Nick Bonner rubs his hands together and grins with enthusiasm, and perhaps a little mischief too. He is in London, into his second day of press briefings, and before talking to Asia Times, Bonner has been live on the British Broadcasting Corporation and Sky News, has been interviewed by Reuters TV and has talked to various members of the UK national press.
He is about to head to a Q&A session – he will be the one answering the questions – and tomorrow he is getting a visit from – who else but – the North Korean Embassy.
A kookily full diary indeed but, despite the schedule, this jaunty 56-year-old Beijing resident remains full of anecdotes, verve and wide smiles. He is, clearly, enjoying himself.
Why all the interest? Bonner is in London launching his exhibition. It’s called “Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life in the DPRK,” and the “North Korea” in the title provides interest enough for the Western media it seems.
But, says Bonner, many don’t understand the “everyday” part in the title. “Some just don’t get that this really is an exhibition about everyday items. They think it must be political. They want it to be political.” Bonner throws his head back in mock anguish and laughs.
Originally from England, Bonner has lived in China since the early 1990s and has been visiting North Korea, as a tour guide, pretty much on a monthly basis, he says, for 25 years.
The exhibition – an absorbing eclectic and colorfully kitsch assortment of propaganda posters, ticket stubs, comic books and product labels – is made up of items he has collected on some of his hundreds of visits to Pyongyang.
“If you are into graphic design, they really are beautiful,” says Bonner. “And initially I was collecting them for this, for the design … but I also started collecting them as mementos.”
He then darts across the largest of the three exhibition rooms and points to a ticket stub for the 2003 Pyongyang Mass Games. “This was from the first performance of two teenage gymnasts. We had filmed them for months for a documentary we made called A State of Mind. So it’s personal, too.”
Nick Bonner, you soon learn, is not just a tour guide. After studying and teaching Landscape Architecture in the UK, he visited Asia, liked it, and secured work lecturing at a university in Beijing. He visited North Korea soon after and then formed Koryo Tours with a friend in 1993.
The company has since taken tens of thousands of visitors to Pyongyang while also helping with a string of other cultural and sporting collaborations that include working on the award-winning Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale, helping establish the Pyongyang Marathon and getting Western films, including those British cultural icons Bend It Like Beckham and Mr Bean, aired in North Korean cinemas and on state television.
In total, Bonner has helped with three documentaries. As well as A State of Mind, there was in 2002 The Game of Their Lives, about the seven surviving members of the North Korea soccer team who played in the 1966 World Cup; and in 2006 Crossing the Line about US Army soldier James J Dresnok, who defected to North Korea in 1962. There’s a full-length feature film too, the zany 2012 Comrade Kim Goes Flying, which has been dubbed North Korea’s first “girl power” movie.
In North Korea this commendably haphazard body of work has made him something of a celebrity, but in South Korea he is viewed, perhaps understandably, with more suspicion. “The South Koreans cannot believe there is no hidden agenda,” he says, still with a smile. “They just can’t believe it just is what it is.”
And the “it,” says Bonner, is primarily about engagement. “For me, it has always been about engagement that goes both ways,” he says as he interlocks his fingers together then apart then together again, for emphasis.
Bonner says he reckons he has been to North Korea more than any other foreigner. He points to the collection of food-can wrappers, cigarette packets, postage stamps and more. “I have worked with some of these artists on projects in Korea and they are massively talented. They have a great understanding of aesthetics and color balances.
“With the propaganda posters, the artists are not allowed to express themselves. The posters are for the state. They are very controlled, very Confucian. But these,” he points to the product packaging again. “Here the artists are doing their best work. It’s all about the joy of design. It’s frivolity in a country that doesn’t do frivolity.”
He says he didn’t realize, as he was collecting this assortment, how in totality it showed the changes that North Korea has witnessed.
“For me, this is about graphics, but I began to realize that behind it is also the story of Korea and a story of development. The big change is 2002. Partly that is due to the advent of digital technology, but also it is an economic change. It’s when Kim Jong-il started saying it is not vulgar to make money. Before there would be a tin of meat and the design was for information. This is a tin serving meat. But after 2002, it became promotion. And you can clearly see that.”
Today Bonner says there is a growing middle class in Pyongyang and again the packaging shows their needs and desires. “Pyongyang has changed drastically, and a lot of the products you find there now,” he says as he points out a collection of different candy wrappers, “are no different from those you would see in Hong Kong or Tokyo.”
A book of Bonner’s collection – with the same title as the exhibition – was published in late 2017, and he says he would now like to take the display to more countries. “Hopefully the States. I am working on the States.” And with that, the enigmatic whirlwind that is Nick Bonner says his polite goodbyes and is gone.
“Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK” runs until May 13 at the House of Illustration in Granary Square, King’s Cross, London.