Having travelled across multiple American states and covering a distance of more than 6,000 kilometres along the China-North Korean border, the first Singaporean Nobel Peace Prize photographer, Sim Chi Yin, tells her compelling story through a series of photos of our time today on nuclear weapons.
Titled “Most People Were Silent”, her solo exhibition juxtaposes nuclear sites in North Korea – the only country to test nuclear weapons in the 21st century – with the United States, the first country to have ever tested and used them.
Working with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the global civil society group that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the photos showcased in “Most People Were Silent” were also the collective result of her exhibition series, “Fallout”, which was commissioned last year for the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition.
Chi Yin took photos of the vast landscapes of nuclear sites and relics from both countries with the intention of creating a series of diptychs reflecting on mankind’s history and experience with nuclear weapons. Looking at these pictures alone, one will find it difficult to tell which country these photos were shot in. In fact, in two videos showcased for this exhibition, what seemed to be the same picturesque mountain range were two separate locations in USA and North Korea. With ominous sirens and past recordings of incessant chatter in missile silos filling the room, the nuclear threat feels more real than ever.
We had the opportunity to speak to Chi Yin to find out more about finessing around missile silos for the perfect shots, her thoughts on the recent Trump-Kim summit, and the inner workings behind her solo nuclear exhibition, Most People Were Silent.
What was the main inspiration behind this exhibition series?
I was commissioned to do this by the Nobel Peace Prize Centre last year and I think the consideration was to create an open-ended series of pictures that would draw people in on the bigger issue, which is a very polarising one. I set out to make a body of work that was not didactic (and) didn’t scream of anti-nuclear messaging from the outset. I was trying to find a way to invite people in to be reflective and meditative of this issue instead of screaming the message from the get-go. That was the consideration and I came up with this idea that I would make a series of abstract landscapes.
The landscapes were pretty interesting, we couldn’t tell that they were from different locations.
Yes, that was deliberate. In the original work, which is currently on show in Oslo, Norway, as well as Italy, the pictures are paired and placed side by side. These pairs are specifically created with some kind of visual relationship with each other. In this show (in Singapore), the pictures were taken apart and the whole gallery becomes a big diptych; the suspension of space takes place throughout the whole gallery. It is good that you can’t tell apart (the location of the photos), and that is the intention of the work – to get (people) to be confused about what they were looking at.
The idea is such that if you can’t figure out if what you are looking at is North Korea or the USA, then how do we arrive at the moral judgements that we have: that certain states are good and certain states are bad, that x number of warhead’s too many, or too few?
You did this photo series in the midst of mounting tensions between the USA and North Korea at the end of 2017. What were some of the challenges you faced while doing this series?
Not in any way did we face any political pressure, the only thing was that we tried to apply for a lot of permissions in the USA, and in one of the places we were told that we could not get permission even when we escalated it to diplomatic levels. We were told something along the lines of not being able to photograph an active test site under the current administration. On the China-North Korea border, they were extremely careful about the people in the vicinity. So there were a lot of border checks to get around (places).
Do you think it has become harder today compared to the past to access these borders?
I think it has become harder, clearly the Chinese (have become) more vigilant. The nuclear tests that the North Koreans performed in September last year felt like earthquakes on the Chinese side as some of these places were really close. It is not an abstract thing for the Chinese living there; knives rattled in the kitchens and children were evacuated from schools so it is a pretty concrete thing. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that they are more vigilant today.
Do you have any interesting stories of your journey or the photographs that you will like to share?
Every picture was hard (to take). Some of the more interesting ones were getting into missile silos in the US and climbing all over them. I climbed into airplanes to take photos of the B-52 bombers which were dismantled. I often joke that I am one of the shortest photographers around, and I am always trying to find things to climb, getting onto platforms to shoot so that the photos are kept straight. In this case, we couldn’t find a cherry picker or a ladder that’s tall enough, so the PR offered to let me climb over those airplanes and I climbed out of an escape hatch – I had to keep one leg in so that I do not fall.
Another amazing one was climbing into the eyeball-like structure which is actually a radar complex. It’s a pyramid structure in the middle of nowhere and we spent all day climbing all over it.
What are some of your favourite exhibits for your show in Singapore?
I do have some particular favourites; one of them being the night-time shot of an unknown factory-making thing across the North Korean border. It was visually striking and if I were to speak from the realm of my imagination, it does resemble a rocket. I shot that photo whilst in a car as we cannot be too obvious. To take this long exposure shot, I had to mount the tripod to the floorboard of the car and got everyone to keep still and hold their breaths for 15 seconds.
There are two more photos in this exhibition to highlight. One is of a location two floors underground of the pyramid structure, and the other is of colourful lights on the control panel of the command centre.
Against the backdrop of the Trump-Kim Summit which took place here in Singapore recently, and the denuclearisation agreement that was signed by both parties, what are your thoughts on that?
I think it is still in the early days, and we are already seeing a lot of controversial reports coming out of the US intelligence community and academics, I believe there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what the North Koreans actually signed on to. It is vague and details such as the denuclearisation timetable were not present. I think it’s still anyone’s guess as to what is going to happen.
At the same time, reports in recent weeks show that North Koreans are increasing infrastructure and construction in other sites, with their arsenal increasing as well. The US, on its part, has done a nuclear posture review early this year and they are increasing their arsenal as well. I think it is great that both sides are talking to each other, but I think it is too early to say how things will pan out.
What kind of dialogue do you hope for this exhibition to inspire?
The nuclear issue is one that is very far away from Singaporean’s minds, perhaps because we do not feel that we are in the line of fire of the issue. It is true that the nuclear arms being developed today are more targeted (hence less devastating compared to arms developed in the past), but I do think that we can do better to be engaged with global issues because North Korea is not that far away from Singapore, especially with how we are more plugged in today than ever due to social media and how we consider ourselves global citizens.
The nuclear issue ranks alongside climate change as two of the most probable issues that could harm humanity so I think we should all give it more thought. With this project, I took a more open-ended approach, and what I hope is for people to come in and contemplate the broad strokes of this issue, where they stand in it, what we as a society think about it, and if we should do anything about it.
Sim Chi Yin’s “Most People Were Silent” will be exhibited from 21 July to 10 October 2018, at the Earl Lu Gallery, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts.
Photos by Brandon Neo of the DANAMIC team. Photo of Sim on the B-52 courtesy of Sim Chi Yin / Magnum Photos / Nobel Peace Center 2017.