Archive for the ‘Communism’ tag
In Nadav Kander’s photographic series ‘Yangtze, The Long River’, depicting China’s largest and culturally most important river, bridges are a re-occurring theme. In above photograph the huge but yet unfinished structure of a bridge represents China’s economic emergence. The two sides of the bridge also signifies two ideologies, communist and capitalist, the meeting point of which is yet to be discovered. And while the state is seeking for an agreeable convergence for such paradoxical ideologies, it is the people, throughout Kander’s work, that appear overwhelmed by the (state) structures they are surrounded by. Here, Kander also appears to focus on an encounter between ‘new’ and ‘old’ China: the wires hanging off the giant bridge are mirrored by the fishing lines held by the people below.
The structure of the bridge also evokes the proscenium arch located above a theatre stage. Following this visual allegory, the people standing below become performers to Kander’s camera further underlining the dominant trope of grandeur explored in the photographs. The Long River, as the Yangtze is called, requires structures that can cope with the unpredictability of nature. The bridge thus appears to represent the desire of the state to control nature, but also, to control its people. The most extreme form of such control can be seen in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity producing dam in the world. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky already photographed the surroundings of the Yangtze in his photographic series ‘Three Gorges Dam Project’ in 2002. While Burtynksy concentrated on the destruction of communities and the subsequent displacement of people caused by the building of the dam, Kander, on the other hand, chooses to depict a landscape that is yet to be completed.
Despite Kander’s fascination with the built environment which, in turn, vigorously expresses China’s economic might and aspirations, the photographs represent a fragile world. In above photograph, a bridge segment appears to balance precariously on a single pillar at a few hundred meters altitude. The scaffolding similarly suggests that these structures, as enormous they might be, are built on fragile ground. The folkloristic powers ascribed to the Long River threaten the very structures built by the state. It is perhaps a pessimistic interpretation of Kander’s Yangtze, that the bridging of ideologies will require more than concrete and steel.
Nadav Kander: Yangtze, The Long River is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
A tumblr site dedicated to Kim Jong Il Looking at Things is the latest online craze in visual culture. As the title of the site suggests, it’s a collection of photographs depicting the North Korean dictator ostensibly caught in moments of ‘looking’. By now, the site is so popular that the tumblr server periodically breaks down. The timing of the tumblr site is impeccable: launched on the 26th of October 2010 by an anonymous user in Lisbon, Portugal, the site was barely up and running for a month as North Korean missiles hit South Korean targets, killing two civilians on the 22nd of November 2010. By that time, the tumblr site already had a solid following. In this time of mounting tension between the two Koreas, it appears that Kim Jong Il’s image was never as popular as it is now.
What is it about these photographs that makes them so popular? As the viewer is looking at Kim Jong Il, he is looking at fish, a factory, a radish, a powerpoint presentation and so forth. Sigmund Freud defined this dualistic relationship between the pleasure of looking and being looked at as Schaulust, or scopophilia. The viewer is drawn to these photographs of Kim Jong Il by the scopophilic drive to encounter the Other. Here, the Other is a notorious dictator, bathing in the cult of personality, reigning over a introverted and closed off regime once described by George W. Bush being part of the ‘axis of evil’. In a sense, the popularity of photographs of Kim Jong Il points to the desire to put a face to this Western construct of evil.
The anonymous photographer taking these pictures must have worked under immense pressure to produce flattering images of Kim Jong Il. One of the big problems is that Kim Jong Il is short built and, despite a special pair of plateau shows, consistently appears smaller than those who are supposed to be ‘below’ him. The photographer seeks to avoid this visual contradiction by photographing Kim Jong Il from a lower vantage point. This methodology is apparent in most photographs in which Kim Jong Il conducts so-called ‘tours of field guidance’ – a tradition he inherited from his father Kim Il Sung. In the photograph of Kim Jong Il looking at wheat for instance, the lower vantage point of the camera underlines his position as leader, looking forward, his gaze directed to the future, while everyone else (including the camera and by extension the viewer) is looking at him. The tragic irony in photographs of Kim Jong Il looking at his country’s agriculture is that chronic food shortages have caused millions of deaths in North Korea over the last two decades. Here, the photograph is clearly part of a propaganda apparatus that seeks to establish that the North Korean regime is capable of feeding its own people.
However, the photographs are also, although they are not intended to be, tragically funny. There is for example the image of Kim Jong Il holding a radish with this right hand. The left hand, like in most photographs of the ‘Dear Leader’, remains hidden or tucked into a pocket. The West has long been speculating that Kim Jong Il’s health is fading and that his left side of the body is partially paralyzed. In the photograph, the physical decline of Kim Jong Il is signified by the radish (the phallus) pointing downwards thus prompting a look of disapproval by the dictator. Next to Kim Jong Il is his Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho, one of the most senior military officers in North Korea, with a notepad. A cursory glance at the collection of photographs reveals that people standing next to or near Kim Jong Il customarily carry a notepad and a pen. They are, as it appears in the images, always prepared to make a note of sudden bursts of ingenuity exclaimed by Kim Jong Il. He is the speaker while others make note of it.
And while senior military staff and members of the Politbüro are always prepared for guidance by their leader, the photographer too, is prepared to react when Kim Jong Il indulges in his well-known eccentricities. In one image he puts on a straw hat, while in another he appears to crack a joke about a red bucket. These are the kind of uncanny moments that humanize Kim Jong Il. The photographs of him smiling and making others smile don’t sit well in the larger context of military aggression and brutal state oppression. The discomfort felt looking at these photographs of Kim Jong Il is comparable to a key scene in ‘The Downfall’ in which Adolf Hitler is depicted petting his German Shepherd. How can evil be caring? In the same way, how can evil be funny?
This is maybe the main reason why these photographs have become so popular recently: the uncanny desire for a visual encounter with the Other during a time in which a simple dichotomization between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ through a Bushian looking glass seems to fail. And while American and South Korean warships gather in the East China Sea in preparation for an all out war with Pyongyang, effectively turning the geopolitical gaze from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to North Korea, a little site depicting a little man keeps on attracting new visitors eager to look at him – trying to understand, who is this man.
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This is the moment when the main protagonist in the East German film The Architects says goodbye to his wife and daughter who received permission to escape to the West. In the background you see a sign that says ‘Ausreise’, or ‘Emigration’, a word so rarely applicable to the citizens of the closed-off German Democratic Republic. As the director Peter Kahane has explained in an interview, filming the scene was fraught with difficulties because as The Architects was produced in 1989, the borders between East and West Germany were in themselves evaporating. The bizarre encounter between fictional and real events in The Architects is best encapsulated in the moment the daughter leaves her father behind, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands East Germans escape to the West in actuality. The painful breakup of the family becomes the reminder of the traumatic breakup of the Germanies more than four decades earlier.
Director Peter Kahane in interview.
The central plot of the film focuses on the planning of a large housing estate on the outskirts of East Berlin by a young team of idealistic architects. The architects’ disillusionment with the construction of the housing estate can be read as a critique against the repressive state apparatus. The state’s constant meddling with the architects’ plans for the estate therefore becomes a metaphor for the lack of civil liberties in the German Democratic Republic. Considering that The Architects was granted full financial support from the East German funding body for propaganda films (DEFA) as early as 1988, the film is not only surprisingly critical towards the communist regime, but the support of the film itself signifies the collapse of an ideology even in institutions considered loyal to the regime.
The filming for The Architects began in earnest in September 1989, just as the border between East and West Germany began to erode. The constant flow of people to West Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 even threatened the very production of The Architects itself, as the director Peter Kahane feared for losing his production team. Far from merely depicting the dissolution of ideological and geographic borders, The Architects is in itself an active constituent of this collapse in its own right. While it might not be the End of History as postulated by Francis Fukuyama, The Architects does nevertheless cinematically mark the end of a particularly autocratic and stifling version of communism in East Germany. It would become one of the last films ever funded by DEFA, also marking the end of nearly 40 years of propaganda films and visual culture produced for the indoctrination of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic. One of the ironies of The Architects is that as the political events of 1989 unfolded so rapidly, by the time the film came out in spring 1990, the history it depicted was already buried in the past. The Architects, caught up in the collapse of the regime it sought to critique, would eventually flop in the deserted cinemas of a united Germany.
This blog post is an abbreviated version of an extended book chapter titled ‘The Collapse of Ideology in Peter Kahane’s The Architects‘ to be published in the forthcoming collection Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema, 1945-2010 edited by Raita Merivirta, Heta Mulari, Kimmo Ahonen and Rami Mahka.