The shrill voice of a North Korean woman serves as the discordant background to the barely audible murmur of Magnum photographer Chang Chien-chi (張乾琦), an auditory juxtaposition that shows how Chang blends into the background of Asia’s most repressive police states. Even when speaking he’s an inconspicuous presence.
No, we are not in Pyongyang, but at TheCube Project Space (立方計畫空間) in Taipei’s Gongguan (公館) neighborhood, where we are discussing Escape From North Korea (脫北者) and Burmese Days (在緬甸的日子), two exhibitions of his that depict, from different perspectives, life in those totalitarian states. The screeching voice, a kind of noise pollution, is a sound installation that gives the listener a sense of what people in North Korea must regularly endure.
TheCube show presents five large-scale black-and-white photographs — four taken on a trip to Pyongyang last year — and Escape From North Korea, a video installation that documents the dangerous journey a group of North Korean defectors underwent to escape. The video earned Chang the 2011 Anthropographia Award for Human Rights.
The second exhibition, Burmese Days, is on view at Chi-Wen Gallery (其玟畫廊). It presents about a dozen color photographs taken during Chang’s travels throughout Myanmar, as well as a video installation meant to give viewers a taste of the many contradictions within Burmese society. Both exhibits are based on photographic essays shot for National Geographic. Though the exhibits are at different venues, they are thematically linked. The works on display document the poverty afflicting the majority of people living in these repressive countries and the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of oppression.
What: Escape From North Korea (脫北者)
When: Open Tuesdays through Sundays from 12pm to 7pm. Until March 17
Where: TheCube Project Space (立方計畫空間), 2F, 13, Alley 1, Ln 136, Roosevelt Rd Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市羅斯福路四段136巷1弄13號2樓), tel: (02) 2368-9418
On the Net: thecubespace.com
What: Burmese Days (在緬甸的日子)
When: Until March 24
Where: Chi-Wen Gallery (其玟畫廊), 3F, 19, Ln 252, Dunhua S Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市敦化南路一段252巷19號3樓), tel: (02) 8771-3372
On the Net: www.chiwengallery.com
What is striking about both series is the physical absence of what George Orwell called Big Brother. Sure, there are the monumental edifices built by and for these dictators — the military junta’s lavish new capital in Naypyidaw, or Pyongyang’s shrines built for the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. But for the most part, Chang’s subject matter is the average person struggling to make it through another day.
Burmese Days, for example, features several psychologically penetrating images of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. But the faces of the generals who rule over Myanmar with an iron fist are nowhere to be found. The same series includes photos of people living with HIV and AIDS, farmers, fishermen and monks, all rendered with Chang’s exceptional sense of geometric composition, but nothing of the wealthy ruling class. There are photos of the Kachin Independence Army, but nothing depicting Myanmar’s official military apparatus.
Escape From North Korea shows a 2008 picture of a defector, the young woman’s despondent face looking away from the camera; linked to this shot is a black-and-white photo of a socialist realist painting of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-song rendered as though they are deities.
Burmese Days and Escape From North Korea contrast Chang’s earlier work — the portraits of shackled mental patients in The Chain, for example, or his sardonic look at Taiwan’s wedding industry in I Do, I Do, I Do and Double Happiness — in that he is no longer examining an institution within society, but society itself.
Taipei Times: What is the backstory of Burmese Days, the gallery exhibit based on Burma: Inside the Land of Shadows?