Fantasy Residency in North Korea: Please don’t take off the lids. The pots are empty.; Jooyoung Lee

Jooyoung Lee has not been to North Korea. “None of the photographs in this book were taken in North Korea.” The work contained within Fantasy Residency in North Korea, eight essays, conversations and other writings each followed by a series of photographs, was made by Lee in Berlin during a residency through PROGRAM. PROGRAM’s (now defunct) residency was aimed at testing the disciplinary boundaries of architecture through collaborations with other fields.

During her residency, Lee worked on her project “Let’s Walk and Chat Together,” which was “devised as an introduction to the city through the establishment of a more personal connection to the architecture and history by means of an exploration and excavation of the different historical and social layers” by means of collaborative walking tours. She invited anyone to walk with her in order to introduce her to their favorite and most emblematic places in Berlin. From these walks she conceived of the formerly divided Berlin as a stand in for the still divided Korean peninsula. From the photographs created during these walks, came the seeds for FRiNK.

Each chapter is a pairing of text and photographs. The photographs respond to and expand upon the ideas presented in the preceding section of text.

The first two chapters establish the analogy linking North Korea and the formerly divided Berlin and the political reality of the North/South division. In these sections, Lee “encounters” a North Korean man. The book then shifts to the emotional space of dislocation via Thomas Mader’s short story about a man lost in his hometown: the familiar made strange, neighbors made strangers. A conversation between Lee and Kyungchul Hyon takes us back to the Korean divide: Hyon is a North Korean studying at the Goethe Institute in Berlin. The two, one from the North and one from the South, walk together. During their walk they discuss the oddity of their even being in conversation, the emotions elicited by the site of the Berlin Wall and the political reality that surrounds and infuses their conversation. Chapter five is another conversation, this one between Lee and Friedmann Helms, who grew up in East Berlin until the age of 15 and later visited the DPRK to mark the 20th anniversary of German reunification. Helms describes the emotional experience of leaving East Germany and the strangeness of visiting North Korea–it is his description of seeing East German subway cars from his youth in the DPRK is poignant. This is followed by a free verse poetic interpretation by Lee of things Friedmann said. The next essay, written by Soohyun Kim, muses on what comprises a city. She argues for a broadly inclusive definition that allows for contemporary urban planning to accommodate the widely divergent social realities present in modern urban spaces. The final text is an artist’s statement wherein Lee explains the ideas that triggered FRiNK.

The series of photographs that follow each text are abstract. Though some refer directly to the texts, most are suggestive rather than descriptive: a woman looking at a fenced courtyard; a shower faucet, a stairwell window, a tightly cropped building facade; a handwritten note in Arabic on a notebook page, a boy playing soccer behind a gate, a bicycle leaning against a wall beneath the shadows of (cypress?) trees; two flash-lit men looking out into a darkness, coffee and kimchi, a woman photographing a man beside a pile of sandbags, an overpass support, a row of light bulbs,a beer, that boy playing soccer again, the exterior of a building (the same as that from the photograph in the first chapter). These are like memories drawn from a walk–details that have caught the eye. One building and its surrounds seems to draw the eye more frequently: the North Korean Embassy. Or, I presume it is the North Korean Embassy. Or maybe it is only the embassy imagined and projected from within the photographer (and by extension the viewer).

The design is straightforward with a Bauhaus vibe: functional, clear. The chapter title pages are stark: large white lettering on black pages. The texts are presented in Korean on the right hand page and in English on the left. The photographs run as though scrolling downwards on a webpage; when one hits the bottom of a printed page images are cut off and continued on the next page. As a photographer it is frustrating that the photographs are dark, their tones compressed and that many of the best are cut in two, but the photography is very much secondary here. It is an avenue by which Lee can get to where she is going.

I don’t have a clever closing for this review. The strong cover type and simple design initially drew me to the book. The form factor, the small format black and white photography and the political nature of the content are all right in the sweet spot of what interests me as a collector. And yet, I’ve never felt a strong affinity for the book. It’s held my interest but not elicited any strong emotional response. I suppose that is the review in condensed form: interesting ideas, very good design, no emotional connection.

Title: Fantasy Residency in North Korea: Please don’t take off the lids. The pots are empty.
Project, Text & Photography: Jooyoung Lee
Text Contributors: Soohyun Kim, Thomas Mader
Translations: Eunjoo Lee, Eunhee Park, Hoyun Son, Alysia Kim
Graphic Design: Ohyun Kwon

First Edition: November 2010
Supported by: Art Council of Korea & PROGRAM e.V.