Philippe Chancel
Open Eye, Wood Street (1st December 2006 - 3rd February 2007, Tues - Sat: 10.30am - 5.30pm)

Reviewed by Adam Ford

There is something ironic about a gallery that stands opposite a Starbucks café holding an exhibition that seeks to show the repression and uniformity of North Korea. It’s hard to decide which persecutes its workers more, Kim Jong-il’s state machinery or the coffee company. But it doesn’t really matter, because North Korea has huge oil reserves, just as Iraq does, so the Bush administration and international allies want ‘regime change’ in North Korea, just as they did in Iraq. In the wet dreams of some rich Americans there are already Starbucks branches in the capital city Pyongyang.

This isn’t the most exciting exhibition of all time. Not surprisingly, given the subject matter, many of the images seem bland and uninspiring. I’m sure that was Chancel’s intention, because he talks about it in the blurb, but it certainly doesn’t make for an absorbing visit. By default, this amounts to nothing more than pro-U.S. propaganda, and mirrors the crimes that Chancel (justifiably) seems to be accusing the North Korean dictator of. The French photographer was apparently given permission to come and go as he pleased, so why didn’t he stray from the manicured world of well-healed bureaucrats (apart from one shot of a tower block, like we don’t have those)? If he took photos in the American equivalents, the expressions would be equally forced. Yes, North Korea has a cemetery for ‘revolutionary martyrs’, but the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC is rapidly filling up with war dead. Yes, there are military statues in Pyongyang, but there are many in Liverpool, and probably almost every city in the world. Yes, the ‘socialist realism’ murals – with absurdly happy looking workers beaming at their glorious future in the middle distance – are just propaganda pictures, but they aren’t that different from the corporate adverts that poison our minds hundreds of times a day with their promises of instant fulfilment if only we buy a deodorant, new sofa, or self-help book.

In fact, I’ve just invented a much better exhibition. Take photos of repression in North Korea, and then compare it with repression in the United States and call it ‘A Plague On Both Your Houses’. Chancel’s effort isn’t worth the admission fee, and that’s only the energy it would cost you to walk up the stairs.

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