A Cold War Air Tragedy in Art

 The horrifying painted image that exploded from the front cover of Time magazine on 12 September 1983 brought to public realisation one of the single greatest tragedies of the Cold War – the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (KAL007) on the first of that month.

The civilian flight from New York City to Seoul, via Anchorage, was approaching its final destination when it was intercepted by Soviet military aircraft over the Sea of Japan. The pilots had mistakenly strayed into Soviet airspace and fighter jets were scrambled to encounter what was suspected to be a US spy plane. The Soviet Air Forces made the grave decision to destroy the plane with air-to-air missiles. All 269 people aboard were killed, including 105 Korean passengers and crew, 62 Americans, 28 Japanese, and others from a total of 16 different countries.

Two weeks later, the Soviets located the airplane wreckage and flight recorders on the bottom of the sea, although this would not become public knowledge for many years. Initially the government of Yuri Andropov denied his country’s involvement in the incident. Once evidence forced Andropov to admit that the Soviet Air Forces had indeed downed the plane, he maintained that it had been a “sophisticated provocation masterminded by the US special services with the use of a South Korean plane”. The Soviet government continued to conceal evidence from the International Civil Aviation Organization investigating the flight. The full story would only come to light after the dissolution of the USSR, when in 1992 Russia finally released the cockpit voice recorder transcript. On the 30th anniversary of the incident, CNN published a compelling account of this episode.

On 1 September every year, relatives of the deceased gather to remember those killed in the tragedy at the KAL Memorial Tower at National Mang-Hyang Cemetery in Cheonan, South Korea. The cemetery was constructed in 1976 and is devoted to Korean nationals who have died in foreign countries. The towering central monument stands above a shrine, its bisected form resembling the wings of an airplane and connecting the earth and sky. Relief sculptures are carved on either side of the shrine, while two dramatic freestanding group sculptures recall the lives lost.

On the left hand side, the neoclassical statue is formed of fifteen women entwined in their grief. While thirteen of the mourners are shown stooped and with heads bowed, one holding a wreath and an older woman embracing a young girl, two figures at the front of the group enact formal funereal rites: one standing and holding to her chest what appears to be an urn; and one kneeling with a flaming torch. The sculpture on the right hand side instead shows an image of resurgence. The people have arisen, and a group of young men and women are shown on their feet with arms raised, carrying banners forward in a show of determination. Little information about the monument is available in English language, including details of the architect and sculptor, yet it is worthy of wider attention as one of the most poignant and effective monuments to the Cold War.

Two further monuments to the tragedy stand on islands to the north and south of the crash site. In the city of Wakkanai, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, a 90-foot tower marks the spot when some of the victims’ bodies and belongings were washed ashore after the crash. The tower is constructed from 269 white stones, each representing one of the deceased. Meanwhile, on the island of Sakahlin, a distant outpost at the edge of Russia’s territory, a small cemetery marker pays tribute to the victims.

The sorry tale of KAL007 was brought back to international attention in July 2014, when in a tragic repeat of history, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was downed over eastern Ukraine. Despite obstruction from the Russian-backed insurgents in the region, overwhelming evidence has led the international investigators to conclude that the airliner was downed by a Russia-supplied Buk surface-to-air missile, by pro-Russian fighters who likely misidentified the commercial plane as a military aircraft. In a repetition of the 1983 incident, the Kremlin has blocked the investigation, fuelled conspiracy theories that the flight was instead brought down by a Ukraininan military jet, and so far no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the 283 passengers and 15 crew.

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Images: Top three – KAL Memorial Tower, National Mang-Hyang Cemetery, South Korea. Courtesy KAL 007 Famlies and Friends Facebook page. Bottom – Monument to Korean Airlines Flight 007, Hokkaido, Japan. Courtesy shirokazan on flickr.

Art of the East German Uprising

As Stalin grew ever more paranoid and unpredictable in the final months of his life, the ailing dictator demanded that Walter Ulbricht’s Communist government in the German Democratic Republic consolidate its control over the country by intensifying the process of Sovietization. In the summer of 1952, land confiscations, tax hikes, and a public pay freeze with a 10% increase in labour quotas were introduced, against the backdrop of a crumbling economy and a surge in political arrests.

Max Lingner, ‘Building of the Republic’ (‘Aufbau der Republik’), 1950–53. Photo: OTFW, Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0. Click to view full image.

Sovietization also extended into the arts. On 3 January 1953, a 60-foot mosaic mural in classic Socialist Realist style was unveiled on the exterior wall of the House of Ministries in East Berlin, the seat of the GDR government. In an ironic twist, the mural replaced a Nazi-era frieze celebrating the eastward march of Wehrmacht soldiers. Having failed in their mission, the troops were replaced with depictions of the Communist working class, complete with Young Pioneers and the German People’s Police. Constructed from hundreds of Meissen porcelain tiles, the mural remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.

The artist behind this monumental work was Max Lingner, a painter and illustrator who in 1950 was a co-founder of the East Berlin Academy of Arts. Lingner was selected for the project in November 1950, after being one of six artists invited to compete for the commission. However, having spent the previous two decades living in France – where he had been a member of the Résistance – Lingner found himself under suspicion for possible bourgeois tendencies. The artist was compelled to revise his design on several occasions, in response to criticism from the authorities that his figures looked too “French” and that he had not accurately represented a tractor!

By the time it was completed, the vision of joyous East German workers sharply contrasted with the reality of life in the increasingly isolated state. A steady stream of East Germans had emigrated since the GDR was founded three years earlier, with an annual departure of around 180,000 citizens. The widespread alarm at increased Sovietization dramatically increased those numbers, and in the first half of 1953 alone, more than 226,000 East Germans fled to the West. Many of those who remained hoped that life would improve following Stalin’s death in March; and indeed, the new leaders in the Kremlin recommended that Ulbricht should curtail his plans, to stem the exodus. But by then, the people had had enough.

Workers protest in front of Max Lingner’s mural at the House of Ministries, Berlin, 17 June 1953.

On 16 June 1953, construction workers in East Berlin launched strike action, which quickly spread across the country. Calls for lower work quotas grew into protests demanding the resignation of the government. The next day, ten of thousands marched on the House of Ministries. There, in front of Lingner’s painting of a march under the banner of “Sozialismus”, real-life East German workers held up banners proclaiming “We want free elections!” and “We want to be free, not slaves.”

socialism-leipziger-strasse-muralUlbricht turned to the Kremlin for help and on 17 June, Soviet tanks and some 20,000 soldiers marched into East Berlin, opening fire on the crowd. The death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from 55 known victims to over 600, including those executed in the aftermath. In addition, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested, followed by lengthy sentences in penal camps. Taking back control of the country, the Communist party blamed the rebellion on the West and suggested that it had been covertly orchestrated by the CIA.

Meanwhile, in West Germany, the event was seen very differently.  From 1954 until reunification, 17 June was commemorated in the Federal Republic of Germany as the “Day of German Unity”. A week after the uprising, some 125,000 West Germans attended a funeral for the eight victims who had died in West Berlin hospitals, and on the 2nd anniversary of the massacre a monument was unveiled in their cemetery in the Wedding district of Berlin. Carved by sculptor Karl Wenke, the statue shows a man encased in stone, desperately trying to break free.

In contrast, it would take until 2000 for a formal memorial to be installed in what was East Germany. Berlin artist Wolfgang Rüppel’s powerful photographic reproduction under laminated glass, sunk into the square in front of what is now the Federal Ministry of Finance, is at first hidden from view. But from the right vantage point, the seemingly random etched dots converge to once again reveal the faces of the demonstrators. Set directly in front of Lingner’s mural, the two artworks provide a jarring juxtaposition, offsetting the promise of Communism with its harsh reality.

The African Renaissance Monument, Built by North Korea

While visiting the Things Fall Apart exhibition (part of the recent “Red Africa” season) at Calvert 22 in London, I was intrigued by Onejoon Che’s model of the African Renaissance Monument. This was one of a series of models and photographs of African monuments on display by the South Korean artist. Firstly, I was struck by how closely the design for the monument mirrored Soviet statuary and monumental sculptures erected under other Communist regimes. Several examples have previously been featured on ESPIONART, such as the golden statue in Vieng Xay District, Laos and Choi Young-jeep’s Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul. What led this statue to be built in Dakar, Senegal as recently as 2010? And then there was the small matter of the North Koreans. While the sculpture has been credited as being based on an idea of President Abdoulaye Wade and designed alternatively by Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby or  Romanian sculptor Virgil Magherusan, the object itself was built by a North Korean company called Mansudae Overseas Projects. I decided to investigate further.

Standing 49 metres tall and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from a scenic hilltop, the African Renaissance Monument looks as though it has been in place for many years. The tallest statue in Africa, this imposing bronze effigy is of a scale and spirit that is rarely seen in 21st-century statuary (although China recently bucked the trend with a 32-metre high bust of a young Chairman Mao that was unveiled in 2009). But in fact the African Renaissance Monument is a very recent addition to the Senegalese landscape, with construction only beginning in 2008 and the formal dedication taking place on 4 April 2010, to commemorate 50 years of independence from France.

The statue consists of three full-length figures in deep bronze, that appear to depict an idealised African family group. On the left, a scantily-clad young woman leans against a rock, her head tilted back and her arms spread behind her in a submissive pose; in the middle, a muscular young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and a traditional kufi cap straddles the rock, his right arm around the girl’s waist, and a small child held aloft in his left hand; on the left, the naked child sits perched on the man’s shoulder and points westward towards the sea, with the direction of his arm completing the upward trajectory of the entire scene. All three figures stare upwards with determination, a common trope in Socialist Realism.
mukhina
The statue was unveiled in front of 19 African heads of state, in recognition of its status as a symbol of the African Renaissance, a campaign for postcolonial African nations to work together to achieve success. President Wade announced that after “several centuries of imprisonment in the abyssal depths of ignorance, intolerance and racism,” the statue “brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”. Yet despite this utopian proclamation, riot police had to be deployed to control a protest by thousands of Senegalese citizens who denounced the use of US$27 million of public money to build the “horrible” statue. In a 92% Muslim country, the colossal display of naked flesh also provoked uproar. Some Senegalese opposition leaders even labelled the sculpture “Stalinist”, acknowledging its similarities to works such as Vera Mukhina’s iconic statue of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, first displayed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937 and now once again erected in Moscow.

Also in attendance at the opening ceremony were representatives of North Korea. Mansudae Overseas Projects is the international division of Mansudae Art Studio, run by the North Korean government and responsible for numerous propaganda monuments across the secretive nation. In recent years, the Pyongyang-based company has produced a number of monuments across Africa celebrating independence from European colonial powers. Other works, also reproduced as models by Onejoon Che, include the bronze Three Dikgosi Monument that was unveiled in Gaborone, Botswana in 2005, and Heroes’ Acre, a war memorial erected in the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Other projects include a statue memorialising the 19th-century King Béhanzin, on display in Abomey, Benin. The involvement of North Korea in the construction of the African Renaissance Monument was previously explored in Frieze Magazine, while other statues built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects can be seen in an article on Quartz.

It has been reported that as a reward for its involvement, North Korea was granted a large portion of state land in Senegal, meaning that a statue purported to celebrate freedom from colonisation has ironically resulted in yet another non-African nation securing land rights in Africa.

Images: Onejoon Che, Model of the African Renaissance Monument, 2014. Fibre-reinforced plastic. Courtesy the artist; African Renaissance Monument, 2010. Bronze, 49 metres. Dakar, Senegal; Vera Mukhina, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 1937. Stainless steel, 24.5 metres. Moscow, Russia.

What & Where: Sculpture of Bangladesh’s Martyred Intellectuals

What: Sculpture of the Martyred Intellectuals
Where: Mujibnagar Memorial Complex, Meherpur, Bangladesh

The Bangladesh Liberation War between East Pakistan and West Pakistan ended on 16 December 1971 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in the east. Although only lasting 9 months, the war was shocking in its brutality. During a series of genocidal atrocities perpetuated by the Pakistan Army against the Bengali population, artists were targeted in a campaign to liquidate intellectuals, a strategy aimed at destroying the community’s cultural identity.

Two days prior to the surrender of the West Pakistanti forces, on the night of 14 December, over 200 leading intellectuals were arrested and executed. Alongside artists the victims included professors, doctors, engineers, journalists, poets and writers. The event is now commemorated in Bangladesh as Martyred Intellectuals Day.

A group statue commemorating this event is one of a number of poignant works at the Mujibnagar Memorial Complex in the Meherpur District of Bangladesh. The memorial was built on the site of a mango grove where the country’s first independent government was sworn in.

You can see more photos of the Liberation War memorial and its sculptures at Flickr Hive Mind.

Images: Sculpture at Mujibnagar Memorial Complex depicting the massacre of intellectuals. Courtesy Abdul Malek Babul.

The Divided Brothers of the Korean War

On 25 June 1950 North Korea surprised its southern neighbour with a sudden invasion, sparking the start of the Korean War. As the United States entered the fray on the side of South Korea, while China lent support to its communist ally, a bloody battle ensued that lasted until 1953.

In 1994 the War Memorial of Korea opened in Seoul. As visitors approach they are greeted by the eye-catching Statue of Brothers by Choi Young-jeep. The 11-metre-high sculpture shows two soldiers in a desperate embrace as they stand on a split dome landscape. The nearby panel tells the fictional story of two brothers meeting in battle during the Korean War: the elder an officer of the Republic of Korea (South Korea); the younger a North Korean soldier. As they recognise their fraternal love and reconcile, the statue symbolises the desire of the two peoples of Korea for reunification, while the cracked dome represents their ongoing division.

However, the statue also has a more ominous and provocative meaning. The larger, older brother is armed while the younger brother appears defenceless and weak. While the personification of South Korea looks down with a heroic, determined expression, North Korea looks up with admiration and gratitude. The sculptor has described the South Korean soldier’s embrace as “forgiving”, further emphasising the statue’s alternative role of glorifying the inevitable defeat of communism and the victory of democracy.

Statue of Brothers

Images: Choi Young-jeep, Statue of Brothers, 1994. War Memorial of Korea, Seoul.

Uprising Against Hungary’s Sculpture

budapest 2In the words of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, ‘October 23, 1956 is a day that will live forever in the annals of free men and nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly man’s eternally unquenchable desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required’. One of the most memorable events of that day, the first of the short-lived Hungarian Uprising, was the scene of revolutionaries ripping apart a loathed statue of Stalin in Budapest. By the end of the day only his boots were left, in which were planted a Hungarian flag.

50 years later, on the spot where the statue of Stalin had once stood, the Hungarian government unveiled the Monument of the 1956 Revolution. This formidable sculpture is made up of 1,956 steel posts, initially rusted and scattered randomly, before converging to form a highly-polished sharp wedge, intended to symbolise national unity and defiance against oppression.

Yet an artwork that should have brought the Hungarian people together instead provoked a rift, as the familiar Cold War battle between abstract and realist art was reawakened in 2006. Supporters of the monument speak warmly of its comparison to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which also divided opinion when first opened but is now widely celebrated. But many veterans of the failed revolution, who suffered vicious reprisals after the Red Army finally overcame the street fighters on 10 November 1956, expressed their dislike for the abstract memorial and favoured a figurative scene of heroic revolutionaries. The debate is still very much alive today.

Images: Top – Destruction of statue of Stalin, Budapest, 23 October 1956, Courtesty BBC News; Bottom – Monument of the 1956 Revolution. Courtesy jaime.silva on Flickr

What & Where: Prague’s Memorial to the Victims of Communism

There are few more magical sights than the view from the top of Petřín Hill in Prague, looking down over the rooftops of the Czech capital in the shadow of Petřínská rozhledna, the Czech answer to Paris’s Eiffel Tower. But taking the scenic walk down, lost in Bohemian reverie, visitors are suddenly faced with an altogether less picturesque vision.

Prague memorialSix bronze figures descend the steps, faces pained, arms outstretched like zombies, their bodies gradually disintegrating. This is the Memorial to the Victims of Communism by celebrated sculptor, Olbram Zoubek. Unveiled in 2002, it is ‘dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed, but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism’. A bronze plaque hits home with the numbers, charting the hundreds of thousands who suffered under the Communist regime between 1948 and 1989.

This disturbing addition to the Czech landscape has its fans and its critics. The controversy reaching a climax when in 2003 one of the original seven figures was destroyed in a bomb attack, an ironic additional destruction of the already decaying group.

Image: Olbram Zoubek, Memorial to the Victims of Communism, 2002. Author’s photo