“Experience” the mass games without leaving London

Pyongyang I 2007
Pyongyang I 2007 Edition of 6 C-print 120 7/8 x 84 13/16 in. (307 x 215.5 cm) (incl. frame) Courtesy Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Munich, Cologne and London and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London

Andreas Gursky: new work
White Cube Gallery, 23 Mar – 5 May 2007

One day my fairy godmother will wave her wand and magic me an all-expenses paid trip to Pyongyang to see the Arirang festival. Ever since seeing Dan Gordon’s film A State of Mind I’ve been wanting to experience the spectacle live. The problem is, trips to the DPRK don’t come cheap.

For those similarly positioned, for the next month you can “experience” the mass games for free via some large format photos by Andreas Gursky. And when I say large, I mean large. The biggest is 4 metres wide by 2 metres tall. The other two, portrait in orientation, are 3m x 2m. That’s a lot of wall you need to hang them on. These photos of the Arirang Festival are on show at the White Cube gallery in Mason’s Yard, St James’s (walk down the alleyway beside the Chequers pub in Duke Street).

Gursky’s two “smaller” ones are the more colourful to look at. Lots of gymnasts in red cheerleader leotards waving pom-poms, while behind them is the wall of 30,000 school children holding up their coloured cards to provide the spectacular backdrop. You look at the pictures from some distance, and there appears to be perfect harmony: immaculately-drilled performers, each playing their part in the massed group exercise. Look closer, and you see the human aspects: tiny differences in the individual performances. Pom-poms not being held at the same height; the heads being held at slightly different angles; a leg not being perfectly straight. Tiny individuals, all different, yet working together collectively to produce a show like no other on this earth.

Pyongyang III 2007
Pyongyang III 2007 Edition of 6 C-print 81 9/16 x 166 1/4 in. (207.2 x 422.2 cm) (incl. frame) Courtesy Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Munich, Cologne and London and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London

But the big boring-looking one, Pyongyang III, is in fact the most interesting of the three. It’s tucked into the basement lift lobby which means you can’t look at it from a distance. But that’s a good thing as this picture demands to be looked at close-up. In this picture, the 30,000 school children who are responsible for the backdrop are taking a break. So instead of a colourful picture of mount Baektu and some hibiscus flowers you just get a large expanse of white: the tablecloths on the rows of tables where the children are sitting.

Go up close to the photo and get drawn into what the children are doing. One of them is sitting on the table with his back to the performers, chatting to one of the kids in the row behind. Some of them appear to be reading. Others rest their heads on their hands in a resigned manner. Some of them even appear to be exchanging blows (the exposure seems to have taken some time, which means any quick movements are blurred).

Arirang Festival. Picture from the Peoples Daily
Arirang Festival. Picture from the Peoples Daily

In between the performers and the 30,000 schoolchildren, and also with their backs to the performers, are half a dozen men in white suits gesticulating wildly like turbo-charged Toscaninis. It’s almost as if they’re trying to conduct the resting placard-carriers, but they’re not paying any attention. Meanwhile in the foregound, there’s hundreds of gymnasts in straight lines. The ones in blue leotards are doing headstands with their legs apart, while in between them girls in orange swimsuits bend gracefully back with their rubber rings. (The People’s Daily picture above is of the very same scene, but from a different angle.)

You wonder what’s going on. Why, when the gymnasts are performing, are the card-holders resting? Gursky provides the article in a quote provided in the Times:

Pyongyang III is, in reality, two photographs brought together. You would only see the card holders when they were waiting for whatever was about to take place on the pitch. Otherwise, I only made some formal corrections in terms of composition in the other images, and the events as they took place are very similar to what you see in the photographs

So actually the image you see is a composite of two images. In real life, those half dozen white-suited conductors would have had the concentrated attention of the card-holders, and instead of being presented with the rather fun window into the lives of the children at rest we would see a colourful 30,000 pixel backdrop.

Pyongyang IV 2007
Pyongyang IV 2007 Edition of 6 C-print 119 7/8 x 81 1/2 in. (304.5 x 207 cm) (incl. frame) Courtesy Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, Munich, Cologne and London and Jay Jopling/White Cube, London

Does it matter that what you see is unreal, manipulated? Does it matter that the other photos are only “very similar” to what actually happened? Somehow, I feel slightly cheated. So I’m going to have to wait for my fairy godmother to do her stuff. She’ll find it a lot cheaper than buying me a Gursky photo: one of his sold recently for $2.4 million.

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