“I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life”—Andreas Gursky
Currently the subject of an acclaimed retrospective at the Hayward Gallery at London’s South Bank Centre, Andreas Gursky’s photographs record the visual and moral complexity some of the world’s greatest spectacles. From the expanse of the majestic river Rhine to the excesses of American commerce, Gursky’s photographs capture, in extraordinary detail, the scale and impact of humanity’s impact on the modern world. Here, in this monumental depiction of the annual Arirang Festival in North Korea, the artist uses the epic size of his image to capture the scale and scope of an extraordinary annual event in which up to thirty thousand performers gather to honor the founding fathers of their secretive nation. Gursky’s image perfectly captures the inherent contradictions that surround the occasion—namely the spellbinding beauty of the event’s execution, but also the suffocating totalitarianism of the regime behind it. The grand panoramic scale expressed by fusing traditional photographic techniques with contemporary image manipulation produces a powerful and breathtaking image that makes this work one of the artist’s most accomplished photographic works.
In Pyongyang III, Gursky reduces the massed crowds to abstract planes that stretch across the entire composition. The spectators appear as pixels almost—each individual attendee a mere dot in a sea of humanity. This parallel to the technicalities of photography becomes apparent during the actual performance, when the audience raises a series of colored cards which collectively, just as pixels do, build up to reveal a much larger image which depicts symbols (a shining sun, a dove, a gun etc.) that reference the political leadership of North Korea. In contrast, the individual performers are rendered as pinpoints of light set against a black backdrop; caught in a moment of perfect choreography, each person mirrors the next, repeating themselves until collectively they morph into a ballet of restrained simplicity.
Counterintuitively, Gursky achieves this level of clarity and detail by maintaining a detachment from his subjects. Unlike traditional photography, where detail is attained through a close proximity to the subject, Gursky strives for the opposite. “Distance is…an important factor…,” he says, “by always keeping a distance, I allow the viewer to come up with their own opinion. While my images are all comprised of many details—which you can explore in depth because of the high resolution—that’s not what they are about. Each one is always a world of its own, created” (A. Gursky, quoted by D.B. Sawa, “Andreas Gursky on the photograph that changed everything: 'It was pure intuition,'” The Guardian, January 18, 2018, via www.theguardian.com/artanddesign, [accessed 1/29/2018]).
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 world…I 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 III recalls the arresting symmetry of his iconic 99 Cent II, Diptych (2001), but increases the intrigue by replacing the sea of convenience store goods with a mass ornament of meticulously placed individual performers in the opening ceremony of the annual Arirang Festival. Here, Gursky has continued to embrace digital manipulation to enhance the effects of his works, as he employs these techniques to achieve both aesthetic and symbolic ends. “The amount of people is more or less exactly how it was,” Gursky explained 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 that fill their immense frame.
In Pyongyang III, 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 aesthetic and conceptual rigor. The unsettling beauty of the scene captured 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 this work in the very upper echelons of the artist’s body of work.