As US-North Korean tensions flare, Chinese artist He Xiangyu is focusing his lens on the individuals living on the Chinese-North Korean border.

Until recently, metal salvaging was a profitable business for North Koreans living along Yalu, the river separating North Korea from the Chinese town of Dandong. Bribes are doled out to government officials, and with help of soldiers, sacks of metal are transported across the Yalu river. While the renumeration is dependent on the weight of the sacks, on a good day, that can amount to thousands of dollars – enough for rent and meals for the whole family. Globalisation and political sanctions have inevitably put many smugglers out of business but there are still those willing to risk their lives for the trade.

Chinese artist He Xiangyu bought 248 of these metal scraps, before twisting, rolling and bending them into clusters or balls – as the smugglers needed to do. The process, documented in Evidence, and the results, are now on display as part of Evidence, the artist’s solo exhibition running until April 8 at White Cube Bermondsey. It’s not just metal that’s being smuggled along the China-North Korea border.


He Xiangyu, 2017. Copyright He Xiangyu Studio. Courtesy of White Cube.
He Xiangyu, 2017. Copyright He Xiangyu Studio. Courtesy of White Cube.

In another room, The Swim (2017) is a 96-minute video detailing the lives of various North Korean refugees in Kuandian, the artist’s hometown. There is the North Korean woman who was promised ‘better job prospects’ on the other side of the river, only to find that her trafficker had intended to sell her as a bride to an abusive Chinese husband, the family who paid $5000 to get an ID card for their North Korean daughter in law, only to have her file for a divorce and defect to South Korea afterwards.

We’re also introduced to retired Chinese soldiers who fought alongside the North Koreans during the Korean War. “She was so little. We took her into our division for a few weeks, then we had to send her away. What could we do? It was the war,” one former soldier recounts the time when his unit found a little girl and her deceased grandfather in a ‘Korean hut’.

He Xiangyu, The Swim, 2017. Still. Copyright He Xiangyu Studio. Courtesy White Cube.
He Xiangyu, The Swim, 2017. Still. Copyright He Xiangyu Studio. Courtesy White Cube.

Intercepting the testimonies are shots of the artist attempting to swim across the Yalu River to North Korea.

Based in Beijing and Berlin, He is known for his re-appropriation of social and material realities of well known industrial and capitalist imagery. Consider the Cola Project (2008), in which he worked with factory workers to boil 127 tonnes of cola into black sludge, and transforming part of it into Song dynasty-styled classical paintings, or the Tank project (2011-13), where he employed female needle workers to hand-stitch a Chinese military tank. Tongue-in-cheek critiques of contemporary society, Colaand Tank blur the line between our identity as consumer and producer of goods and popular imagery.

He Xiangyu, The Cola Project, WALL Art Museum, Beijing, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
He Xiangyu, The Cola Project, WALL Art Museum, Beijing, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

This delineation of borders perpetuate the new works at White Cube, be it very physical – yet by no means well-defined – border that exist between China and North Korea, or those living on the edge of society, dissatisfied with their living conditions yet remain stranded on the border for fear of deportation.

That sense of in-between-ness is bolstered by the fact that the identities of the North Korean interviewees are shrouded in mystery. “The research process and finding the most appropriate way to approach the interviewees was the hardest part,” says He. No names were revealed in the film, the voices were manipulated, and thick blurs were applied across the interviewees faces during the post-production process. Home interiors were also combined with “irrelevant exteriors”.

Yet, when asked if he feels that Kuandian is a place of nowhere, He says, “it’s my hometown. They are places with a clear identity in both a geographical and spiritual sense.” The artist’s emotional connection with Kuandian inevitably comes into play. Rather than enlist outside help (as in the case of Cola and Tank), He takes a starring role in both The Swim and Evidence.

He Xiangyu, ‘Evidence’, White Cube Bermondsey. 7 February – 8 April 2018. Photo by Ollie Hammick. Courtesy of He Xiangyu and White Cube.

But The Swim also feels a tad more tentative, with the distance between the artist and the interviewees deliberately maintained. Tales of despair run through the film, but rather than dwell on sentiments, the film leans towards the factual, with testimonies intercepted by calming shots of swimmers and Changbei mountains.

Parallels can be drawn between the metal replicas and the artist’s attempt to swim across Yalu River, with both concerning artist’s effort to replicate what these North Koreans experienced, and subsequently revealing the futility of these endeavours. But perhaps that’s the point. Nobody could ever really put oneself in the interviewees’ shoes, but what He did was to create memories of his own, memories of the encounters he had with various interviewees. And that perhaps, is the closest that the artist – and us viewers, through our encounter with the video in the gallery – will ever get to the traumatic memories endured by the interviewees.