March 5, 2016 - Pyongyang Reading Room - Sara van der Heide: The German Library Pyongyang
March 5, 2016

Pyongyang Reading Room

Sara van der Heide, The German Library Pyongyang, Guangzhou, China, 2015.

Sara van der Heide
The German Library Pyongyang
December 11, 2015–April 10, 2016

Updated website launch: March 5, includes “Critical Reflections” by Gabriele Stötzer, Kyungman Kim and Anselm Franke, among others

The German Library of the Goethe-Institut
Sun Yat-Sen Library of the Province of Guangdong, 2nd floor
213 Wenming Road
510110 Guangzhou

From December 11, 2015 to April 10, 2016 the German Library in Guangzhou, China becomes The German Library and Information Centre Pyongyang, a reimagining of an initiative of the Goethe-Institut that originally operated in North Korea between 2004 and 2009. This temporal intervention by Sara van der Heide is an imaginary transformation of the current geography of the German Library in Guangzhou.

The German Library Pyongyang is an itinerant library conceived by South Korean/Dutch artist Sara van der Heide, initiated in 2013, and taking place at various Goethe-Institut locations worldwide.(1) The first intervention was hosted at the Goethe-Insitut Amsterdam. The second iteration of The German Library Pyongyang has been conceived for the 1st Asia Biennial / 5th Guangzhou Triennial 2015–16, and involves a library exhibition and a seminar that brings together several artistic methods and points of view, reflecting on the presence of the original library in Pyongyang.

The year 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the unification treaty between East and West Germany. Until today Korea is still divided in two: North and South Korea. “We are undertaking a risky experiment, because we want to be the first ones there when your country opens up." With these words, Jutta Limbach, the former president of the Goethe-Institut, opened the Office for German Academic and Technical Publishing at the Goethe-Institut’s Information Centre Pyongyang in secluded Communist North Korea on June 2, 2004. The library’s contents were negotiated over a two-year period, with the North Korean government pressing for academic literature on science, technology, and medicine, while the Goethe-Institut maintained that 50 percent of the books should pertain to German culture, language, literature, and music. The Goethe-Institut not only believed that Germany could be an example for Korea in the unification process, but also that through Bach and German literature, Germany could contribute eventually in uniting the two Koreas. This extraordinary initiative was perhaps bound to fail, and eventually the library would exist no more than five years.

Due to its reclusive politics, communication between North and South Korea is minimal. For example, there is intranet in North Korea, but no internet connectivity with the rest of the world. Therefore, today’s understanding of North Korea is deeply influenced by foreign powers and especially by the United States. Currently, the United States still maintains a military base in South Korea, while Korea’s history is already marked by foreign rule in the past and especially Japanese colonization. After decades of Japanese occupation, the Korean War started, which in North Korea is referred to as “The Fatherland Liberation War;” in China the conflict is officially called “War to Resist Aggression from the United States of America and Aid Korea.” Kim II-Sung, the first leader of North Korea, was one of the key figures in fighting against Japanese occupation and American authority. Pride in its autonomy and resistance toward American influence are still the major pillars of North Korean society today.

Van der Heide's German Library Pyongyang project is a contemporary version of the Goethe-Institut’s original library initiative in North Korea, devised as a vessel to discuss national cultural policy in a post-Cold War and postcolonial era that looks critically toward the parallel histories of Germany and the two Koreas. The cultural program conducted by the artist invites discussion that spurns the dissolution of the grand modern narratives of capitalism and Communism. The German Library Pyongyang offers a space for critical questions, but it also functions as a context for transcending thinking that is prescribed by the lines of the nation state, language and geography. The several subtle artistic, linguistic, and graphic interventions in the library merge with the continuing activities of the German learning center in Guangzhou, only that all institutional printed matter in Chinese is replaced by Korean. During the seminar that took place on December 13, 2015, the wish for peace and unification between North and South Korea were discussed through various artistic presentations and forms.

The German Library Library is a project by Sara van der Heide. With contributions by, among others:

Chan-Kyong Park, born 1965, Seoul, lives in Seoul; artist, filmmaker
Chang-ho Choi, born 1960, Onseong, North Korea, lives in Pyongyang, North Korea; artist, head of Mansudae Art Studio, Pyongyang
Chen Tong, born 1962, Hunan Province, lives in Guangzhou, China; artist, founder of the Borges Libreria Institute for Contemporary Art, Guangzhou
Ding Liu, born 1976, Changzhou, China, lives in Beijing; artist
Dongyoung Lee, born 1981, Daegu, South Korea, lives in Amsterdam; designer
Egon Hanfstingl, born in 1960, Hilden, Germany, lives in Hallum, the Netherlands; artist, cook
Gabriele Gauler, born in Germany, lives in Hong Kong; director Goethe-Institut Hong Kong
Gabriele Stötzer/Kunstlerinnengruppe Erfurt, born 1953, Erleben, Germany, lives in Erfurt, Germany; artist, cofounder Women Artist Group Erfurt
Hans Haacke, born 1936, Cologne, lives in New York City; artist
Hyunjin Kim, born 1975, Daejon, South Korea, lives in Seoul; author, curator
Janet Grau, born 1964, Cleveland, USA, lives in Heidelberg, Germany; artist
Kristian Johansen, born 1987, Copenhagen, lives in London; web designer
Kyungman Kim, born 1972, Seoul, lives in Seoul; filmmaker
Louwrien Wijers, born 1941, Aalten, lives in Ferwert, the Netherlands; artist, writer
Rory Pilgrim, born 1988, Bristol, UK, lives in Amsterdam; artist, composer
Sara van der Heide, born 1977, Busan, South Korea, lives in Amsterdam; artist
Sora Kim, born 1965, Seoul, lives in Seoul; artist
Stefan Dreyer, born 1958, Singen, Germany, lives in Seoul; director Goethe-Institut Seoul

On December 13, 2015 a seminar took place with conversations, cooking performances, music and screenings.

Artist-curator of The German Library Pyongyang: Sara van der Heide
Chief curator of the 1st Asia Biennial / 5th Guangzhou Triennial: Henk Slager

Contactinfo [​at​]

(1) A significant part (more than one-fifth) of the German Federal Foreign Office budget for 2013, of around 800 million euros, was spent on cultivating cultural relations abroad. Since WWII, Germany has worked actively on promoting a positive image across the globe and opened 160 Goethe-Institutes—cultural institutes offering German culture and language—in 96 countries. Since 2004, China has established around 500 Confucius Institutes—Chinese learning centers—abroad, funded by the Chinese government. 

Pyongyang Reading Room
Share - Sara van der Heide
The German Library Pyongyang
  • Share