Pete Kirill‘s North Korea oil series investigates the relationship between communism and capitalism by representing both ideologies on canvas. The Miami based neo-pop artist highlights the parallels between dictator worship and celebrity idolization, anchored by the physical gestures of the enigmatic, iron-fisted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Kirill’s work investigates the fractured relationship between Communism and Capitalism employing tongue-in-cheek depictions of North Korean pictorial and military tributes featuring Kim Jong-il. With his death by largely unknown causes in early 2012, Kirill’s work opens complex possibilities and associations from within and without the culture surrounding a man, rendered as a deity by his own ruling elite.
Pete’s immersion within a Communist state prompted a continued, focused visual study of infamous dictators and their accompanying cults of personality. Kirill’s first solo exhibition was held at Myra Galleries, Miami in October 2011. The attached works Kim Jong-rodman and Kim Jong Ill’n are pieces that depict the North Korean leaders as a hip hop artist and NBA basketball star, drawing parallels between dictator worship and celebrity idolization.
“Portrait of Kim Jong il and Kim Jong Un”
Art Nouveau: What inspires you?
Pete Kirill: Reading books, watching documentaries, following current news on the DPRK and its leaders, as well as broader primary research. I usually find whatever appears strange or unfamiliar in the image. Once I find a suitable subject, I add one or two capitalistic elements to it. Sometimes, these elements instantly appear within the image. At others, ideas emerge after deeper contemplation. I also draw from my experiences living in Havana, where I witnessed the propaganda machine of the Castro regime firsthand.
AN: Tell me about the North Korea oil series. You’re obviously making a large statement. Why depict North Korean leaders as hip hop artists?
PK: The North Korea oil series is a study that draws parallels between the way Communism and Capitalism are practiced in their respective cultures, although the core of their ideologies are vastly different. North Korean leaders, particularly Kim Jong-il when he was alive, over-indulge on many Western luxuries, with the rate of consumption rivalling American hip-hop celebrities. Kim Jong-il was one of Hennessey’s biggest consumers, for example, reportedly spending more than $800,000 on the cognac brand per year.
I attempt to illustrate the complications between the principles Kim Jong-il and other Communist leaders imposed on their citizens (and still continue to do so) and what is actually practiced by those in power.
AN: Tell me about “dictator worship.” What parallels do you see in American Popular Culture?
PK: Dictator worship is similar to hero worship, arising when an individual uses mass media tools to create an idealized public image channeled through unwaivering praise. In North Korea, their “Dear Leader” is portrayed on larger-than-life billboards and murals as a divine but likable figure, always smiling down on his people. A glamorous pose or gesture is evident in a similar fashion to Western film and music celebrities in its media churn. While the North Korean citizens blindly worship an ironclad leader, they expend their energy into honoring an idol, or image, that is nonexistent. Fans of pop icons like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe create mythologies about them based only on rumor or soundbites. These parallels between dictator worship and celebrity idolization is something I’m continuously exploring.
AN: What does the term “neo-pop” mean to you? And how does your work fit in with this?
PK: Neo-Pop art is Pop in a decidely Postmodern moment, roughly coagulating during the late 1980’s referencing Pop Art’s practical, critical and commercial revival. This term described works from artists such as Jeff Koons and Ed Ruscha. I have been fascinated with Pop ever since I was a teenager. I was immediately attracted to the use of bright, strong color and their comic book-like sensations. I would not say Neo-Pop was a deliberate practical path for me.
What’s next for you?
PK: I’m working on a new series called “The Dictator Hall of Fame,” focusing on famous dictators worldwide. A strong connective tissue joins dictator worship and celebrity idolization, as these these leaders increasingly resemble American Pop icons versus heads of state. “Muammar Jackson” is one example. The recently-deceased Libyan dictator Gaddafi acts like Michael Jackson.