Artist Gareth Fuller on Sketching His Way Through North Korea’s Capital

By Valerie Osipov, November 20, 2019

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Beijing-based artist Gareth Fuller has spent a great deal of time mapping his way around some of the most exciting cities in the world. No, really, he sketches actual maps of cities – by hand. Aside from finishing an impressive panoramic map of the gargantuan Chinese capital itself (for which he trekked around the entire Sixth Ring Road as part of his research), he’s assembled quite the collection throughout his ‘Purposeful Wanderings’ project. Over the past 15 years, with a lay of the land and a pen in his hand, the restless wanderer has completed intricate hand-drawn maps of Beijing, London and most recently, Pyongyang. 

Fuller embarked on a two-week artistic voyage to North Korea’s fascinating metropolis in October 2018 with the intent of etching out some of the city’s mystery and capturing the essence of its most captivating details. It wasn’t until this past June that the complex piece reached its final form. 

This Saturday, November 23, Fuller’s Tourist Map of Pyongyang will be on display for one (just one!) afternoon at Koryo Studio in Beijing. The pop-up event will also feature some of his other original works from the ‘Purposeful Wanderings’ series, along with prints that will be available for purchase. Before the show, we caught up with the ambitious artist to talk more about his trip to Pyongyang and the process of mapping out such an enigmatic city.  

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Above, in Fuller’s words: “I decided to include a plane flown by the first North Korean female pilot, who I was told had dinner with Kim Il Sung in a hidden bunker, to recognise her achievements. The bunker was used during the Korean War, located in a wooded valley, in the centre of Pyongyang. A black dragon lived in the valley and was known for dancing in the white clouds. Or so the story goes. Both of these tales stayed in my mind.”

You’ve drawn intricate maps of various big cities. What drew you to Pyongyang?
There were many reasons for visiting Pyongyang. It’s a truly unique place, shrouded in mystery, designed almost from scratch, with a culture that has a minimal influence from others. Also, I knew my typical methodology would be turned upside down, as I normally explore urban spaces quite freely. As a tourist in Pyongyang you must always be accompanied by two North Korean guides. I knew that the restrictions on exploration would undoubtably change my process, whilst in the city, and back in my studio. I wanted to experience this and make changes in my practice accordingly. Pyongyang has always fascinated me. However, as an artist I wasn’t sure on how to approach a project of this scale or nature. Working with Koryo Studio – part of North Korea travel specialists Koryo Tours, based here in Beijing – gave me the insight and confidence I needed to create the art. 

What were some of your first thoughts while touring the city? Was there anything that surprised you? 
It is without a doubt the cleanest and most well-kept city I’ve ever visited. The lack of traffic and industrial transport probably helps the air stay clean – it felt particularly fresh. 

You were in the North Korean capital for two weeks. How long did it take you to complete the city map of Pyongyang? 
My trip to Pyongyang was in October 2018. I then began the process of creating the art straight away. The first stage involved cataloguing thousands of reference photos and compiling my ideas. It wasn’t until January 2019 that I felt ready to begin considering the composition of the work. The piece was finally completed in June 2019. 


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Pyongyang Ice Rink

What was this project like compared to your others? Did you hit any obstacles along the way? 
Typically my process begins with unbridled exploration without boundaries. I wander freely – a type of dérive – and enjoy abundant access to the landscape around me. North Korea’s capital proved to be the opposite experience. Scheduled and tightly planned, I walked well-trodden routes. I had to use a pool of very limited experience and drew on much wider cultural observations and less on personal geography when creating the work. 

What do you hope to inspire through this particular map? 
If Tourist Map Of Pyongyang encourages pause for thought, and a consideration of the city (minus the headlines) with a view to its culture and people, then it has served its purpose as art. I want it to start a conversation. I hope the entire series – a lifetime of work – helps us further understand the importance of our personal geography, and our emotional relationship with places. 


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Ryugyong Hotel

What are some of your favorite pieces in your ‘Purposeful Wanderings’ series? 
I’m particularly fond of London Town as it covers a whole decade of London life and my colorful youth – which is rapidly disappearing! Beijing is currently my home so, when I glance over at the art I made based on my time in this city, I can’t help but feel inspired to keep drawing. 

Tell us more about the exhibition you have coming up in Beijing.
It’s an exclusive pop-up event open to the public for just one afternoon on Saturday, November 23. We are officially launching an edition of Tourist Map of Pyongyang silkscreen prints, and there will also be a selection of fine-art prints from my ‘Purposeful Wanderings’ series, including Beijing. It’s a perfect opportunity to read about stories hidden inside the work, speak to me personally, as well as members of Koryo Studio. We’re opening the doors to a laid-back space, and people will be able to buy prints that aren’t readily available. The space is just by Taikoo Li – come take a break from the crowds and join us for some wine and art!


Sat Nov 23, 2-6pm; Koryo Studio, see event listing. To see more of Fuller’s work, visit fullermaps.com or scan the QR code below.

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[All images courtesy of the artist]

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