The Madness of ‘Dear Leader’

The subject of ‘dictator worship’ has been probed by practicing artists and craftsmen as early as ancient Persia and the North Americas: kings, pharaohs and emperors have been displayed as gods on Earth, the embodiment of those intangible traits which the ‘masses’ seem to lack against their leaders. Animal sacrifices, epic poetry and strategically-oriented monuments have been offered in tribute to them often with a quiet subversion, a wry wink to onlookers as if to acknowledge that it is the citizen population who ultimately perpetuates the cult of personality. One man, alone, cannot rule by force of arms or will, but those who accept the visual potency of his charisma, his intelligence and his foresight will inevitably spin tall tales surrounding their physical and perhaps, metaphysical capabilities. Miami-based artist and designer Pete Kirill is such an artist who offers this sly hint of dissention in his cartoonish, almost kitschy portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Continuing an enduring tradition of visual art acting as a subtle catalyst for social critique pit against a recognized figure from a pointedly anti-aesthetic socio-political realm, Kirill turns politics into comedy and back into tragedy.

Kirill was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1974 but spent his formative years in Darien, Connecticut. He went on to receive his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with a concentration in Fine Art and Design. Kirill spent several years in collaboration with Sin Palabras, a music group based in Havana drawing on club-inspired techno and timba (Cuban salsa). With a saturated awareness of Communist state propaganda and its more widespread impact on the citizens of the country, Kirill began experimenting with visual representations of similar ‘closed’ societies. In the last two years, Kirill has worked towards initiating a creative dialogue between hypocrisy, spectacle and threat all resident within the North Korean mystery.

Drawing on themes of Suprematist sensory principles and creations tweaked for mass-published visual propaganda, Kirill presents the eccentric, self-conscious Kim in an attempt to lighten subliminal suggestions of fear and awe resident in political artwork into primarily in laughing or grinning visages, those which are the antithesis of the surface character of political autocrats. For these portraits, Kirill is vitally concerned with the ‘personal’ life of Kim, delving into mythologies generated from those who have had little to no contact with the man, himself. Intelligently, Kirill elects to highlight the hidden life (versus the media veneer) of a man whom, in the realm of international relations and humanitarian concerns, is considered a very real threat.

For Kirill, Kim’s politics are only peripherally referenced within the series via images of his son, Kim Jong-un. Set against the self-assured smiles of the ‘Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army’ dressed in bold tracksuits and designer sunglasses, the younger Kim appears in somber tones of a standard cheongsam, looking noticeably awkward and bewildered in participation of his father’s implied activities. From defector and foreign sources alike, Kim has been observed as a narcissist, obsessive-compulsive and highly insecure regarding his physical appearance. His bouffant hairstyle and frame-lengthening clothes are designed to make him appear taller, the grandiose parades of fully armed battalions act as a psychological extension of his masculinity, and the presence of his son ensures that his personality cult will doubtless endure with his progeny (worth noting, a child borne from one of several mistresses as dictators rarely, if ever, reveal a legitimate wife). Kim’s penchant for fine foods and expensive liquors produced outside of North Korea (he is the largest single consumer of Hennessy in the world) adds to the image of a Western-educated connoisseur and a self-proclaimed collection of over 20,000 films (including the entire James Bond anthology) construct the outline of a caricature versus the iron cast of a ruler using military and intelligentsia tactics to enforce his government. Yet, the potent generation of worldwide fear lies in his practical, brutal execution of his insulated regime regardless of its nearly ridiculous, ‘messianic pretensions’ seemingly more worthy of satire versus worship. The haunting undercurrents of an essentially ‘criminal syndicate’ state under the thumb of a figure donning lime-green gym wear are revealed in Kirill’s work. Figureheads of North Korea’s ruling class are rendered pitiable, almost laughable for Kirill through his interpretations; solid, unblended colors and heavy outlines of his subjects are set against ever-present grey backdrops like puppets on a lonely stage.

Smiles are crueler and bright colors rub salt into wounds for those living below the iron veil laid down by Kim Jong-il. Pete Kirill amplifies the polar disparities between capitalist imagery and dictatorial rhetoric in an aesthetic context; while such a complex issue of a largely unknown, highly unpredictable ruler of a concealed global presence is wholly impossible to encompass on a single canvas, Kirill unlocks the possibilities.