Although once a mystery, North Korea is a country we’ve come to know over the past years as a pastel haven, with wide open spaces so vast and devoid of people they appear like film sets before the crew arrives for the day. Unanimous Desire by photographer Matthew Connors challenges these tropes. It presents a narrative far more intricate than candy-coloured aesthetics and latent voyeurism, examining the reality of its people and the apparent Plato’s cave they inhabit.
Matthew, who has been chair of the department of photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for a number of years, visited North Korea a total of five times between 2013 and 2016. “One of the things that drew me to the country in the first place was the speculation that there is a hidden revolution brewing in North Korea,” he recalls of the beginnings of the series. Matthew’s work often “builds on the premise that the public sphere is fertile ground for artistic activity and that photography can illuminate social and political realities,” so this speculation provided a springboard for him to continue his unique practice. “I’ve been increasingly inserting myself in currents of history and refracting their complexity through my own set of concerns,” he tells It’s Nice That.
As a result, he’s travelled the world capturing our current climate, from revolutionary activity in Cairo; to the Occupy movement in New York; the legacy of revolutionary monuments in Cuba; while also tracking “the paroxysms of protest in the wake of the 2016 presidential election” in his home country of the United States. In each instance, his work bridges the gap between reportage, poetry and surrealism to “find different visual idioms that can render these currents of history with emotional urgency,” and in Unanimous Desire it was the notion of revolution which he attempted to expose.
“This idea has been floating around since the nineties when the country experienced a devastating famine. The public distribution system collapsed outside of Pyongyang, and black markets sprouted up to fill the void,” Matthew explains, “Many crossed the border with China in a desperate search of food and were exposed to a radically different version of reality than what they were conditioned to believe.” Since that time, information has been flowing into North Korea through these same channels in the form of word of mouth from Chinese smugglers, anti-regime radio programmes, and Western media. “The most widespread is the black-market distribution of smuggled DVDs and USB drives carrying South Korean soap operas and Hollywood films,” Matthew adds.
Spanning several genres, these films put pressure on the official narrative imposed by the regime, causing ripples in the reality it has created for its people. Although not travelling there to document this situation per say, Matthew’s trip and prior research (including interviews with defectors) allowed him to “see things differently and make metaphorical speculations about how information flows in the country”. Ultimately, North Korea provided him with the chance to examine the lives of those under extreme constraint – “constraints that American foreign policy played a role in perpetuating,” he remarks. “I did not feel I was in any position to uncover the ’real’ DPRK, whatever that may be. But I did quickly realise I was in the midst of a complex culture that needed to be rendered with more visual, metaphoric, and humanistic vibrancy than the compressed narratives of military spectacle, kitschy propaganda, and unconditional fealty many of us have come to expect about this country.”
Unanimous Desire is currently on display at MoMA as part of its Being: New Photography 2018 exhibition, presenting urgent and compelling ideas in recent photography and photo-based art. Taking place every two years, 2018’s edition asks how photography can capture what it means to be human.
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