One Half Revolution and Everything Turns Red
With Andreas Gursky in North Korea
by Jan Schmidt-Garre, first published in Die Zeit, 15.2.2007
German version on waahr.de
Picture perfect. The May Day stadium in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. There, in the center balcony, under a ten meter high portrait of the country’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, and surrounded by 90,000 North Korean soldiers in uniform is a stranger – the photographer Andreas Gursky, who is pushing the vases under the photograph aside to get his cameras in better position. It’s his sixth time in the stadium. He has worked his way up, step by step, to this hallowed viewpoint, from which he has the best possible perspective of the spectacle below, of Arirang, a rhythmic gymnastics pageant, with over 100,000 participants the country’s largest mass event and which has an immense impact on the entire North Korean people.
We entered from China: Andreas Gursky, Philomene Magers, his dealer, and I. There are four flights to Pyongyang a week – two from Moscow, two from Beijing. At the Air Koryo gate, young Americans are fooling around and taking pictures of each other under the ‘Pyongyang’ LED screen to impress the folks back home. An Indian diplomat with a light blue United Nations passport is wearing a watch with two faces for two different time zones. A retired Sabena pilot wants one last flight on the aircraft he started his career on in the Sixties. A Dane collects the airplane safety cards that are in the back flap of every seat. The other passengers are all Chinese or Korean – from the North and the South. The North Korean government is making an exception to its travel restrictions for Arirang and is allowing Americans and South Koreans to visit. The music in the cabin is decidedly uplifting. Flight attendants with make-up as white as porcelain – with only eight flights a week, maybe the only ones in the country – are busy passing out sing-along sheet music with their white gloved hands. We are along for the ride. The aircraft is an IL-62. IL as in illusion?
At the Pyongyang airport, we deliver ourselves into the hands of our guides. Two interpreters and a driver. They will be sleeping in the room next to ours in the hotel. They will accompany us throughout the city, telling us about their country, translating, eating with us. Eating a lot. And drinking. Beers and shots. We hand them over our passports, tickets and cell phones for the duration of our stay and let ourselves lean back and bask in the delights of not being free.
Arirang tells the story of Korea, a story that we are told time and time again on our trip. Its beginnings long, long ago, then the great ahistorical leap into the 20th century, to the annexation by the Japanese. The Second World War. The division of the country, the establishment of a communist state in the north in 1948 by the great leader Kim Il-sung. The decades of growth. The years of famine in the 90s. A happy future. And the big dream of reunification. And this history lesson is recapitulated at every monument, every drive through the city and, every evening, at dinner. With the possible exception of Israel, North Korea stands alone in deriving its identity out of the highs and lows of its history. Only in the case of Israel, it started 3000 years ago with the flight from Egypt. The North Koreans, on the other hand, only seem to draw from the events of the past sixty years.
A giant hand rolls out a carpet of thousands of participants into the stadium. A collective turn and their color changes from blue to red. Another beat and the carpet separates into four squares, the squares become thin rectangles like those in the films of Hans Richter, to strips that finally meet as circles. We are watching the Asian heirs of Petipa’s ballerinas in Swan Lake and Busby Berkeley’s extravaganzas. Sure, Leni Riefenstahl’s parades, too, in Triumph of the Will. The choreography is held together by suggestive ultra-diatonic music on playback and given a context by the images created along the opposite 200 yard long side of the stadium. Twenty thousand school children between the ages of 13 and 15 open the large books on their laps with different colored pages to create enormous mosaics in Cinemascope. The images change with lightning speed: an old Korean village, a racing buckboard wagon with revolutionaries, a pistol, tractors, a dove of peace. To better show ‘the sunshine of the Korean people’, a few hundred children vibrate their books and the halo-like ring around the mosaic of Kim Il-sung glitters like gold. We watch these children leaving the stadium after the show: overexcited, exhausted, with big cotton bags for their books, stressed by the months of drilling and the rehearsals, but very proud to be a part of it.
High above, from the dignitaries balcony, the event below seems more two-dimensional: the participants and the background images melt into one. As always, Gursky is not satisfied until he’s found the spot from where the spectacle as a whole can become abstract in spite of the abundance of detail for which he is famous. He turned the stock market in Chicago into an all-over-painting by Pollock. A crowd of people at a techno rave became a cloud by Rothko, the race track in Bahrain an abstract painting by Motherwell. And all of a sudden, Arirang and its 100,000 participants remind us Gursky’s The Rhine, made ten years ago. Three monochrome strips. A horizontal Barnett Newman.
Soft music plays at every landmark in Pyongyang. At the Kim Il-sung statue, at the monument to the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the Party, at the memorial of the Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War, even at the house where Kim Il-sung was born, a farmhouse 10 kilometers out of town. We are always met by kind women in national dress who explain the monuments to us and tell us what to do. At the Kim Il-sung statue we buy flowers for two euros – foreigners never even see another currency – and lay them at the feet of the beloved leader. Of course we learn that the statue is the largest bronze in the world, the Arch of Triumph is larger than the one in Paris and that Arirang is the largest spectacle of all time. They like to boast in North Korea and their nuclear program should also be seen in that context.
The most important monument in the city is Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Our escorts rudely push aside a group of Koreans waiting in mourning clothes and lead us into the side wing of the palace. For twenty minutes, we glide on stainless steel moving sidewalks painted red and embedded in white marble to the main building, plenty of time to compose ourselves for our meeting with the beloved leader. Mourners head toward us and have a lot of time, also part of the overall stage direction here, to let what they’ve just experienced sink in. No one says a word, no one moves, no exchanges of glances. There follows a succession of purification and security stops: foot brushes, x-rays, metal detectors. We finally enter a long dark room and think we’re there. But the makers have built in yet another retarding moment, an anti-chamber at the end of which we are welcomed by a marble statue of Kim Il-sung – backlit and silhouetted in front of colored light. Here too, the soft music.
Before we’re allowed to enter the main chamber of the mausoleum, after a disinfecting wind tunnel, we receive instructions. We had already been told the previous evening: proper clothing – women dresses, men neckties. Now we have to file into a long line to step in front of the embalmed corpse. "Bow briefly, don’t linger and walk away." We try in vain to conform to the pace of the Koreans, taking measured steps, fluidly, without looking to either side. But we can’t, we’re so individualistic we’re disoriented. We’re loitering with no idea what to do with our limbs. The room is filled with a hushed, not immediately identifiable sound: the soft sobbing of Korean women lamenting the loss of their beloved leader. Is this staged, too? For us?
North Korean paranoia, in which nothing can appear to be what it is, is mirrored by the paranoia of the foreigners, to whom nothing here can really be as it seems. We suspect every pair of well-dressed lovers we see of being extras in the grand staging of a happy, prospering country. Shouldn’t we, instead of trying to find the North Korea that eludes us, be looking at the North Korea that is there? The magnificent facades, the bravado, the vanity we encounter – it all has a poignant side as well. As opposed to arrogance, which Western statesmen all have in common, vanity desires recognition from counterparts, and, in return, shows a certain respect and reveals a certain vulnerability.
Gursky uses 100 ASA Fuji film in two large format Linhof cameras that are positioned side by side, one with a slight wide angle lens, one with a standard lens. Exposure time 1/8 of a second, f-stop 5.6 to 8. He needs that for depth of field, the relatively low speed film for the resolution. There may be some occasional blurred movement but that is discarded later in the process. And he gains speed by underexposing the film stock one f-stop and has it developed using push processing. He has to know the performance’s sequence of events well to know when the short motionless moments come that he needs. He transports his equipment in a small, elegant Louis Vuitton suitcase. In the cool fall weather he wears a blue wool cap from Prada which he bought in the mall of the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. The Koreans are not cold in their short sleeve shirts. Andreas Gursky’s fame and financial success have given him the chance to get to know and love luxury but he’s still old school enough to lug his equipment around, drink with the best of them, make do with only a few hours of sleep and stay in cheap hotels. When loading and unloading the film, he barricades himself in the bathroom or a closet and we hold a mattress up to the crack to keep out the slightest bit of incidental light. The cold constructor of vast panoramas, whose lavish productions are always distilled to one or two pictures and whose catalog is correspondingly sparse, turns out to be a passionate picture taker. He snaps pictures everywhere, always on the lookout for locations and ideas for a piece. "It would be nice if I could get around to simply capturing landscapes on film again."
Nothing in North Korea is allowed to go wrong. Our minders do everything they can to facilitate our wildest desires and deviations in our itinerary even if that means long telephone conversations with ‘our company’ and hectic, behind the scenes reorganization. They make everything possible – like the slogan of the Royals: Never complain, never explain. Does the little bit of meat they try to pass off to foreigners as abundance have to be raced to another restaurant just because we, on a whim, change our plans? There it is again that paranoia-paranoia. But our change in restaurants is worth it. After the barbeque, the pretty waitresses in their pink dresses and white aprons and name tags go on stage and sing. On stage left and stage right, artificial sunflowers, in the middle a keyboard and a blue set of Yamaha drums. They sing Santa Lucia, O sole mio and Arirang. It’s so bizarre, so camp, so David Lynch that it’s almost impossible to handle.
It’s the dark of night in the performance, the sequence dealing with the annexation by Japan. A solitary spotlight breaks through the darkness and a star rises: the great leader Kim Il-sung. Applause. The simplicity of North Korean history, which even foreigners absorb in a very short time, makes identifying distressingly easy. After only a few days, just mentioning Paektu, the holy mountain where Kim Il-sung had his vision of the future of his people, brings tears to our eyes. It is almost impossible to imagine the extent to which this myth has become embedded in the consciousness of the North Koreans, who have heard nothing else since their childhoods. Those who could tell another version are long dead. The press, television, books are all censored. Access to the internet was canceled after a short trial run in 2004. People aren’t allowed to travel or phone and the few foreigners who visit the country have as good as no possibility to talk to the people. Even if we could, is there really such a great difference between the ‘people’ and our guides? Does our Western assumption that the oppressed masses are on the verge of rebelling – only held back by true believers like our guides – actually correspond with reality? Sure there’s dissatisfaction about the unjust distribution of the little food they have and the privileges of the elite, but a revolutionary consciousness, a realistic alternative – where would it come from?
Despite all the optimism, Arirang is a sad story, one that even we sophisticated westerners are moved by. Especially us Germans. It is the story of a separation. Rirang, a young man in mythical times, goes on a journey and leaves his beloved behind. A rich rival courts her but she remains faithful to her true love. Rirang returns, sees her with the admirer and leaves her. "Ah, Rirang!", she cries out after him. Today, Rirang is the south and the north the spurned beloved. The longing for reunification is the bitter counterpoint to North Korea’s success story we hear everywhere we go. Maybe it’s even an openly kept emotional outlet for a people otherwise brought up to have no wishes. As opposed to the GDR, here it is the country’s foremost official priority. There is a monument to reunification, there is Reunification Road, the road from Pyongyang to South Korea. In 1980, Kim Il-sung came up with a visionary multi-stage plan. The reunification had to happen independently, without the interference of foreign powers and peacefully. It would initially be the Democratic Confederation of Koryo – the country’s former, politically unencumbered, name – in which the two systems could co-exist. It would have open borders and Koreans in both countries would be able to decide in which system they would rather live. Further planning is not yet possible, he ends shrewdly. But that doesn’t mean it’s unattainable. "The last step will be the task of a future generation."
At the end of Arirang, the gymnasts form the outline of the Korean peninsula in the middle of the stadium. They are dressed in light blue, the color of the pan-Korean table tennis team, which was allowed to represent both countries at the Olympic games in Athens for the first time. The Koryo flag will also be light blue. And then comes a mosaic by the 20,000 school children: "We must be the ones to open the door to reunification."
As with the invisible stage direction in North Korea, Andreas Gursky is also not satisfied with reality as he encounters it. The many hundred exposures of Arirang are the raw material he will use to make his one picture of. Back in his studio, he makes large blow ups of the best shots and immerses himself in them until the first montage possibilities present themselves. "That strip between the field and the background disturbs the homogeneity. I want a flowing transition. Every square inch of the picture has to be justifiable." Computer layout sketches follow and finally the protracted work in the lab with a technician. Various chronological phases of the performance are combined and irritating elements removed. He works like a film director who condenses documentary footage in the editing process and, paradoxically, by means of manipulation and by what he personally brings to it, even increases and enhances the picture’s authenticity. Only with Gursky the result is a single and singular image.
The perfection that we witness in Arirang cannot be achieved individually. These aren’t performers in a stadium, they’re metal shavings being aligned by a magnet. The individual gives up his or her individuality – in society as in its symbol, Arirang – and subordinates it to the collective as personalized by Kim Il-sung. They are all his children, clay for the great sculptor. In the mass gymnastics, each individual is intended to physically experience his or herself as a minute part of a whole that is far greater than their insignificant individuality. And it is true that if only one gymnast turns in the wrong direction, the larger picture is marred. This leads to an anti-individual aesthetic: an artwork can only come about if I give myself up for it. The moment I resist, the moment I become recognizable in the sense of the modern aesthetic dogma of resistance, the work in the making is destroyed. In failing I reveal my individuality. And my individuality determines how I fail. Only the failure is mine. It’s like in music. Whenever conductors lose themselves in their music, consummate performances by Bernstein, Carlos Kleiber or Celibidache are (in that aesthetic sense) the same. But when their performances aren’t perfect, their individuality shines through. Bernstein becomes sentimental, Kleiber hectic and Celibidache didactical. But as long as they’re good, those characteristics are imperceptible.
"I never claim the picture is a depiction of reality", says Gursky. "It’s always a combination of invention and reality, an interpretation of reality. The impressions in your head get mixed up after one and a half hours of Arirang. A picture is not good because its subject is good, but because something has been made discernible. Something that gives the picture a direction. But I never give up the link to the documentary aspect of it." What happens when North Korean stage direction and Andreas Gursky’s collide? Maybe minus times minus this time equals plus in terms of the most authentic depictions that can be made of North Korean reality today.
Back in Germany we watch Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, shot in 1966, in the middle of the Cold War. The East Germany that Hitchcock shows is North Korea today. Pyongyang is not exotic geographically but timewise. We never had the feeling we were in a faraway country east of China. Everything seemed very familiar, like a faded memory that’s suddenly brought back. North Korea has no cultural treasures, no Angkor Wat, no Forbidden City. It is a parallel world to ours. And that, today, is truly exotic. What Hitchcock really gets across is how the American scientist, played by Paul Newman, feels in East Berlin. The friendly employees of the Ministry are always present, have already brought his luggage to the right place and reserved the table. "Our company", was the term used by Mr. Park in Pyongyang, who also took care of our departing flight check-in, gave us our cell phones back, collected the hotel keys. Everything is taken care of because everything is connected to everything else. Because it’s all one. Our company. Doesn’t take much getting used to. At the end of his book about his kidnapping, one of Germany’s wealthiest businessman wrote: "When life gets too hard and the difficulties make it not seem worth living, the wish can arise to have a chain around one’s ankle again and to be back in a small room that one knows far better than the world outside."