Consider for a moment if you could smuggle film out of North Korea. Maybe if you were a legitimately trained spy looking for military secrets or a religious zealot bent on showing the world that God’s word still somehow penetrates their version of the Iron Curtain and sustains the repressed peoples of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, but what if you were a Canadian conceptual photographer in her mid-thirties? What if you were just smuggling film out to make art? Is there a higher purpose to motivate such bravery?
As the story goes, the black and white 35mm film that forms the basis for Nathalie Daoust’s Korean Dreams was shot with a Nikon F3 by Daoust herself on a 2012 trip to North Korea while on a tour with a Chinese tour company. Her camera just hung from its strap in the open, but Daoust used a hidden shutter release cable to make many of the exposures without her omnipresent government minder’s knowledge. Owing to its analog medium, the minders could not review any of the images she had shot. Owing to Daoust’s cleverness, I would suspect that she passed herself off as an unsophisticated and unthreatening Western tourist who didn’t even have a digital camera. It would be several years later when the world would learn the fate of Otto Warmbier’s far less seditious attempt to take a propaganda poster from a hotel room wall. If she had been discovered, things would not have worked out well for Nathalie Daoust.
At the risk of getting myself sprayed in the face with a killer nerve agent on my next trip to Kuala Lumpur, l would venture to say that not only is Daoust’s work compelling for the context in which it was created, but for the hands-on, analog technique used to make the prints. First, she made a contact positive from the smuggled film negatives. Next she stripped away a layer of the emulsion from the positive and made another negative. She then repeated the process several times, each generation losing more of the initial information. Daoust likens the process to the redactive methods that the North Korean government uses to obscure the truth about the living conditions of the North Korean people. Then she stained the prints in coffee. If there is a deeper meaning to that step, it escapes me.
In fact there may be several deeper levels to Daoust’s work left unconsidered (including a better understanding of the practice of Korean dream analysis that may play a role in the show’s title), but let it suffice to say that the effort it took to bring this view of the North Korean people to Albuquerque is enough to warrant a good long look. It is unlikely that the North Koreans will soon have such a contemplative view of us.