Chicago Exhibition Gives Rare Glimpse of Life in North Korea

João Rocha, Looking at a Radish, from the book Kim Jong Il Looking at Things (2012). Photo: João Rocha.
João Rocha, Looking at a Radish, from the book Kim Jong Il Looking at Things (2012). Photo: João Rocha.

Propaganda faces off with images from photojournalists and artists at an exhibition depicting life in North Korea at Columbia College Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography.

For the most part, North Korea remains a mystery save for an odd array of propaganda photos. The highly-isolated country is sometimes referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom,” so any glimpse of what life is like for its citizens is irresistibly intriguing.

David Guttenfelder, <em>Example haircuts on display at a barbershop in #Pyongyang</em> (2013). Photo: David Guttenfelder, via Instagram, courtesy AP Photo.

David Guttenfelder, Example haircuts on display at a barbershop in #Pyongyang (2013).
Photo: David Guttenfelder, via Instagram, courtesy AP Photo.

North Korean Perspectives juxtaposes official imagery from the country’s press agency, KCNA, with artwork created using these images, and with less-staged photo ops from international photojournalists. The exhibition invites viewers to form their own opinions about the country, after viewing the official and unofficial versions.

“I do not think one could hope to show a reality of any place, least of all through photography,” the exhibition’s curator, Marc Prüst, told the Huffington Post. “But photographs can show a version of the truth, an opinion, a point of view.”

Ari Hatsuzawa, <em>Outdoor pool in Pyongyang, construction finished in 2012</em> (2012). Photo: Ari Hatsuzawa.

Ari Hatsuzawa, Outdoor pool in Pyongyang, construction finished in 2012 (2012).
Photo: Ari Hatsuzawa.

Despite the efforts of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, to keep tight control over his country, less-than-flattering portrayals have cropped up in recent months.

Kim Jong-un was recently eviscerated in The Interview, a Sony comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen that nearly went unreleased in theaters thanks to North Korean threats against the movie.

This past spring, photojournalist Nick Danziger presented a rare selection of photos of daily life in the communist nation at a British Council exhibition.

Philippe Chancel, Arirang Festival at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang (2006). Photo: Philippe Chancel.

Philippe Chancel, Arirang Festival at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang (2006).
Photo: Philippe Chancel.

Pierre Bessard, Workers in the Number 1 Glass Factory in Pyongyang (2001). Photo: Pierre Bessard.

Pierre Bessard, Workers in the Number 1 Glass Factory in Pyongyang (2001).
Photo: Pierre Bessard.

David Guttenfelder, North Korean babies rest in a row of cribs at the #Pyongyang Maternity Hospital (2013). Photo: David Guttenfelder, via Instagram, courtesy AP Photo.

David Guttenfelder, North Korean babies rest in a row of cribs at the #Pyongyang Maternity Hospital (2013).
Photo: David Guttenfelder, via Instagram, courtesy AP Photo.

Ari Hatsuzawa, Platform of the Pyongyang City Subway (2011). Photo: Ari Hatsuzawa.

Ari Hatsuzawa, Platform of the Pyongyang City Subway (2011).
Photo: Ari Hatsuzawa.

Pierre Bessard, Pyongyang (2000). Photo: Pierre Bessard.

Pierre Bessard, Pyongyang (2000).
Photo: Pierre Bessard.

Tomas van Houtryve, A North Korean woman loads a pistol for firing practice in Pyongyang, North Korea (2007). Photo: Tomas van Houtryve.

Tomas van Houtryve, A North Korean woman loads a pistol for firing practice in Pyongyang, North Korea (2007).
Photo: Tomas van Houtryve.

Philippe Chancel, Arirang Festival at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang (2006). Photo: Philippe Chancel.

Philippe Chancel, Arirang Festival at the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang (2006).
Photo: Philippe Chancel.

Ari Hatsuzawa, Pyongyang City Marathon (2012). Photo: Ari Hatsuzawa.

Ari Hatsuzawa, Pyongyang City Marathon (2012).
Photo: Ari Hatsuzawa.

Suntag Noh, Hogism Art Gallery in Seoul (2007). Photo: Suntag Noh.

Suntag Noh, Hogism Art Gallery in Seoul (2007). Photo: Suntag Noh.

Tomas van Houtryve, A man wades into the Tae Dong river where banks are flooded high above the normal water level in Pyongyang, North Korea (2007). Photo: Tomas van Houtryve.

Tomas van Houtryve, A man wades into the Tae Dong river where banks are flooded high above the normal water level in Pyongyang, North Korea (2007).
Photo: Tomas van Houtryve.

North Korean Perspectives” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, July 23–October 4, 2015.

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