When confronted with the densely populated rectilinear grids of performers in Andreas Gursky's Pyongyang IV, it is immediately apparent why the human spectacle of North Korea's Arirang Festival should attract the lens of this modern master of photographic art practice. One of a series of five images that the artist made of this subject after a visit in 2007, Pyongyang IV examines the same formal themes of surface ornament and pattern that pervade many of his best works, but in an entirely different corner of our globalised society; North Korea, the last outpost of communist dictatorship, diametrically opposed to the turbo-capitalism that is the subject of such images as Chicago Board of Trade II and 99 Cents.
The festival, held annually to commemorate the birth of North Korea's former leader, Kim Il Sung, is recognised as the largest event of its kind in the world and is the showpiece of the country's maverick dictator, Kim Jong Il. In this painstakingly choreographed spectacle, tens of thousands of gymnasts, individually hand picked for their skill, execute with mechanical precision a sequence of synchronised moves which radiate waves of energy around the Rungrado May Day Stadium, the largest stadium of its kind in the world. In the background, thirty thousand strictly disciplined school children in white attire hold up sheets of paper of a different colour at the appointed time to create a succession of background images, each child an individual tile in a monumental human mosaic.
Pyongyang IV is the most intensely chromatic of the five images, in which Gursky's towering vertical format is brimming with row upon row of fuchsia-clad dancers, receding in horizontal waves away from the viewer. Although feminine, graceful and bearing pompoms not arms, the sheer number and military precision of this army of performers are a demonstration of political might. Despite the strong horizontals of the composition, the vertical lines created by the dancers' bodies and the diagonals created by perspective draw our eye towards the inflated globe in the middle distance, which shows a North Korea-centric perspective of our planet in which neither Europe nor the West feature. Recalling the carefully staged communist mass rallies advocated by Stalin and Mao, this ostensibly peaceful celebration contains the latent threat of the power of the masses. Like a microcosm of the communist ideal, each individual in the performance is subjugated to the overarching choreography, a cog in a well-oiled machine controlled by its totalitarian leader. There is no space for solo performances in this drama, no demonstration of individual skill in the western operatic and stage tradition. Instead, it is the immense uniformity and discipline of this teaming mass of bodies which is the true star of this stage show.
To eschew any potential political gloss, Gursky's photograph consciously avoids depicting portraits of Kim Il Sung, Korean slogans or propagandistic images of the happy proletariat which, in the course of the spectacle, variously appear on the human screen in the background. He says, "Pictures in which the propaganda is too obvious would not be suitable because they are far too narrative. I just want to show that this is a kind of ersatz religion, a staging of collective happiness, and how it looks." (the artist cited in Nina Zimmer, 'Pyongyang: A State of Exception' in Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, Kunstmuseum, Andreas Gursky, 2007-08, p. 73).
Instead, Gursky's camera focuses on the abstract patterns that underpin this event. In so doing, he continues his career-long investigation into the unconscious and collective patterns inherent to human activity. In his comparable images of dance halls and pop concerts in the West, Gursky reveals crowds of revellers united by music, each individual dancing spontaneously in the pursuit of leisure; in his ongoing depictions of stock exchanges from Tokyo to Chicago and more recently Kuwait, he reveals the frenzied patterns that unite traders the world over in the unbridled pursuit of wealth. While their outward appearance might vary, the differences in skin colour and national dress can barely disguise the overarching pattern which emerges from the collective human impulses which motivate each individual. In the Pyongyang cycle, by direct contrast, these patterns are not innate to the collective of individuals, instead they are the imposed on the individuals by the totalitarian regime. As a result, this is an anomaly in Gursky's oeuvre which turns his usual compositional model on its head. A history painter of our time, Gursky's photographs habitually lay bare the imperceptible patterns that imperceptibly permeate our globalised, capitalist age. In the Arirang Festival, he finds the perfect foil to those iconic tableaux of hyper capitalism which made his reputation. Here, consumer fetishism is supplanted by the military kitsch and the chaos of the trading floor is replaced by the grid-like precision of Arirang, which Matt Lippiatt describes as "more Gursky than Gursky" (Matt Lippiatt, 'Andreas Gursky: Pyongyang' in Flash Art, May/June 2007)
Paradoxically, instead of revealing the subconscious order that underlies chaotic human activity, in Pyongyang IV, Gursky draws our attention to the deviations that destabilise the ordered pattern. Despite the regimental precision of the composition from afar, as the viewer gets closer and is able to scrutinise Gursky's amazingly detailed image, the uniformity of the whole is interrupted by a handful of dancers who are out of synch with their neighbours: a few pompoms held too high or too low and a clique of errant gymnasts hastily rejoining the rank and file beneath the globe. In particular, Gursky could have chosen to depict in his image a perfect screen of red in the background, at a moment when every child in the stadium was holding their red page in perfect unison. He did not. Instead we see a screen of red punctuated by pockets of white, like white noise on a television screen or scrambled pixels in a digital image, where a few dozy schoolchildren have failed to raise their books at the appointed moment. What Gursky depicts in Pyongyang IV is the disintegration of the perfect ornament into myriad, potentially fallible individuals. In this sense his picture deconstructs the very perfection whose fascinating appeal it conveys but also, by extension, it reveals the fault lines in the communist societal ideal. In North Korea, Gursky found the binary opposite of capitalism; in Pyongyang IV he found its perfect artistic expression.
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