Art review: Photographer Watanabe Finds Cracks in N. Korean Facade
by D.K. Row
Sunday January 06, 2008, 4:56 PM
How apt that
because there may be poorer, more volatile places in this world, but none is as
strangely tyrannized, locked in a foggy, fixed bubble as this
trapped-in-time perspective offers a dramatic springboard from which to
Watanabe's photos of
Many journalists have tried to pull away the
thought-control curtain veiling
division was preceded by 35 years of often vicious Japanese occupation, a fact
not lost on Watanabe, who was born in
After reading reports of North Koreans kidnapping foreigners and turning them into spies, as well as stories of the country's starving population, Watanabe was simply curious -- he wanted to know more about this isolated, undernourished "axis of evil."
"I try to find something that I don't understand," Watanabe says about how he chooses his projects. "That's what drives me."
many outsiders who travel to
"Once, I left my hotel room, but then someone came out and followed me," Watanabe says. "So they were watching me all the time."
The North Koreans, Watanabe says, wanted to counter media stories of epic famine, nuclear threats and human rights abuses. So, on his two visits, he glimpsed state-run hospitals, schools, subways and more. This was the ideal of order where everyone achieves a common good and praise is always reserved for the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, whose omnipresent visage looms on posters like a subversive camera tuned to 24 hour-a-day surveillance. This despite the fact that Kim died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.
It's a puzzling utopia of regularity that embodies what philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote: "Perfection is the greatest enemy of good."
An almost Victorian-esque image of a group of students, for instance, captures the cult of uniformity that directs this lost kingdom. Walking against a landscape of dreary clouds and midcentury architectural ugliness, everyone seems to wear the same dark suit, with the only shards of individuality being their respective gaits and postures and the varying degrees to which a glinty white shirt cuff inches past the sleeves of dark jackets.
as it might be, Watanabe doesn't want to capture a one-dimensional
That connection, or desire for connection, is what prevails in Watanabe's pictures. A young boy wearing a uniform salutes and squeaks out a goofy smile while a fly perches on his stiff, saluting hand. Two utterly adorable young schoolgirls standing at attention in a line pout as restless young girls might anywhere in the world.
might be tempting to blink away such pictures as Kodak Moments. But don't.
Though he visited
It's a theory summed up in one of the exhibit's standout photos, a gorgeous image of a schoolgirl posed next to a gigantic, tattered structure that looks like a map of the world composed out of tiles.
Rendered miniature and seemingly helpless, the young girl stands tentatively, bearing unknowingly the full weight of a wall that seems on the verge of collapse.