Press Release

The Last Paradise: North Korea
By Nicolas Righetti
Essay by Orville Schell

A tantalizing glimpse into the surreal landscape and psyche of the world’s only communist dynasty, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Secretive, paranoid, and unrepentantly militant, North Korea has incubated its own peculiar mix of communist utopianism and personality cult.

"WE ARE HAPPY"—the first sentence translated for me when I arrived on the tarmac in Pyongyang, an enormous slogan written in Korean; white script on a red background. I am happy too. I feel moved to be here, to have finally managed to set foot into one of the most reclusive states in the world. It has only taken nine years of maneuvering to get a visa and four invitations extended through official channels. Four trips there and back, each proving to be more alike each time, yet somehow never ceasing to astound.

-Nicolas Rightetti

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.

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.”

NICOLAS RIGHETTI was born in Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied at the Institut d`Etude Sociales and the Ecole Superieure d`Audio Visuel, Geneva. Righetti has travelled, photographed, and filmed extensively throughout Asia, working as a still photographer on the set of various feature films in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Paris. His photographs have appeared in numerous publications worlwide.

ORVILLE SCHELL is one of the world’s leading Asia experts. Now Dean of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, his groundbreaking work on China including the 1995 Mandate of Heaven (one of fourteen published works to date), and frequent writing for The New Yorker, Harpers, Newsweek, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine. His work as a network correspondent (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN) also underline his stature as a leading journalist on Asia.

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