I wonder what the most popular cigarette brand is in North Korea. In China, I am told, it is Double Happiness (and in Taiwan, smokers delight in Long Life). But factual knowledge and information may not be the point in the selection of some twenty photographs from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by Philippe Chancel. Chancel gave up 'reportage' years ago 'to explore other ways of looking at reality' - and it is the manner of looking, the point of view, that is up for scrutiny in this exhibition.
The French photographer describes his style as both 'neutral' and his 'own'. Interested in aesthetics rather than ideology, he strives for 'a certain feel' of the image, a certain je ne sais quoi, made up of precise qualities of colour and photographic detail, for images that are 'clear, readable and weightless'. He certainly knows how to make an immaculate picture. An Air Koryo hostess is seen behind a counter as pristine as her white uniform. Behind her, there are some empty white shelves and above them a large window shaded by delicate vegetation, forming, together with the counter, three horizontal bands of light grey, white and pale green. The eyes of the young woman are on the pages of a manual resting on the counter, while ours are drawn to the large striped bow tie under her chin and the obligatory Party badge next to it. The pastel tones accented by a touch of red and black, the sparse geometry of the composition and the intricate economy of detail, make the Vermeeresque subject a still life rather than a portrait. As such, it is quite beautiful. The same pictorial strategy is repeated in an actual still life: a peripatetic photojournalist's stock-in-trade image of a hotel room television set, in the muted hues of golden brown and the contrasting electric blue of the TV screen. The broadcast is, the caption claims, the same 'On Both Channels', starring Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Yet the title may equally be an allusion to other symbolic parallels - between the TV screen and the wall mirror reflecting nothing but a bedside lamp, or between the broadcast and the copy of a French art magazine resting on the top of the set. Here, in the heavy handed metaphor, ideology reasserts itself with a vengeance. And it is not so much the ideology of eternal happiness - imposed by the state and maintained through paranoid 'disengagement' - as the kind of liberal ideology which promotes art's critical disengagement from politics (they both try to make 'the ruling class's interest appear to be the interest of all,' as an old German philosopher once put it.)Housing Blocks, Pyongyang - Courtesy Open Eye Gallery
Such ideological hazards are tacitly acknowledged in an introduction to the book of Chancel's photographs by Michael Poivert: 'The photographer has to "win" on the playing field of the picture against an "opponent" who explicitly draws on the authority of the image.' Armed with but an official permit and his stylistic 'neutrality', Chancel indeed struggles to confront the stylised manifestations of the messianic autocracy. The more he tries to outsmart his adversary, the more the strains of the battle show. Some of his 'weightless' images and their juxtapositions are burdened with a hefty load of symbolism which has nothing on the oppressive banality of North Korean state propaganda; others, in their effort to maintain a tactical distance from politics, come perilously close to the kind of fashion accessory socialist realism favoured by style magazine editors, advertising executives and, evidently, some contemporary art curators. Take the picture of two officers of The Military Film Department, one watching a small crowd of onlookers, the other keeping an eye on the photographer, a video camera at the ready on a folding chair by their side. This hangs next to a photograph of two Brothers, a ten year-old brandishing an alarmingly convincing toy Kalashnikov and a toddler, dressed in what looks like a top made for Primark in a Far Eastern sweatshop, staring into the lens. On the wall opposite, a mile-long stretch of the eight-lane Reunification Avenue, South Pyongyang with about the same number of cars in sight is photographed from a high vantage point, as if through the eyes of the Great Leader. The prospect offers more than a hint of resemblance to the barren monumentality of the mural of Mount Peaktu, the cradle of the Revolution, which provides the backdrop for a gigantic statue of Kim Il-sung in a picture composed to echo the composition of the revolutionary monument.
Where people appear as protagonists in Chancel's photographs, they always seem to be caught, puppet like, between motion and stillness, action and a pose. It is only in passing, almost as if against the photographer's intentions, that Chancel's camera catches a glimpse of human contingency. In an image of high density Housing Blocks - whose blurred foreground implies that it was taken from a moving car - a grey honeycomb of standardised dwellings is inscribed with signs of life's tendency to deviate from norms: improvised improvements and decorations, a curtain here and there, a turquoise carrier bag stuck in a tree. Even the tiny figures on the balconies, small multicoloured clusters of a few pixels, seem somehow more authentically human than the cast of characters that populate Chancel's impersonal 'personal style'. But everywhere else it is hard to discern where the photographer's fascination with the careful choreography of appearances, the sense that 'everything has been rehearsed,' becomes an excuse for a rehearsal of a sanitised photographic vision which is bound to make the commercial gallerist and the communist bureaucrat equally happy. (As for myself, I'd still like to know how many times the North Korean worker's happiness is multiplied by a cigarette break. Anyone know?)