North Korea’s state-owned national airline Air Koryo is just as complex as the country. In his photobook, Dear Sky: The Planes and People of North Korea’s Airline, Dutch photographer Arthur Mebius (b. 1971) provides insight into this complicated country and its national airline.
Mebius’ book looks at how, despite international sanctions and environmental restrictions reducing the airline’s global destinations, with only China and Vladivostok remaining, Air Koryo is still in business. The old Antonovs, Ilyushins and Tupolevs – all types of aircrafts – rarely fly abroad and therefore seem superfluous. Nevertheless, the airline’s aircrafts and crew are kept ready for operation. Mebius looks beyond the seemingly frivolous dimension of the airline’s existence to photograph all of the people and pieces involved in Air Koryo, creating a narrative about the airline’s history and current routine.
Dear Sky offers a reportage of the day to day of the airline’s operations, in and around the planes, together with various close-ups ranging from the stewardesses’ shoes to the wheels. The photos are accented with illustrations of airplane diagrams, one of which bleeds into a photograph, drawing our attention to the constructed nature of this photobook and, more significantly, of the North Korean airline itself. The photographs taken on board the aircraft show only a smattering of passengers and many empty seats –illustrating how few people use the airplanes and perhaps more importantly how few people have access to it.
Mebius includes five short anecdotes, fictive though based on actual historical events, in the photobook. Each text, dated from 1953 to 2016, gives some insight into North Korea’s history and contributes to the overall narrative of how Air Koryo operates.
The artist uses a diverse quality of photographs, both colour and black and white, to argue a perspective of the airline that makes us call into question politics of control and also evokes a sense of further curiosity about North Koreans. For example, we see a man sitting cross-legged on the grass near an airplane, mysteriously calm and content. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a man in a suit and tie walks on top of the airplane, offering a question of control.
The complex messages of these images, combined with the flipping back and forth between colour and black and white photographs, illustrations and texts, reminds us of the conscious formation of narrative when it comes to history. In this way, Mebius’ project addresses the blurred boundaries between the idea and the reality of North Korea, its people and national airline.
Dear Sky is available for purchase through The Eriskay Connection.