'The camera's enormous distance from these figures means they become de-individualized... So I am never interested in the individual but in the human species and its environment.' (A. Gursky quoted in V. Gomer, 'I generally let things develop slowly', partially reproduced at [www.postmedia.net])
The grand, panoramic scale and spectacle of Andreas Gursky's Pyongyang II makes it one of his most accomplished photographic works. The only diptych from a series of five photographs that Gursky produced following his trip to North Korea in 2007, it illustrates one of the most impressive human spectacles of the contemporary, geopolitical world. In Pyongyang II, Gursky has expertly captured the highly choreographed performances marking the official start of the Arirang Festival in Pyongyang each spring. Held once a year to celebrate the birthday of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, the Arirang Festival is celebrated with tightly choreographed performances and mass games, including a throng of more than 50,000 people. These events take place against a backdrop of 30,000 school children that each flips a series of coloured cards in perfect unison to produce a myriad of changing images. Gursky illuminates the moment that these giant images rotate from doves of peace to the guns of war, the hands of thousands of individuals undertaking this monumental task. In front of this breathtaking display, the assembled ranks of the North Korean army perform their manoeuvres with daunting efficiency, their rigorous order, precision and steely composure rendering them like toy soldiers, lined up meticulously by a child. Gursky's photographs describe, in panoramic dimensions, the incongruity of the brilliant colours and smiling faces of the performers within the controlled, totalitarian nature of the event. With the recent accession of Kim Jong-un to the position of Supreme Leader of North Korea and the passing away of his father, the iconic leader Kim Jong-il, the present work takes on a new resonance at this time of titular change within the entrenched military regime.
With its rigorous, formal regularity and panorama of brilliant colour, this diptych draws parallels with Gursky's other seminal diptych, 99 cent with its highly automated arrangement of consumer products. Alongside the artist's great Stock Exchange series and euphoric Rave images, which find surprising compositional order amongst a morass of people, Gursky's Pyongyang II invites and inspires feelings of awe and fascination. At the same time, the distanced gaze and majestic scale is all consuming, the viewer gaining a sense of their own subscription to the structures and hierarchies of global society. For an artist who is predominantly concerned with the intricacy of detail, this distance allows details to blend into one another to create a superb illusion of painterly composition.
In Pyongyang II the viewer is able to revel in the intricate details of the composition whilst enjoying the near sublime qualities of the work's photographic panorama. Standing in front of the work, the viewer becomes consumed by the expanse of colour. In a clever parody of the digital age, the thousands of individuals that are the subjects in Pyongyang II, merge together into one, just like the constituent pixels that make up a photograph. With Pyongyang II Gursky turns centuries of photographic tradition on its head. He reduces the individual to a single element within a massive State organised apparatus. Enhanced by his compositional structure, the camera's high vantage point creates a sense of separation and alienation, what has been referred to as Gursky's 'God-like view'. As Gursky once explained, 'the camera's enormous distance from these figures means they become de-individualized so I am never interested in the individual but in the human species and its environment.' (A. Gursky quoted in V. Gomer, 'I generally let things develop slowly', partially reproduced at [www.postmedia.net])
Originally schooled by Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Künstakademie in Düsseldorf, Gursky has often been associated with a documentary style of photography. However his work makes a fundamental departure with its brilliant use of colour and large-format imagery. Indeed, faced with what he considered to be the fundamental inadequacies of the documentary practice, Gursky was persuaded in 1992 to begin using digital technology as a means of manipulation. In doing so, the artist skillfully generated an 'illusion of a fictitious reality', throwing into question the veracity of the image as it fluctuates between reality and an artificial reframing of the world (R. Pfab, 'Perception and Communication: Thoughts on New Motifs by Andreas Gursky', ed. M. L. Syring, Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the Present, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Düseldorf, 1998, p. 9).