The Last Paradise
Photographs of Contemporary North Korea
By Nicolas Righetti
Essay by Orville Schell
Fifty years after the armistice established two separate nations on the Korean Peninsula, the country remains a mystery to most of the world, and now captures headlines as part of President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”
For nine years, Swiss photographer Nicolas Righetti waited for permission to document the self-proclaimed paradise, home of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong II, the “perfect brain” who inherited the regime from his father. Righetti is one of the few Western artists invited to photograph Pyongyang’s New Order of happiness; a candy-colored, kitsch interpretation of utopia as dictated by “Juche,” the state philosophy heralding the perfectibility of the masses under the benevolent guidance of Party and Leader.
More than just a book of pretty pictures, these images are film stills carefully culled from the reams of footage Righetti gathered on his four trips into the interior of North Korea. The use of video footage emphasizes the image`s inclusive/exclusive nature, a result of photographing and filming in Pyongyang, where, as a citizen of Kim Jong Il`s Republic, you are "both the spectator and the author of this propaganda." (Righetti)
Forbidden from photographing or speaking directly to individuals, Righetti documents intricate interior details, public murals and mass pageants. He makes careful note of the slogans in the street or of those regularly volunteered by his ever-present guide. "We are Happy", insists an airport sign greeting visitors; "We are in Heaven", reads andother sign at a crossroads. An who could doubt such sentiments in the midst of this bright urban landscape dotted with paper flowers, curcaveous neo-constructive architecture, and synchronized folk dancing? Any tell tale signs to the contrary remain embedded in the absurd juxtaposition of details: huge guns hidden in the traditional landscape wall paintings; looming, inescapable portraits of the great Leader and his son; empty shelves at the Paradise Food Shop; Big Brother exhortations proclaiming nirvana achievable through "iron discipline". Righetti offers a riveting guided tour through this seductive yet chilling landscape; the paradoxes of an earthly paradise and the tragic outcome of an unattainable utopia with its dual message: “Welcome. Stay Away.”