On first encountering The Life of Psy by Maciej Pestka, there were some reservations about its ability to move beyond a standard editorial photo story about an unofficial look-a-like of South Korean pop star Psy (the real PSY had a massive worldwide hit with Gangnam Style in 2012). As one of the members of Read That Image, a Dublin based collective who specialise in photobook workshops, Pestka certainly had his work cut out. Thankfully, holding the small, well printed and stitch bound book in hand all those reservations were alleviated.
Through the use of design – black cover with small embossed drawing, gold thread binding, typography – it slowly dawned on me that The Life of Psy is not just another documentary project following a “celebrity” around a lively nightclub in Spain. The design of the book itself imitates a Bible or Christian prayer book at the very least. Captured in the photographs are people in a kind of awe. Not the awe of spiritual awakening however, the awe of celebrity, of persona, of showtime.
We see the young and beautiful scramble for photos and attempt to touch the man they believe to the real thing. Apart from these eager followers, there are many hand gestures which also imitate religious art in their own way. One can almost feel the sweat and hear the clamor as those enthralled push for more. There is a funny symmetry here, with photography’s own need to convey the profound in the profane.
Pestka hardly shows Psy out-right in the story, further enabling a sense of the mysterious. Instead Pestka focuses mainly on the crowds of admirers from drinking men to giddy women; camera phones, kissing, flashing lights and action everywhere. We only see fragments of the Psy character himself as he tries to work the crowd, to give the fans what they want. Eventually we see a full Psy stand before a heavenly light – a neon light showering the sun-glassed hero.
In this particular story, Psy is actually Denis Carré, “a regular Korean born, French raised man who just moved to Spain and happened to look like PSY”. What on the outside is a story about modern celebrity, becomes a story about fakery and eventually a parable about this society’s seemingly endless need to raise an individual beyond the norm, no matter what. Our continued effort to replace religion with pop culture, Jesus (or some other Prophet) with celebrity.
The book is humorous, it is intended to behave according to the logic of its absurd subject, which is good as it ties everything together nicely. Never the less, the subject remains quite limited in its appeal, and one suspects the reflection on the pseudo-religious aspect of pop culture (and photography’s role in achieving this) can be the one and only intellectual jump one could make with such a subject. Fittingly, the book ends with a fold-out facsimile of Denis Carré’s “Cease and Desist” email from the real PSY. As with the one-hit-wonder himself, it is a shame maybe, but appropriate all the same.