Reviewed by Steve Harp •
North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) seems in many ways as distant and inaccessible – to Americans, at least – as the moon. And like the moon, I have long had a kind of ambivalent desire to experience it first-hand. A desire, that is, as long as it is unlikely. Should the opportunity ever actually arise to journey to either site, I would be filled, I’m sure, with reasons not to venture forth.
Ted Lau, a native of Hong Kong, discusses similar motivations for his 2019 journey to the DPRK in the introduction to Between Doors. “North Korea is particularly interesting in that it is completely shut off from the outside world,” writes Lau. “Like the Galapagos, with its unique ecosystem and armies of iguanas, North Korea has evolved its own culture over the years.” This culture that Lau presents to us in the 45 photographs included in his 2021 monograph is a culture of the image, of spectacle. Larger than life images of scenery, heroic statuary, architecture and – always everywhere – the country’s Dear Leaders, dominate.
In fact, the book’s central image is a four-page foldout depicting the Arirang Mass Games at Rungardo Stadium in Pyongyang in which thousands of perfectly choreographed students hold aloft colorful cards creating a panorama of smiling proletariat children, running joyously together toward the socialist utopia the future promises. Essentially, they become human pixels, collectively creating a spectacle of perfect beauty. Or, perhaps, not beauty exactly. A better term might be sublimity, though in an oblique or skewed sense. The sublime traditionally is associated with the overwhelming power and force of the natural world, conjuring a sense of awe and powerlessness on the part of the spectator, whereas beauty is merely pretty, light and delicate, clear and not obscure – a positive pleasure. The sublime I see in these images of the DPRK has less to do with forces of nature than the force of the state – overpowering, vast, terrifying in its immensity and inevitability.
Yet, the inescapable spectacle of the state is intended to be one of visual perfection. We are told numerous times in the book’s textual materials (in addition to an Introduction by Lau, the book includes a Foreword by Yu-Ting Cheng and a journal-like commentary on specific photographs by Zahra Amiruddin) that the guides or minders accompanying Lau would ask for certain photographs to be deleted because they were “not pretty,” and were considered “bad images” of the country. Some, such as images of construction (p. 64) and workers bicycling home at the end of their shift (p. 69) are included in the book nonetheless. In commenting on a photograph of students outside the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum (p. 79), Amiruddin makes reference to George Orwell’s 1984.
However, unlike the dreary, gray, “miserable and rundown” industrial dystopia Orwell presents as Oceania under Ingsoc, Lau’s images of North Korea are of pristine, spotless and perfect surfaces. A Potemkin Village, if you will, or perhaps a kind of Theresienstadt (which would resonate with the title of Amiruddin’s essay, “Work Will Set You Free: In the DPRK”). The photographs suggest nothing so much as a movie set, as Yu-Ting Chen remarks in the Foreword, each “stage” conjuring and reinforcing the official narrative through a projection of precisely constructed surfaces. The photographs themselves are in color though the colors are subdued. All but four are horizontal, most presented on a single page, the facing page being blank white. The book measures 10” x 12.” In addition to the four-page foldout mentioned above, there are nine double-page spreads, all bordered, no bleeds. Very precise.
Lau’s photographs and book raise compelling questions about the relationship between this rigidly constructed beauty of surfaces, documentary photography and how we as viewers can (or cannot) understand cultures fundamentally foreign to our own lives, histories and experiences. It would be easy for the Western viewer to dismiss what is shown in Lau’s images as merely propaganda, as with the 1944 images of Teresienstadt created for the International Red Cross. And while there is a truth to this perspective, it does not document the whole story of the DPRK.
All three of the texts in this volume – and, of course, Lau’s images – point to the fact that North Korea is fundamentally unknown, other. Yu-Ting Cheng remarks in the Foreword that “some of these images may simply appear to show what day-to-day lives of North Koreans are, how normal everything is. However . . . we outsiders will never be able to see and comprehend fully.” Indeed, what is “normal”? The experience of North Korea is essentially different from the experience of a non-native observer. As Lau remarks apropos of the book’s title, “Between Doors reflects how it feels to visit North Korea. You are through its borders, yet, still, there is another space you can’t get through.” Any view, then, will be a liminal view, one positioned between places of understanding. Perhaps a better word than “reflects” for Lau to have used would have been “refracts,” as in the bending of light as it passes obliquely through one surface to another. What is seen is obscured or in some way malformed.
In a 1994 essay, “Inside/Out,” Abigail Solomon-Godeau considers two traditional practices of documentary photography. One is work created by an “insider,” documenting his or her milieu and experience. The other position is that of the “outsider,” photographing a culture foreign to the observer, yet attempting to present truths about that culture to a wider audience. Solomon-Godeau’s essay critiques that binarism and suggests instead a third approach – using Robert Frank’s The Americans and Chantal Akerman’s film D’Est as examples – a kind of observation combining “obliqueness and transparency” in offering essentially a liminal or in-between view of “unplotted space between perception and cognition, projection and identification,” an unyielding “exteriority” that poses “the fundamentally unanswerable question of how reality is in fact to be known.”
Viewing photographs of the moon by the Apollo astronauts (consider Michael Light’s exceptional Full Moon) or these photographs of the DPRK by Ted Lau, I’m left thinking not how much these photographs tell me about the place, but rather, how much they tell me I don’t know. Lau’s photographs raise important questions of photography in general and documentary photography in particular. What does it mean to see in relation to know? What does it mean to see but not know?
Steve Harp, Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul University
Between Doors, Ted Lau
Photographer: Ted Lau, born and currently resides Hong Kong
Publisher: Daylight Books (Hillsborough, NC, USA, copyright 2021)
Introduction: Ted Lau; Foreword: Yu-Ting Cheng; Essay: Zahra Amiruddin
Paper over board binding, printed by OFSET YAPIMEVI, Turkey
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