Life in the Shadow of Monuments: Philippe Chancel’s North Korea

I wrote this piece for the Photographers’ Gallery in London a few years ago. Philippe Chancel’s images of North Korea can be seen here.

What would utopia look like? Whatever answer comes to mind, it is surely not the Democratic Republic of North Korea, a land which – for almost sixty years – has lived under the austere rule of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. It is a country blighted by torture and militarism, paranoia and denunciation, and, in recent years, famine and grinding poverty. Yet, this question is not illegitimate. After all, North Korea still stakes a claim on a communist future. ‘We live in paradise’ is a much-trumpeted slogan of the Korean Worker’s Party. In the long, spotless avenues of Pyongyang and the gleaming marble walls and floors of monumental public buildings like the Grand People’s Study House in the capital, one can still trace a reflection of the Enlightenment dream of the perfect city and, of course, the perfect citizen. This vision lies buried under the debris of the cult of personality, socialist realism and the other Stalinist paraphernalia to which North Korea is remains attached long after they were abandoned elsewhere.  Under the governing ideology of self-reliance or as ‘Juche’ as it is known, it is still claimed that man will fashion a perfect world with his own hands. Kim Il-sung’s adaptation of Stalinism, Juche guides the nation on the path towards utopia by denying any corrupting influence from abroad. It is, in fact, a form of xenophobia which justifies  the excessive military spending to which North Korea is committed.

To which North Korea was Philippe Chancel drawn? To utopia or hell? Best known for his intimate portrait studies of famous artists and art collectors, the French photographer has a flair for connecting the interior space of the studio or the home with that of the mind.[1] These images offer insights into the imaginations of the rich and prodigiously talented. North Korea, a truly Orwellian state, would hardly appear to be likely subject matter for this kind of psychological investigations. This is, after all, a country where people live their masks. Although 250,000 people have reportedly fled Kim Jong-il’s paradise in the last decade, this haemorrhage is never acknowledged officially. What is perhaps more disturbing is that the handful of tourists, writers and film makers who have been there often remark on the apparent sincere and unswerving faith that the North Koreans appear to have in the Kim dynasty. But, of course, their lives are bounded by dogma from the moment they wake to broadcast music to the compulsory study and criticism sessions which fill their evenings. Life follows a regimented course. Young men are channelled into national service until the age of 28 when they are permitted to marry, usually to someone selected by the Party. Children are cared for in communal nurseries to allow mother and father to devote their waking hours to work and study. The nation, it seems, has replaced the family as the chief social unit. In 2005 Chancel toured North Korea to record the effects of ideology on life in the last Stalinist state. The results are a remarkable and, in their glossy aestheticism, sometimes disconcerting set of images. 

In his recent book, North Korea (2006) Chancel makes it very clear that he was not a free agent during his travels there. The opening image in this study, taken on his arrival at Pyongyang airport, is of a sinister figure training a video camera on the French photographer. The point is clear: the observer is going to be observed throughout his tour of the country. Chancel’s North Korean images are clearly determined by the limits of licensed tourism which the state now permits. He records hotel bedrooms, public monuments, museums, railway stations and restaurants. He photographs his tour guides, serious-faced young women in traditional dress. The North Korean countryside – which according to most accounts operates like gulag – is unrecorded, unseen. When periodically the country faces natural disasters like the severe flooding in Songchon county in the summer of 2006 which resulted in the deaths of up to 10,000 people and the misery of homelessness for many more, the authorities have typically rejected charitable offers of help from abroad. But Chancel is not Sebastião Salgado or W. Eugene Smith, committed to recording lives lived in poverty or facing tragedy. He is fascinated with the forces that arrange this orderly society. Centred and carefully framed to emphasise the effects of linear perspective, Chancel’s photographs amplify the political aesthetics of North Korean communism. The long, empty vistas stretching into the horizon point to some impossible future whilst every interior appears to be arranged to lead the eye to the twin portraits of the Kims which gaze down from the wall. The epitome of this effect is seen in the Arirang Spring Festival, the mass gymnastic spectacle in which thousands of uniformed North Koreans perform precise movements in huge stadiums. The ‘audience’ in the stands overlooking the parade grounds form a vivid backdrop, producing propaganda slogans and enormous rippling images of scenes from North Korean history by holding colourful sheets from a book over their heads. The event is organised for one sovereign viewer, the Dear Leader as Kim Jong-il calls himself. The laws of projection at the Festival are not just visual: they are ideological. In capturing this event from this centric point, Chancel puts us – the viewer of his photographs – in the supreme position of dictator, a disquieting effect.

The viewer searches for cracks in Chancel’s photographs; for chinks which might cast light into the terrible conditions which prevail in North Korea. After all, no viewer can approach his images in innocence: we should know that the reign of Kim Il-sung  and his son, Kim Jong-il, have brought starvation and ruin to this country. Roland Barthes, in his brilliant account of photographs and their effects, Camera Lucida, described this kind of desire as the search for a ‘subtle beyond’. Of the ‘punctum’, the searing detail which rears out of the photograph, he wrote, it is ‘as if the image launch[es] desire beyond what it permits us to see.’[2] In the serene faces of the guides and gendarmes who marshal Chancel’s tour of the country, one expects to catch a contortion which might point to sadness; in the orderly streets, one anticipates finding a sign of the disintegration of the country. But no such ‘beyonds’ are to be found. Not only has, it seems, his subject-matter been carefully delimited by his guardians, Chancel’s principle photographic methods – which capture the scene in full, steady light and often with symmetrical composition – cannot capture any parapraxes.

Something of this effect can, however, be traced through allegory. In a large number of his images, Chancel pays particular attention to the strange museal sensibility which has spread into North Korea like rigor mortis into a corpse. Museums and public buildings are decorated with triumphs of the taxidermist’s art. Some of these animals have political pedigrees. They include two giant pike caught by Kim Jong-il as a young man which sit side-by-side like the official portraits of father and son that dominate every public space. Similarly, the clean and pressed military uniforms worn by Kim Il-sung and his wife during the War of Liberation in the 1940s are preserved in matching vitrines in the Museum of the Revolution. Such relics draw Chancel’s allegorical imagination. History – in the sense of turbulent events in which the future is contested – is over in North Korea. It has been replaced by mythology, in which all events have to be harmonised with a master narrative, the life of the ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il-sung, and his family. In its most extreme enunciation, the 1998 Constitution, the father of the nation, already dead for four years, was proclaimed ‘supreme eternal leader.’ In Chancel’s images, North Korea is preserved in embalming fluid, just like Kim Il Sung corpse in Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Society and its dead leader, in his allegorical vision, are conjoined by what Olivier Richon has called ‘the mineral reality of death.’[3]

In a land where the dead can rule the living, people can seem like shadows or ghosts. Characteristically, Chancel counterposes ordinary citizens with their ideal images. In one shot, children – dressed in a uniform which echoes that of the Soviet pioneers – march past the Mansudae Grand Monument. Their steps echo, but fail to match, those of the massive bronze figures on the plinth representing the construction of socialism. In another photograph, hunched figures bustling past the Pyongyang Grand Theatre on their way to work or perhaps to a compulsory study session are watched by a painting of a jubilant crowd attached to its facade. The gulf between the ideal and the real is obvious and brutal. Perfection is an impossible ideal. Nothing that lives can be faultless in this way. Most of Chancel’s images generate a sense of disconnection, an effect which is consistent whether they are full or empty of people. He captures, for instance, the unswerving attention with which the traffic police guard their positions like human traffic lights on the six-lane avenues in Pyongyang. Yet there is no traffic. Even the most crowded images in Chancel’s North Korean portfolio, recording the thousands of performers at the Arirang Spring Festival, point to the alienating effects of this North Korean utopia. The individual disappears into what Siegfried Krakauer famously called the ‘mass ornament’.[4] Chancels images form a unique record of anomie, the breakdown of the social body. They testify to the irrationalism of an ideology which claims to derive its logic in order; and, above all, to the tyranny which follows from the pursuit of utopia.


The image shows the ‘Opening of Paris-Photo, digital photographs by Phillipe Chancel, gallerie Anne de Villepoix’ by Colodio (flickr/Creative Commons license)


[1] See Philippe Chancel, Regards d’Artistes (Continents Éditions 2005) and Susanne Van Hagen, Irène Gludowacz, Philippe Chancel, Chercheurs d’Art: 22 Collectionneurs au Service de l’Art (Somogy, 2005).

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1984) 57-9.

[3] Olivier Richon, ‘Thinking Things’ in David Green, ed., Where is the Photograph? (Photoforum, 2003) 79.

[4] Siegfried Krakauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’ (1927) in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (1995).


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