Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg
The National Museum of Art, Osaka
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2008
Held to commemorate the birth of North Korea's former leader, Kim Il Sung, this festival is recognised as the largest event of its kind in the world. In this painstakingly choreographed pageant, tens of thousands of gymnasts, individually handpicked 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 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. Although feminine and graceful, bearing pompoms and not weapons, the sheer number and military precision of this army of performers are a demonstration of political might. 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 the 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" (Andreas Gursky quoted by Nina Zimmer, 'Pyongyang: A State of Exception' in: Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, Andreas Gursky, 2007-08, p. 73). Instead, Gursky's camera focuses on the abstract patterns that underpin the 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 cultural differences can barely disguise the overarching pattern which emerges from the collective human impulses that motivates each individual. In the Pyongyang cycle, by direct contrast, these patterns are not innate to the collective, instead they are the imposed on the individuals by the totalitarian regime. This is an anomaly in Gursky's oeuvre which turns his usual compositional model on its head. 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', Flash Art, May-June 2007, p. 132).
Instead of revealing the subconscious order that underlies chaotic human activity, in Pyongyang V, Gursky draws our attention to the deviations that destabilise the ordered pattern. Despite the regimental precision of the composition from afar, as the viewer closely scrutinises Gursky's intricately detailed image, the uniformity of the whole is interrupted by a handful of dancers who are out of sync with their neighbours. What Gursky latently suggests is the disintegration of the perfect ornament into myriad, potentially fallible components and in so doing provides an expertly detached commentary on the communist political ideal.
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