Critics’ Picks

Seung Woo Back, Utopia #11, 2008, color photograph, 80 x 60".

Seung Woo Back, Utopia #11, 2008, color photograph, 80 x 60".


“North Korean Perspectives”

Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP)
600 South Michigan Avenue Columbia College Chicago
July 23–October 4, 2015

Any single project in this exhibition of a dozen international photographers would be notable for its blend of formalist and political investigation. But, taken together, the works yield a balanced—startling, even—mosaic of life in the Hermit Kingdom, which has drawn so much attention in recent years, with saber-rattling and basketball diplomacy.

While each artist nominally works with a photographic approach, the show’s leitmotif is the difficulty of capturing reality in the DPRK. For example, David Guttenfelder’s square-format pictures demonstrate the banality of “official” North Korea—they are from what was long the only Instagram feed to relay such images from Pyongyang. For her work, Alice Wielinga furtively shot images of the countryside with a larger DSLR as her father distracted handlers. Meanwhile, Tomas van Houtryve posed as a Belgian chocolate investor. Promising much needed foreign capital, he was able to access more freely the bleak and dilapidated landscape not seen in commonplace shots of the Arirang Festival.

While these works confirm expectations of the Kafkaesque, others reimagine Brutalist towers in chromatic abstraction or portray everyday citizens at leisure in crisp 3-D. One leaves with an uncanny sense of photography’s capacity to both display and fabricate reality, and of the psychedelically thin membrane between real and false that figures North Korean life.