Art museum

Unimaru: The art museum between North Korea and South Korea where the curator wears a bulletproof vest

(CNN) — Art has always had the power to be dangerous. But a recently opened art museum takes that to another level.

It’s Unimaru’s location that makes it dangerous. The museum rests on the DMZ, or Korean Demilitarized Zone, a no-man’s land along the 38th parallel that separates North and South Korea.

Its inaugural exhibition, titled “2021 DMZ Art and Peace Platform”, featured 34 works by 32 artists and opened in September 2021.

“Elephant Cart” is a work by Nam June Paik, the late Korean-American artist considered the founder of the video art movement.

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Before becoming a museum, Unimaru was a clearance center, where visitors went through security screening before being allowed to visit the DMZ from 2003 to 2007. This was later replaced by a larger office.

The building sat empty until early 2021, when architecture firm MPART – which also designed the National Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul – reinvented it as Unimaru. The name of the museum is a portmanteau of two Korean words: “uni,” which means one, and “maru,” which means space.

Its roof has been opened up so visitors can better see the view and a steel facade “that represents the liminality of time and space at the DMZ,” according to a statement from the museum.

For security and coronavirus reasons, the number of visitors is intentionally reduced.

A maximum of five tour groups per day, with a maximum of 30 people per group, was allowed when the museum was open. Now Unimaru is on hiatus as he mounts his next exhibition.

People wishing to visit must seek permission from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) – the official government body that promotes the reunification of the Koreas and dialogue between the two countries.

Once approved, they receive a free ticket to Unimaru and can board one of the special buses licensed to transport civilian guests to the DMZ.

On the left you can see the mural by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč "What is the DMZ floor made of?"

On the left you can see the mural “What Is DMZ Soil Made Of?” by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč.

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After checking their IDs, guests are escorted through the museum by guides and MOU staff members. These MOU personnel are civilians and do not carry weapons.

All visitors to the DMZ must abide by a dress code that prohibits miniskirts, shorts, and anything with a camouflage print.

They are not allowed to wave at anyone they might see or take pictures of anything without permission, just in case they run into any security issues.

Children under 8 are also excluded from the DMZ, regardless of their country of origin.

In 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean President Kim Jong Un held an inter-Korean summit meeting at the “House of Peace” in Panmunjom in the DMZ.

Technically, the two nations are still at war, but during the meeting, Moon and Kim agreed to move forward toward a formal end to their conflict. The agreement also stipulated that the two countries would remove weapons, guards and landmines from the Joint Security Area (JSA).

It was the departure of guards from some of the military watchpoints that allowed Unimaru to display artwork on a redeveloped former guard tower just a mile from the border.

Yeon Shim Chung, artistic director of UniMaru, told Artnet that she or other museum staff wear bulletproof vests as a precaution when they go to install exhibits there.
The exterior of Unimaru.

The exterior of Unimaru.

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Works by South Korean and international artists are exhibited at Unimaru.

However, one of the most striking installations is an empty frame that represents the place where the museum hopes to one day display works by North Korean artists.

The JSA, or Panmunjom, is probably the most well-known location along the DMZ due to its recognizable bright blue conference hall, which is the area’s most visited attraction.

Former US President Bill Clinton called the DMZ “the scariest place in the world” after a state visit in 1993.

Panmunjom tours resumed on November 30, after being suspended in July as South Korea tightened its Covid-19 restrictions.