In what appears to be a curious dichotomy, the whimsical stylistic signature of auteur Wes Anderson is found in one of few countries under a socialist rule, North Korea. When Melbourne-based photographer Dave Kulesza set on an exploration of the country’s mysterious capital, Pyongyang, both startling beauty and Wes-whimsy became tropes for a new attitude towards the state’s stereotypical brand: order and politics.
“The very first location we visited was the Grand People’s Study House. What caught my eye immediately was an elevator, where a green chair and carpet where half visible from the inside. In that moment I felt like I was on a Wes Anderson set. The tour guides weren’t excited, this is the daily standard for them, but I was in awe. I was so drawn to it. The architecture, colour palette and design are best described as Wes Anderson-esque.” says Dave Kulesza.
In November 2019 he released DPRK: North Korea in Colour a photographic series that documents his travels over the course of three days. Understanding the maligned preconception of the country, Kulesza was uninterested in skewing a narrative, “When you think of North Korea the idea of missiles and military parades can be quite intimidating. We associate the country with dark and depressing imagery, but I saw light and colour and beautiful, subtle tones. If you go in with an open mind it can be the most incredible experience you can have.”
The Extended Series, exhibiting from December 5 to December 14 at the Fenton & Fenton showroom in Prahran, sees the addition of 20 new Fine Art Prints to the original series. Aligned intentionally one year from the opening series, this body of work continues to explore design, structure, and the association of colour flowing fluently throughout the Hermit Kingdom’s capital.
“The original series has 15 prints. It was difficult to cull – I was still playing with the layout right up until the point I had to submit them to the printer! This extension showcases a kitsch style that you see everywhere in Pyongyang; it has a karaoke vibe, which I felt didn’t tie in with the original series. But after a year, when I looked at the photos with fresh eyes, I saw how it accented my previous work. The extended series dials up the colour tempo.”
Strange and unfamiliar, in a world that seemed unrecognisable as our own, the photographer’s vantage was a capital punctuated with towering architecture, balanced proportions and blasts of colour, “North Korea is a cut off country, especially in terms of digital consumption – it’s effectively nonexistent. So, all your senses are used. It smells old in certain places. It’s a visual explosion of colour. Looking up you see structures, looking in front of you, you see vibrance. We’re so used to being captivated by our devices; going cold turkey in North Korea is a great thing. It’s a real and tangible experience.”
“The colours are incredible – it’s a wash of pastels across the entire city. It was repainted sometime between April and August, just before I got there. Heavy, dark, and bold colours were replaced with a more subdued palette. What was dark greens, deep pinks and yellows is now pastels. Everywhere I went I saw captivating elements of colour.”
Being forced into a visual environment without the distraction of technology fueled the course of the adventure, “I didn’t know what I’d see at each of the locations, so there was no planning, you had to be switched on the whole time. I only had one shot. It was a forward moving journey and whatever happened, happened. I was only photographing what I could see. From every opportunity possible … even the window of our moving van.”
Albeit a happy accident, Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse – intense detail, extreme symmetry and saturated colour – was paid homage to in the collection, “This series is very experimental, it doesn’t reflect too much on the commercial work I do. There was so much colour to work with and structural elements to play with, it’s a Wes Anderson tribute in a way. I love his work; his style of shooting is beautiful. I wanted to honour what I saw in Pyongyang through the lens of my perception; it’s politically neutral. I photographed it in the way I wanted to.”