of a large group of non-white European citizens who live and work in Europe, but society and politics give us direct and indirect signals that we are not the norm and our presence is problematized. White Europeans still dictate their values to the rest of the world, but I am surprised by Eurocentrism in general and I think the Goethe-Institut is an example of a certain Eurocentric way of thinking, one which a lot of people don’t call into question anymore. 

Personally, I think self-identification through nationality is reductionist. I prefer to develop avenues that construct a horizontal world that is queer or feminist, one that undoes the existing hierarchical imbalances between colonizers and indigenous and pre-modern cultures. I am at home in many places, especially when I am connected with inspiring, brave and caring people who are not necessarily bound to a specific country. South Korea has a diverse, rich, spiritual culture with a female lineage of shamanism, but Korean society is also very patriarchal due to Confucianism and the Christian Church, and I find it hard to relate to either of them. 

You ask straightforwardly in the exhibition catalogue, “What does it mean today in a post-colonial era to open a German reading library in a communist country?” Does the exhibition hint at any answers?

I think that, by working with artists from different geographies and generations, the question can be answered from different angles. In fact, it struck quite a few nerves since it drew attention to the shift in global power; issues related to postcolonialism, nationalism and imperialism; Germany’s recent past; the Cold War; and the transformative powers of art. I invited Stefan Dreyer, Goethe-Institut’s Regional Director for East Asia, to speak at the seminar. I asked, “Could you describe the role of the Goethe-Institut in Korea using the following analogy: in a village, there are two siblings fighting; which one would you be—the teacher, the mayor, the musician, or the uncle?” But he couldn’t really answer the question. At the time, Germany genuinely believed it could open the hearts and the minds of the North Korean people. But, as one of the primary instigators of the Second World War, Germany has a completely different cultural and historical past than Korea, which has a long history of being colonized or under the influence of foreign powers such as China.  

I understand that the exhibition was censored. 

During the installation period, there were more and more signals from the Chinese government that they were not pleased with the project. Words like “communism” had to be removed from the texts. I was told that the accompanying exhibition booklets were not to be printed. The seminar with international guests was only allowed to take place behind closed doors. The press was kept away. The project was held at a different location, which was far away from the main biennial venue site. Visitors were not informed about the project and, when they did ask, they were told that it was closed. The German government even organized a counter-exhibition about German reunification, which ran at the same time as my show. It was very surreal but we did hold the seminar and open the exhibition. Ironically, though, I do not want the project to be about censorship. It’s a very political project, but it is also very imaginative and poetic with a strong sense of historical context that is lacking in Western discussions of the Korean peninsula.  

The project raises issues related to cultural diplomacy and soft power. What are your views on countries using culture for politically expedient purposes? 

I think soft power is part of how the world functions. It becomes interesting when cultural diplomacy is a tool of political influence or used to gain access to economic markets. Germany spent more than one-fifth of the Federal Foreign Office budget for 2013—around EUR 800 million—on cultivating cultural relations abroad. In many places, the Goethe-Institut hosts events and promotes groups that foster democracy in largely undemocratic or less-than-democratic countries. It has a product and it believes in the universality of its mission. 

Given the complicated intermingling of histories, can art and language help to build new bridges?

When I spoke in 2013 with Uwe Schmelter, the former Director of Goethe-Insititut Seoul (who was involved with the negotiations and realization of the German Library in Pyongyang), he was absolutely convinced that if the North Koreans would hear Bach, then they would be receptive to reunification or at least more receptive to warmer relations with South Koreans. I am critical towards that attitude, but on the other hand, I think it is important to believe in the possibility that art and language have transformative powers. Rory Pilgrim, for example, composed a song called “Complete, Embrace,” which opened and closed the exhibition’s seminar, using the power of the human voice to unite participants in order to express our shared human experience. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sara Sejin Chang’s “German Library Pyongyang” (with contributions by Choi Changho, Dongyoung Lee, Gabriele Stötzer/Künstlerinnengruppe Erfurt, Hans Haacke, Kim Kyungman, Park Chan-kyong, Rory Pilgrim, Sora Kim, and Yunjoo Kwak) will be featured in the 6th Kuandu Biennale, on view at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, from October 5, 2018 to January 6, 2019.

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