Contemporary Art Day Auction

Contemporary Art Day Auction

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 637. Pyongyang III.

Lot Closed

July 1, 01:30 PM GMT


250,000 - 350,000 GBP

Lot Details


Andreas Gursky

b. 1955

Pyongyang III

signed on a label affixed to the reverse 

c-print face mounted to Plexiglas, in artist’s frame

overall: 207.7 by 422.2 cm. 81⅝ by 166¼ in.

Executed in 2007, this work is number 5 from an edition of 6.

White Cube, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Executed in 2007, Andreas Gursky’s Pyongyang III examines the familiar themes of structure and pattern that pervade the artist’s best works, however the present work delves into a more mysterious and distant corner of our globalised society. Part of a series of five images depicting the human spectacle of the Arirang Festival in North Korea in 2007, the present work draws our attention to the breaches that destabilise the political order. Whilst Gursky’s previous work focuses on the hypercapitalism of the West, the Pyongyang series captures a dramatic display from the last outpost of communist dictatorship. Few artists have captured a cultural generation or mindset within the statement of a single series as successfully as Gursky. Throughout his varied and celebrated ouevre, his photographs have achieved monumental status by combining powerful surface aesthetics with awe-inspiring beauty to capture all aspects of humanity, in all its peculiarity and glory.

Held to commemorate the birth of North Korea's former leader, Kim Il Sung, the Arirang Festival is recognised as the largest mass participation event of its kind in the world. Designed to celebrate the sporting and cultural prowess of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the spectacle of watching thousands of individuals moving in perfect harmony is touted by the country’s rulers as a sign of the people’s happiness and love of their leadership. Gursky's image perfectly captures the inherent contradictions that surround the event, namely the beauty of the event's execution, yet simultaneously the suffocating totalitarianism of the regime behind it. However, 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.

Instead, Pyongyang III masterfully captures a sea of performers holding pompoms overhead with meticulous precision, showcasing the might and discipline of the communist rule. In this laboriously choreographed pageant, tens of thousands of gymnasts, hand selected for their skill, execute with mechanical accuracy a sequence of synchronised dances which radiate waves of energy around the Rungrado May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world. Behind the dancers, thirty thousand strictly disciplined school children are elevated on a podium. Following strict pre-arranged choreography, the children are called upon to turn over a series of cards to reveal a succession of patriotic symbols and slogans. When viewed from a distance, these images have a profound and powerful effect; their composition made up of thousands of individual human components that remain anonymous, all subservient to the collective power of the State.

A student of documentary photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher at the Staatliche Kunstakadmie in Dusseldorf during the 1980s, Gursky often approaches his subjects with a central viewpoint from an elevated position. When paired with the detail-rich, high-resolution intensity in Pyongyang III, this perspective serves to underscore the dissonant relationship between the intricate movements of each individual and the abstract, complex patterns formed by the whole. It is through Gursky’s signature God’s-eye perspective and elevated vantage point position that the viewer may encounter and enter the scene, encompassing both centre and periphery through an imposing large scale panoramic view.

Indeed, Gursky’s camera focuses on the abstract patterns that underpin this monumental event. In so doing, the artist 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 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 series, 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 in which the consumer fetishism is supplanted by the military kitsch and the chaos of the trading floor is replaced by the grid-like precision of Arirang.

A history painter of our time, Gursky's photographs habitually lay bare the imperceptible patterns that imperceptibly permeate our globalised, capitalist age.