On photographs of North Korean interiors
Wes Anderson, Coded Interiors, and Prying Pornographic Pleasure Out of North Korea
“It’s as if someone, overcome by excitement and intense desire, is crawling around the room on his hands and knees interrogating every object and surface for its secrets.”—Larry Sultan, The Valley
A Tiffany teal bench, its seat all plush leather with rounded corners, claims a neat diagonal in the foreground of an Easter-hued locker room. Just behind, a matching teal coffee table forms an ‘H’ between it and another identical bench. The benches match the teal walls, which match the sans serif numbering on the nine white lockers lining the right wall. A healthy green plant nestles in the back corner, its feathered leaves the only hint of roughness to any surface in the room; the floor, a swath of dusty bubblegum pink, is in fact so matte in its cleanliness that it might even be liquid, like a gentler version of Pepto Bismol, and not a solid surface at all. One might mistake the scene for an unused film set or a magnified Polly Pocket toy were it not for the distinct double portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jon-il hanging from the top of the left wall in organized harmony with the scene they survey below.
“Did Wes Anderson design North Korea? You Decide,” asks the creative online publication Visual News of Oliver Wainwright’s 2015 photo series, North Korean Interiors. Published in its full length on Tumblr, the series delivers forty-three documents of locales from the May Day Stadium, to the National Drama theatre, several hotels, and a health and recreation complex, all bearing the “peculiarly consistent style of preschool colour schemes and shiny synthetic surfaces”1 that Wainwright himself, an architect and design critic, compares to Anderson in the title of his Guardian feature: “Moonrise kingdom: why North Korea’s buildings echo Wes Anderson film sets.” Wainwright is not incorrect to juxtapose the creamy teals and pinks of May Day stadium’s locker room to the auteur’s cinematography, whose candy-colored palettes,2 clean tracking shots, and dead-on compositions have earned him a visual style unparalleled in its adoration and recognizability today. In all of the architecture he photographs, Wainwright identifies a strict adherence to “axial symmetry,”3 a formal manifestation of the nation’s Juche ideology of self-reliance, and his images capture and imitate the perfect balance of the architecture that gives way to an innate attractiveness. Such symmetry has been noted of Anderson’s framing as well,4 who seems to throw away the rule of thirds for an abundance of centered compositions.
But the question Visual News poses is unnerving in its flippant “click-bait” tone intended for the Western audiences who ravenously consume its light pieces. In another article featuring North Korean Interiors, “The Pyonghattan project: how North Korea’s capital is transforming into a ‘socialist fairyland,’” Wainwright criticizes North Korea’s “kindergarten kitsch” as an infantilizing anesthetic of the regime upon the North Korean people, to which it wishes to convey a false pretense of “carefree prosperity” in a country otherwise recognized by the United Nations as having committed crimes against humanity whose “gravity, scale, and nature…reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” (A.HRC.25.63). Yet Wainwright (or the Guardian’s editors) commits a hypocritical double act of infantilization by situating his images in the context of Anderson’s playful visual style, turning the architectural phenomenon that he otherwise examines carefully and historically in the text of his article into a snarky hook.
Wainwright’s infantilization of North Korea joins but a long history of ridiculing the “hermit kingdom.” Today, blogs purely devoted to “Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things” or to soldiers and schoolgirls crying at the mere sight of their leader mock the dictatorship and citizenry alike, reducing complex social and psychological situations into ahistoricized memes. Articles such as “Starving Children In North Korea React to Kim Jong-Un Like He’s Justin Bieber” (Iyer) appear to criticize the cruelty that children at the brink of death might react positively to the very leader who allows them to starve while he indulges, yet in offering no serious analysis of the regime’s behavior, play only into the American joke of North Korea. Accruing across memes, blockbuster films, network televisions, and pun-addled titles of major news sources, North Korea as has become a full-blown American fetish.
In the second chapter of her book, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” film scholar Linda Williams cites Freud’s theory of the fetish in her discussion of the pornographic hard core, whereby the male “disavows” the female’s sexual “lack” of a penis by placing a fetish in its absence (41). Quoting film theorist Laura Mulvey, Williams expands Freud’s theory through the postulation that “the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish…becomes reassuring rather than dangerous” (42). “Impenetrable” and “opaque” being two of the handful of descriptors applied ad nauseam to North Korea, America may be said to compensate for its impotence to see into the “hermit kingdom” by replacing its invisibility with the fetish of an overly visible, comedic, and therefore unthreatening representation. The West, a smattering of nations spanning a variety of continents and colonies, has long set its identity against the foil of the East. America, the “melting pot” of races, religions, and nationalities, suffers a particularly acute case of Western identity confusion crossed with a quickly deteriorating role as global peacekeeper after the failures of the Vietnam War, the War in Iraq, and importantly, the Korean War, the United States’ first war fought in the name of containment. As Kaja Silverman postulates in The Miracle of Analogy, “two is the smallest unit of being” (88), and in the case of Wainwright’s images, “the visual object is of no greater use any longer, except as the mold on which form”—America’s identity—“is shaped” confidently around its mollifying fetish of North Korea’s childish backwardness (107).
While fetishization merely assuages the fetishizer, Williams makes the bolder claim that “hard-core knowledge-pleasure,” that which derives from the West’s penchant for the scientific specification and resulting solidification of sexuality (dubbed by Foucault the “scientia sexualis”), erupts out of and into a true “frenzy of the visible” (36). No media around North Korea garners the same frenzy as “inside scoops,” photographs, memoirs, and guided tours that penetrate and make visible the purposefully hidden spaces of North Korea’s interior. Acquisition, circulation, and consumption of these images generate a rebellious glee for the sort of “involuntary confession” they elicit from North Korea, akin to scenes of “rape or ravishment” in hard-core pornography that Williams describes as promising to incite a woman’s authentic sexual pleasure (50). Wainwright’s photographs makes the hidden, self-reliant Juche state as invisible to outside eyes as “the phantom penis men search for” (Williams 49), “ideally visible; although on display for the viewer, it goes about its business as if unaware of being watched” (45). As Williams proposes of the hard core, these secret images, in contrast to those released by the North Korean media of soldiers marching with surgical precision or seas of people playing pixels in stadium-sized tableaus, “obsessively seek knowledge, through a voyeuristic record of confessional, involuntary paroxysm, of the ‘thing’ itself” (49). This voyeurism devolves into a bizarre enjoyment that seems to derive more from such images’ revelation and validation of a fetishized North Korean dystopia than any earnest human rights concern.
In this way, Wainwright’s completely people-less images of North Korean interiors induce the excitement of pornography by fulfilling the hard-core perversion for “maximum visibility” (Williams 48). Workers, employees, or Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il dot a select few, but the presence of these faces possibly even detracts from the attractive power of Wainwright’s photos. We are captivated by the perfect “axial symmetry” and the “preschool colors,” which ooze a sort of imaginary childhood perfection, precisely because they fulfill a dollhouse fantasy we can populate with our own actors in the absence of faces that could have borne testament their own truths. In the negative emotional space of the sterile fluorescent light, unsullied colors, and untouched chairs, we fill in our own excitation, imagining the psychopathy of stiff men who can contain the capacity to condone concentration camps while their bottoms plant themselves in the prim mint green seats of an emerald green lecture hall. As Foucault describes, the scientia sexualis triggers in us less the impulse to see the sexual act itself than a yearning to reconstruct “in and around the act, the thoughts that recapitulated it, the obsessions that accompanied it, the images, desires, modulations, and quality of the pleasure that animated it” (qtd. in Williams 35). Wainwright’s images of North Korean interiors provide the forbidden canvases of the “most isolated country in the world” onto which we can fully project our wildest Orwellian fantasies.
In his preface to The Valley, a series of photographs that captures life on and off the sets of pornos shot in the tract homes of the San Fernando Valley, photographer Larry Sultan explains that “the event of filming creates a sexualized zone in which the gestures, rituals and scenes…take on a peculiar weight and density” (9). In their lack of human subject, Wainright’s photographs indeed imbue every line and curve with added significance, a nearly sexual tension: the five-fold sweep of the National Theatre’s seashell pink walls transforms from backdrop to emotive actor, conveying a sensual, feminine aura we ponder as the product of a regime-appointed architect. Yet when we study Sultan’s photographs, which sometimes contain actual penetration, landing strips, and bellies gleaming with post-coital sweat, against Wainwright’s photographs of Pyongyang, they feel flaccid in comparison to the attractive power of Wainwright’s purely architectural studies.
Both series of photographs rely on architectural interiors to connote a precise emotional atmosphere: Sultan’s own childhood home in the Valley bore the same “marble-tile floors, Formica kitchen counters, and twelve-foot fireplace” whose approximation of the “good life” now attracts porn directors seeking luxury and indulgence to properly code their scenes (9); Kim Jong-il decreed that North Korean architecture should radiate the values of “convenient, cosy, beautiful and durable” (Wainwright). But while Wainwright makes North Korea’s interiors his subject through his purposeful communication of their axial symmetry, the disorganization of Sultan’s photographs—both innate to the environment and purposely composed in his framing—treats his interiors as mere backdrops to the much more emotionally charged people at their heart. Sometimes totally naked, his human subjects wear their surroundings like an actor’s wardrobe yet stand apart from the coded mood that the red velvet sofas, gilded clocks, and floral wallpapers exude. In Chandler Boulevard,5 a woman in a tight blue pantsuit, hand thrust down her pants, smiles childishly up at what could only be a friend sharing an inside joke, her impish joy countering the “O” of pleasure we expect her face to be contorted into. In Backyard Reseda,6 a buff male actor coyly covers his genitals with his hands, his head tilted in embarrassed suspicion of the camera taking in his nudity from behind the leaves of a tree branch. In Patio, Bosque Drive,7 an older brunette, with her large, dark areolas and lazy lean, gazes from her plastic patio chair with the loving look of your own mother on a summer’s evening by the pool. In putting on display the intimate, off-duty moments of the actors of our pornographic imaginations, Sultan’s photographs confuse and refuse to fulfill our images of their sex-oriented raison d’être.
In every way that the content and the composition of Wainwright’s photographs appear to us in perfect form—sterile, manicured, symmetrical (“North Korean people like to look their best for photos,” explained Wainwright’s guide)—Sultan’s photographs find life in imperfection. A handful of plates—Bosque Drive, Tasha’s Third Film, Woman in Garden, Woman in Rollers—depict actresses lounging around in their hair curlers between takes, a moment of preparation not meant for the lens. He describes the feeling like “something went wrong” that he gets from the lingering presence of the houses’ loaners (“A nuclear scientist with oily skin; A couple from Germany who spent the afternoon cutting up vegetables for an elaborate dinner that they prepared together” (9)), as even the frames devoid of people are infused with human dirt. They are neither sterile nor fraught with the tension of a sexual moment but as relaxed and untidy as the childhood memories Sultan sprinkles throughout his introduction.
Sultan perfectly captures the mood of his series in his description of the shooting experience itself: “Being on a film set is a bit like those endless summer days of high school: hanging out, waiting for something to happen, snacking, even when you’re not hungry; napping in the middle of the day” (8). While the roll of paper towels laying on the floor of Satsuma Studio may carry the mysterious weight and density that the sexualized zone that photographing naturally endows, the just-off framing and timing of his photographs in fact erase all tension from their sexual content—his photographs are unconcerned. Mulholland Drive, #2,8 a superlative embodiment of The Valley’s tone, coincidentally shares certain features with Wainwright’s image of the May Day Stadium locker room—the teal walls, the diagonal treatment of the room—but their formal similarities part ways here. The scientific clarity of Wainwright’s photo finds immediate opposition in a vase, ornately scrolled and full of fake flowers, whose blurrily close position in the extreme foreground obscures half of the scene—behind it, we can barely make out a chaotic film setup. Where before the portraits of North Korea’s supreme leaders hung in modest neatness on the left wall, here, a humongous painting of a watermill, reminiscent of a tapestry in its muted tones and rough texture, looms over the ‘L’ formed by two velvety couches with heart-shaped backs. A man whose shoes sit beside his socked feet slumps over one of their arms, and barely visible from behind the obstructing flowers, a woman sinks into the other couch, her spread-eagled legs revealing a fuzzy square of pubic hair from which her kneeling female costar has just turned and is smiling at the man. Her teeth gleam from an infinitesimal slice of space between two leaves of the obtrusive bouquet. In their bodily ease with each other, the three make oral sex look like the sort of fun any good trio of friends would have together on a casual afternoon. “I want to see but I don’t. I pretend not to look,” writes Sultan (9), but his own shyness—a stark contrast to American hunger for North Korean inside scoops—stems not so much from viewing something obscene than from the guilt of trespassing on a private moment.
Both Sultan and Wainwright’s photographs offer us inside looks—behind the scenes footage that is not supposed to make the final porno’s cut, sneak peeks into rooms not sanctioned for American eyes to see—and so both practice the sort of “maximum visibility” that Williams describes as essential to the hard core. But as evidenced by both series, such exposure still fails to decisively render “nakedness” into pornography. Sultan lingers upon imperfect moments, studying them lovingly, and thus allows his subjects and his spaces in their personal imperfections a level of interiority we cannot hope to penetrate; their imperfection diminishes the maximum visibility that the hard core promises. Leaving imperfections untreated, Sultan fails to make the necessary leap after maximum visibility that Wainwright achieves. Just as the “anesthetizing aesthetic” of North Korea’s socialist fairyland architecture acts as “candy-coloured decoys that distract from a reality of mass poverty across the country” (Wainright), Wainwright participates in the very practice of the regime he abhors by making sure “every view and prospect is carefully framed” in his own photographs. He “[re]assembles from crisp, unreal planes of colour” the same highly theatrical ambrosia, repurposed in his images to placate the American peeping tom fetish instead.
As Albert Goldbarth explains in his poem “The Origin of Porno,” once we see all four feet of Muybridge’s horse leave the ground, “and so [then] we invent pornography” (qtd. in Williams 34). Maximum visibility, while it promises to reveal hidden truths of untold satisfaction, oft reveals imperfect truths less appealing than we fantasized. North Korea is in fact a country inhabited by real people trying to make their lives day to day. Deep throating is more likely to cause gagging and watery eyes than to cause perfectly mascaraed lashes to flutter in pleasure-giving satisfaction. The powerful horse appears awkward and leggy at twenty-four frames per second. The pornographic contrast between Wainright’s North Korean Interiors and Larry Sultan’s The Valley makes Williams’ and Foucault’s point that actual sex does not stand at the crux of pornography, but it also demonstrates that maximum visibility alone cannot stir an image into sexualized frenzy. Ultimately, hard-core pleasure concludes in refabrication: inventing in the image of our own preexisting fantasies the “involuntary confession” we wished to uncover.
Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. UN Human Rights Council, 25th Session. A/HRC/25/63. Geneva. 7 Feb 2014. United Nations Human Rights. Web. 16 May 2014.
Iyer, Maya. “Starving Children In North Korea React to Kim Jong-Un Like He’s Justin Bieber.” News.Mic. 23 May 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.
Kogonada. Wes Anderson//Centered. Vimeo video, 2:23. 17 Mar. 2014. https://vimeo.com/89302848
northkoreaninteriors. North Korean Interiors. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://northkoreaninteriors.tumblr.com/.
Present & Correct. Wes Anderson Palettes. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. http://wesandersonpalettes.tumblr.com/
Silverman, Kaja. The Miracle of Analogy, or The History of Photography, Part 1. Stanford: Standford University Press. 2015. Print.
Sultan, Larry. The Valley. Zurich: Scalo Publishers. 2005. Print.
Wainwright, Oliver. “Moonrise kingdom: why North Korea’s buildings echo Wes Anderson film sets.” The Guardian. 2 Nov. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
Wainwright, Oliver. “The Pyonghattan project: how North Korea’s capital is transforming into a ‘socialist fairyland.’” The Guardian. 11 Sep. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2015
Williams, Linda. Hard Core. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Print.