Queitly Questioning Paradise: Hiroshi Watanabe’s Views of North Korea

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

Hiroshi Watanabe (Nueva Luz Vol.10#3, 2005) may be best known for his meticulously crafted and haunting black and white images, but his first solo show at the Kopeikin Gallery opened June 6th like a fresh summer breeze, awakening the senses to the photographer’s vibrant color images taken in North Korea. These photographs, shot with a Hasselblad, provide a tidy square format within which Watanabe maintains a remarkable balance between beauty and social dis-ease.

During an interview with Watanabe, he was extremely clear about his intentions for this new body of work and the challenge he set for himself before embarking on the first of two trips to North Korea. “I wanted to see North Korea with my own eyes and not pre-judge an entire society.” Though he was aware of the country’s history of kidnappings, famine and human rights violations both from the U.S and Japanese news media, he tried to remain open minded and to make photographs that were neither didactic nor naïve. He said, quite simply, “You can not hate and make a good photograph.”

There is no arguing that these images are highly aesthetic, but many also question the possibility of total conformity or the ability North Korea’s nationalist ethos to completely overshadow basic human individuality. What is interesting about this tightly produced exhibition is that it represents Watanabe’s basic humanistic nature and offers compelling examples of the artist’s eye for gesture and small details. This exhibition and the book that accompanies it, reward viewers that allow themselves the time to look carefully.

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

Watanabe is neither didactic nor overtly critical of the culture he observed on these recent trips, yet the slightly dissonant colors of his interiors often communicate a sense of underlying tension. As I studied an image of a woman in a dressed neatly in a black suit with her back to the camera, I began to notice that while the figure was tidy and anonymous, everything around her seemed out of place and visually jarring. The combination of the brown floral wallpaper with a bright pink table cloth upon which sat a retro-looking boom-box to the left of the figure seemed stranger the more I looked at it. Gradually, I felt as if I was looking at a still from a David Lynch film. Many of the interiors evoked this same feeling.

By contrast, in the portraits of school children and young people, Watanabe manages to highlight the subject’s individuality and personality by capturing quiet gestures and facial expressions amidst what at first glance might seem like overtly regimented poses.  Pointing to the contradictions that seep through the public façade maintained by the North Korean government without telegraphing a set political agenda is not an easy thing to do, and yet Watanabe maintains this balance.

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

Throughout his career as a fine art photographer Watanabe has taken on a wide range of subjects, from the historical monuments of Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia, to portraits of Kabuki performers, and most recently an intriguing portfolio devoted to carnival monkeys. But no matter his subject, his philosophical  position remains the same.

I don’t want to tell the viewer what to see. I believe in subtlety. I don’t believe in barking at the viewer. Of course it is my vision, but this is what I think is perfect about photography; it is flexible but also subtle…There is always an element that appears in the final frame, it can be very small but if you look closely you can find it. I challenge the viewer to find what I see. If they really look at the expressions, poses and the composition, they will really find something intriguing both visually and socially.

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

“People are so entrenched in their own ideas, they will construct their own opinions and project their ideas onto the pictures”, he says. “When I mentioned North Korea in Japan there is such a negative reaction about the country. People believe [that what’s in the media] it’s the entire truth, but there are always other elements.” Watanabe mentioned the comments he received while showing the work in Japan last year – “Why would you make beautiful pictures of an awful country?” Others suggested that his driver and official chaperones must have taken him to a “Truman Show” type set to fool him into making pretty pictures. But Watanabe is steadfast in his approach, and to hear him describe his experiences he challenged me to accept commonality and compassion while simultaneously acknowledging abuses of power of another culture.

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

“We think we are so different – but people, when looked at individually, are the same. People love their families and are trying to make the best for themselves and the people they care about. North Koreans are not stupid, they have feelings just like we do.” In talking about two images depicting North Korean versions of the world map, the artist says, “I thought this was funny [as a photograph] but we do the exact same thing. When you look at a map in Japan, Japan is in the center and Europe is divided into two different sections on either side. Americans do the same thing.”

Ideology in Paradise is also accompanied by a smartly designed book of the same title on sale at the gallery and online through PhotoEye. Published in Japan with a brief commentary by Lesley A. Martin of Aperture, the 119 page book allows the artist to show the full range of images from his two trips to North Korea. It includes a much wider variety than could comfortably fit Kopeikin’s project space.

The publication is laid out simply and to great effect. With one picture centered on each page the photographs have no captions (though titles and dates can be found on his website) and it concludes with a simple one-page statement by the artist. As with the exhibition, there are numerous portraits of school-age boys and girls that reflect both the country’s goal of social conformity as well as the irrepressible individuality that manages to emanate even in the face of uniforms, dress codes and formal portrait poses.

© Hiroshi Watanabe
© Hiroshi Watanabe

The book and the exhibition are miraculous in their simplicity. In a time when galleries are still exhibiting wall-sized color photographs and where the abundance of digital media have created so many dazzling gallery installations, visiting Watanabe’s jewel-box of an exhibition felt surprisingly new and challenging. I was struck by the feeling that I should take my time and really look carefully.

There is no way for me to completely filter out all the truly reprehensible actions taken by the North Korean government in this age of 24/7 cable news. North Korea’s military actions and human rights issues have been a concern in the U.S. especially now as our newly elected President attempts to juggle so many pressing issues on both the national and international level. But while Watanabe is no apologist for these that country’s political policies, his work is a reminder that particularly in these tumultuous times, we do well to first acknowledge our common humanity before making quick judgments and acting or speaking out of fear.

The exhibition will be on view in Los Angeles through July 11th. The Kopeikin Gallery’s summer hours are Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00 – 5:00.  It is free and open to the public.

Watanabe’s work will also be featured in the following exhibitions this summer:

  • June 18 – September 05, 2009 “Hot Fun in the Summertime”
    Bonni Benrubi Gallery, 41 E. 57th Street 13th Floor, New York, NY, USA
  • June 25 – August 29, 2009 “Summertime…”
    Jenkins-Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA USA
  • July 1 – December 31, 2009 “Ideology in Paradise”
    Friends’ Center, Angkor Hospital for Children, Siem Reap, Cambodia
    Contact: Brenda Edelson, Curator, BGEdelson@aol.com. The Angkor Hospital for Children was founded in 1999 by the internationally-acclaimed Japanese photographer Kenro Izu (Nueva Luz Volume 12#2 in 2007 and Volume 1#1 in 1984). He created the organization Friends Without A Border, to fund and support the Angkor Hospital for Children, which provides free treatment and care to the children in the Siem Reap area.
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