Dr. George Rivera is no stranger to conflict zones. In fact, he seeks them out. He has traveled all over the world, to places like Bosnia, Colombia, Mexico, and Palestine. He’s been threatened by Border Patrol. He’s been shot at by Israelis. He’s been scared for his life. And he’s done it all in the name of art.
In 1996, the University of Colorado Boulder art professor founded a local collective called Artnauts, comprised of socially conscious artists committed to addressing global issues around the world. Since then, Rivera has made hundreds of international trips bringing Colorado art to to some of the most distressed corners of the world.
This week, Rivera is embarking on a new, ever-timely adventure: He’s bringing 117 works of local art to the DMZ Museum in South Korea, just three miles south of the demilitarized zone at the North Korean border. Rivera commissioned an exhibition called “Liminal Space,” which he says means “the space between.” In this case, the space between is the demilitarized area between North and South Korea. “I wanted to transcend the wall,” he says. “We’re trying to address the humanity in human beings, what we have in common as human beings. This is an opportunity to try to discuss that.”
This opportunity may not have emerged if not for Joo Yeon Woo, a Korean-American member of the Artnauts who brought the idea to Rivera’s attention. Rivera had never traveled to Korea, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to negotiate for an exhibition in the DMZ Museum on his own. Woo handled the logistics with the South Korean government and the museum directors. Ultimately, the museum approved the exhibition under one condition: Rivera would have to send photos of every piece of art so that they could be screened by museum officials. “I thought they were going to censor some of it,” Rivera says. “But they accepted it all. I was shocked.”
His shock makes sense given how pointed some of the art is. “Some of it is critical of what’s going on in North Korea,” he says. “Some of it is more metaphorical. But some is more explicit.” Each of the 47 Artnauts who worked on this project produced two pieces that will be displayed side-by-side at the museum. Some of those juxtaposed pieces are politically charged. For instance, Dennis Dalton, one of the founding members of the Artnauts, produced two lithograph prints: One of a smiling South Korean President Moon Jae-in with Olympic rings in the background; the other features a stoic-looking North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un with a nuclear missile launching behind him (photos below).
The fact that President Donald Trump traveled to Singapore last week for a historic meeting with Kim Jong-un has produced more buzz around Rivera’s project, he admits, but the timing wasn’t planned. It’s something Rivera considers a happy coincidence—one that has made a lot more people pay attention to Colorado artists. He also sees the DMZ exhibition as a more authentic mission than that of the American president. “There’s a whole nebulous of negativity in [Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un],” Rivera says. “But we artists, we come with a whole nebulous of positivity.” Rivera also says Trump went into that meeting with a lot of baggage, “but we’re going with a bag of art.”
Included in that “bag of art” will be work from undergraduate students at the University of Colorado, as well. Twenty-three of Rivera’s students—including two Korean-Americans—produced work for the Liminal Spaces exhibit. Additionally, Yong Soon Min, a well-known Korean-American artist, will join Rivera’s exhibition and bring some of her own work to the DMZ Museum.
Woo, the co-curator of Liminal Space, and four other Artnauts are traveling with Rivera to South Korea (they left on Tuesday) to set up the exhibit. The art will be on display from June 22 until December.