Andreas Gursky's Pyongyang II is an epic portrayal of one of the world's most mesmerizing, yet secretive spectacles. With his unique ability to see beauty in the smallest detail, Gursky captures two scenes from North Korea's annual Arirang Festival, the biggest mass participation event in the world. Designed to celebrate the sporting and cultural prowess of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (known to the rest of the world as North Korea), the spectacle of watching thousands of individuals moving in perfect harmony is touted by the country's rulers as a sign of the people's happiness and love of their leadership and country. However, Gursky's images perfectly capture the inherent contradictions that surround the event-namely the spellbinding beauty of the event's execution, but also the suffocating totalitarianism of the regime behind it. The grand panoramic scale of this political event expressed by fusing traditional photographic techniques with contemporary image manipulation produces a powerful and breathtaking image that makes Pyongyang II one of Gursky's most accomplished photographic works.
The only diptych in a series of five photographs produced following Gursky's trip to North Korea in 2007, Pyongyang II skillfully displays the artist's contribution to the longstanding artistic debate surrounding figuration versus abstraction. Mimicking the pixels that make up the modern digital image, the images of the doves and guns that appear in the upper portions of Gursky's photographs are produced by thousands of smaller, colored pieces of card that are held aloft by the 30,000 or so school-children who take part in the festival. Following strict pre-arranged choreography (and done in perfect unison) thousands of pairs of tiny hands flip over a series of these cards to reveal a succession of patriotic symbols and slogans. When viewed from a distance, these images have a profound and powerful effect-their composition made up of thousands of individual human components that remain anonymous, all subservient to the collective power of the State. In these photographs, Gursky emphasizes the juxtaposed symbols of peace and war through his signature God's-eye perspective; the camera angle, which often plays a leading role in the artist's work, is placed high above the scene and captures a wide, panoramic view. A student of documentary photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, Gursky often approaches his subjects with a central viewpoint from an elevated position. When paired with the detail-rich, high-resolution intensity in Pyongyang II, this perspective serves to underscore the dissonant relationship between the intricate movements of each individual and the abstract, complex patterns formed by the whole. But standing before the work, one cannot help but notice the many, slight deviations from Gursky's beloved patterns-the lone red dot in the midst of a broad swath of yellow above the two pistols, and there is beauty in the askewed spacing of some bayonet-wielding soldiers. Mechanical as the spectacle seems, this collection of humanity will never fit any perfectly measured mold. The large scale of Pyongyang II invites the work to be experienced as two complete scenes, but also invites a closer inspection, upon which the photographs dissolve into a mosaic of sharply-focused individual details. The result is a pair of images that radiate with the vibrating energies of tens of thousands of single North Korean bodies, while simultaneously presenting a fixed, calculated display of the ultimate totalitarian control.
Gursky's interest in ordered spaces, repeating grids, mass-ornament displays and the anonymity of crowds has been a continued theme throughout his oeuvre. "My preference for clear structures is the result of my desire, perhaps illusory, to keep track of things and maintain my grip on the worldI am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment" (A. Gursky, quoted by J. Saltz, "It's Boring at the Top," New York Magazine, 28 May 2007). Pyongyang II recalls the arresting symmetry of 99 Cent II, Diptych (2001), but increases the intrigue by replacing the undulating sea of convenience store goods with a mass ornament of meticulously placed individual performers in the opening ceremony of the annual Arirang Festival. Early experimentation with digital manipulation is also evident in 99 Cent, which includes techniques such as coloristic homogenation and allows for the mirroring of the central image on the ceiling of the store. May Day V (2006), a later picture, layers the symmetry of the massive building's grid structure over the time-lapsed, hyper-focused movements of tenants throughout the building. The artist has continued to embrace digital manipulation to enhance the effects of his works, as Pyongyang II employs techniques to achieve both aesthetic and symbolic ends. "The amount of people is more or less exactly how it was," Gursky explains in a 2009 interview, "but for technical reasons I shot in different stages: you have to focus on the foreground, the middle ground, then the background," (A. Gursky, quoted by G. Lane, Andreas Gursky Interviewed, Foto8.com, 8 June 2009). These techniques provide for hyper realistic individual details to maintain their intensity in a six-foot frame. There is also more deliberate manipulation that speaks to the artist's intended statement - attendees at the 2007 Arirang Festival contest that the peace doves were preceded by the images of Kim-Il Sung's pistols. Gursky's choice to order the images differently suggests a clear juxtaposition of the two scenes, rather than the presentation of an optimistic narrative.
In Pyongyang II, Gursky takes the venerable traditions of documentary photography, together with its associations with the idea of veritas, and by utilizing modern technology along with a contemporary view of the world produces a work of considerable aesthetic and conceptual rigor. The unsettling beauty of the scene captured by Gursky through his artist's eye is in stark contrast to the reality of what exists behind the image and it is this technical and intellectual dichotomy that places Pyongyang II in the very upper echelons of the artist's body of work.