Of life and death, Requiem by Goran Bertok

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.

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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 ».

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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).

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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.

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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…

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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 !

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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.