After a short period of silence, I’m back to write about the most disturbing book I’ve seen this year, but maybe even for a long time. Maybe It was the time I needed to digest this fantastic book!
Valentina Abenavoli is the co-founder with Alex Bocchetto, of the wonderful publishing house Akina Books. Specializing in various publications from zines to artist books, Akina did a great work by raising the standards of small print run photobooks, remaining affordable at the same time, which is not the least of qualities ; artist books are often reserved for wealthy collectors.
So, after some time of inactivity, for Akina at least, Valentina returns with a punching book, with a strong formal and visual structure, but above all, a dark and strong subject. It’s a black book with a thin golden square line on the cover and, written small between brackets, the title anesthesia. At first glance, the book intrigues, one wants to touch it, to look at it closely. The texture is very nice and attractive, as are always the books produced by Akina, remarkably well manufactured. Then it opens and we discover a bibliography that is hard to understand because normally these references come at the end of the book. Here it could work as a warning, the words “evil” and “war” are recurring. Using the principle of film editing, this list creates some tension for the reader. One stiffened in his chair. There follows a black page, then a white one, before the book begins. It starts like a movie, with a vertical frame rather than horizontal. A black rectangle appears with a subtitle such as those for hearing impaired in movies, describing sounds. A deafening noise before an explosion, then silence, and black that is spreading over the page. The previous sequence was on glossy white paper, with high contrast, white and black, good and evil. Everything is laid … and yet the book has not begun. We turn the page and we get the title of the book. The whole book is constructed as a cinematic metaphor and we just saw the pre-title sequence.
Paper has changed for a texture closer to those to which we had been accustomed by Akina, a cream paper, slightly thick and very pleasant to the touch. All along the book, text and images alternate and combine. For this book Valentina collected quotes (we came across philosophers, poets, essayists…), images and films found on the internet, through major medias feeds and is proposed, here, a kind of organization, an opportunity to put in order the chaos of the world. One walks in the desert in the company of a woman who remains unseen but who is suggested by the subtitles. She mourns her son’s death. We understand the issue because the decor looks familiar. We “know” these war scenes whose the medias feed us, even if we only confront them from our comfortable interiors, from distance or by proxy when our leaders decide to send troops on a particular theater of war.
And then the images are blurred, they mix and some seem already seen. We see bodies, faces, scars, corpses. One reads the horror, suffering, hatred and inhumanity too! We go from black to white, the movie continues and we lose our marks. Sitting in front of our television or reading a newspaper, we are told what is right and what is not. But in this book, one is struck in the maelstrom doubt which takes us all without distinction. The blast of violence sweeps away everything on its path.
Finally, a kind of nausea invades us. We want to leave the book as we can leave a theater, but we cannot, these images repel as much as they fascinate, we become like… anesthetized. This horror is expressed, in the middle of the book in a passage about Abu Ghraib, probably some of the most expressive sentences :
There was a door I was afraid to walk through
If you walk through it at which point do you say it is enough ?
What is it that you call enough ?
How do you go back from that ?
The history of the representation of war and its collateral damages has evolved through the history of photography. First, Roger Fenton showed us the Crimean War by cannonballs between camps, then Mathew Braddy was ruined for daring to show, in the heart of Mannhatan in his gallery of Broadway, the dead bodies of the Battle of Antietam, more recently, Nick Ut and Georges Griffiths among others, have changed the course of the Vietnam war by testifying of civilian massacres. Nowadays, it is very difficult to cover a conflict for photographers, but the images always come to us from various origins. The images multiply, reproduce and spread to the speed of electricity and networks. For his editorial work, Valentina Abenavoli brings us a book on contemporary war, the one in XXIst century, but also, and especially, about suffering, and our own positioning in front of horror. The book points out our role in this horror. We are one and only humanity that suffers and that hurts. There is no good neither evil, but a single whole, of which we are part. It reminds me of the complete sentence for “For whom the bell tolls” by Hemingway: never ask for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee.
This book is hard to go through, in that sense that it makes unbearable the horror that has anesthetized us for too long. We can consider that this is the ultimate book, the aestheticism as a book (the book is beautiful) about horror, forces us to look at reality in the face: this duality is also ours. This book enters, for me, instantly in the category of major works.
Softcover book published by Akina in 2016, 26 x 19,5 cm. text by Veronique Pin Fat.
More info : http://akinabooks.com/product/anaesthesia/
In Spanish, on Gabriela’s blog : https://gabrielacendoya.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/10-de-octubre-2016-anaesthesia-valentina-abenavoli/
On Collector Daily : https://collectordaily.com/anaesthesia-ed-valentina-abenavoli/
And the stunning video made by The Tipi Bookshop :
The book « Requiem » of Slovenian photographer Goran Bertok is, in my opinion, one of the books published this year, the most difficult to tackle. It deals with the taboo of death.
I was raised in a Catholic education where death is an intangible process that confines to the repose of the soul. We do not talk about death and I still remember a former landlady, practicing Catholic, who always wondered why the bell tolls if death is a better access to the spiritual world. But when we are confronted with death, especially the loss of a loved one, we finally realized that life has an end. The idea of death is related to life. The notion of death exists only as the « after life » while remaining abstract since no one ever came back to talk about.
What Goran Bertok shows here is what we, in an occidental society, refuse to see. We die, either, but at least let’s not force us to look death in the face! As he explains in the interview inserted in the leaflet printed apart : « There’s difference to think and talk about something or to see and experience something. You see in a crematorium what is spared to most of us ».
It is always disturbing to face the death, we still have a sense of shame and the only way to overcome this is via aesthetics. This is what we recognize with Michelangelo’ pieta (above), Bach’s passion (Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 at the end of the article), or in cinema, as in « The Seventh Seal » by Ingmar Bergman when death comes to invite protagonists in a final macabre farandole (above).
The book « Requiem » is divided into two parts, each one is a book in itself. The set is a cardboard sleeve where the two books are inserted, plus a leaflet which contains an interview of Goran Bertok and the colophon. All components are matte black and the titles are embossed on the covers. The leaflet is printed on a red thick paper.
The title of the first part is « postmortem », and if the cover is black too, images are printed with white margins. Postmortem shows the bodies of the dead preserved before cremation. White suggests that we are still among the living. These pictures are seen as the idea of us, living, we have about death. We are surrounded by light (white pages) thus by life and we look at these moments frozen for eternity. Photographer attempts to show the loss of life by the rigidity of the sensory organs (ears, nose, mouth, eye, hand). Even without the ice marks, one understands immediately that these bodies no longer work and, what can better tell the death if not total lack of perception? Life has gone…
The second book is itself a journey beyond the death, we discover death at work. It is called « visitors » and includes a photographic sequence made in the crematorium. This is a series of photographs that shows us flames composing abstract paintings in which sometimes appears a skull which will decompose more and more. These images are quite unbearable because it shows death at work, but mostly because it shows what we refuse to see : the passage between the dead body and the urn. The ceremony at the crematorium, ends with the move of the body that disappears in a light corridor. Then, it’s all over, and we will return a few days later to retrieve the ashes. The cremation remains an abstraction to which we do not want to give too much attention. This part of the work of Goran Bertok, in addition to showing the « unshowable » also questions the ethics of photography. How far can we go and can we show everything. He himself, in his interview, won’t tell how he got access to the crematorium for this series and asumes that it is ethically questionable. The answer is probably in each of us, and up to each of us !
The book, as an object is really beautifully crafted, thereby helping to assimilate the harsh images. It finally becomes a sacred object, a kind of ex-voto, a tribute to the death, which in fact is a tribute to the life without which death does not exist !
The book is published by Matej Sitar’s publishing house : The Angry bat. 16 x 21 cm, 46 pages, selfbound japanese binding, first edition of 300 books, numbered and signed, published in 2015.
A suggested soundtrack for the article :
To order the book : http://www.theangrybat.com/#requiem
More info about Goran Bertok : http://www.bertok.si/#1
Harvey Benge review on his blog : http://harveybenge.blogspot.fr/2015/08/goran-bertok-requiem.html
All photos copyright Goran Bertok and the Publisher.