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Friday, 5 July 2019
Colonialism, Fascism, and Tourism: The view from Italy (and the UK)
Hereafter by Federico Clavarino is a big book. It's a long book. It's about his family and their lives serving the tail end of the British empire.
It mixes contemporary images of his family, domestic emphemera with pictures from the family album. There are childhood notes, sketches, newspaper clippings and overlaps with key figures in Sudanese, Gulf and Jordanian history.
When I opened it, I started reading it immediately and was fascinated by that overlap between the personal, the colonial, the historical.
It's got a directness to it that is sometimes missing in family based photobooks. There's the strange idea that to be sophisticated you need complexity, and that complexity often blends into obscurity. It looks intelligent but strip everything away and there's nothing left except a lot of empty talk. That's not happening here.
It's about family, but it's also about history, and the history, the colonial history is what's front-loaded. I find that fascinating.
But I was also frustrated by it. Because it's very long (part of an ongoing tendency to long under-edited books) that history gets lost in the contemporary images. It's the old dilemma of trying to pack too much in, to include the historical, the archival contemporary. How do you do it? Why do you do it? Do you need to do it?
A default position is to use contemporary images, of people, of places, rephotography and so on, but the disadvantage there is they have a certain flavour and can be much less interesting than the old family pictures. And interesting matters. It really matters.
In Hereafter I think the contemporary element that is interesting is the way colonialism, or the post-memory of colonialism lives on in Britain. The historical aspect of that is manifested in the family album images and the snippets of really interesting (contemporary) text - but there's a disconnect with the contemporary images, they come from a different, colder place. The contemporary words do a job that the images don't. There is something going on there about how the past lies dormant and is manifested in these particular, but my distant, brutal choice is kill those visual darlings.
So it's frustrating but at the same time it's an interesting book that could be smaller and shorter. If you're interested in family photography, and old family albums, and the ways in which the past is manifested through real people and real lives still buy it though, because it touches on so much that interests me and has so many ambitious and very direct approaches that are different to the way that Clavorino usually works.
Mussolinia is a short run book by Filippo Nicoletti. It's based on the fascinating idea of the model fascist town in Sicily, Mussolinia. Mussolini himself went to lay the first stone of the town in a shambles of a trip where humiliation and embarassment plagued his every turn. He even got his bowler hat stolen.
So Mussolini got the building started, but it never continued. Until some years later Mussolini asked how the project was going. "It's going great" was the reply given - the problem was it wasn't going well - there was still only that one stone that Mussolini himself had laid.
To cover up the lack of action, they created a model city, photographed the models and sent them back to Mussolini who was so impressed that he put them in a book on the architectural achievements of fascism. If you want to know how the story ends, you'll have to find out for yourself. I ain't telling....
The book is a post-truth (there's a definition of it at the back) blurry screenprint dream of a book. Crops, distortion, the effect of overlapping layers distance the past and the imaginary project from the present. It's ambitious and it's experimental and it isn't easy to read in places, but so it goes. I think the problem is it doesn't quite have entry points that can draw you into the conceit and create a flow. There are images that I'm guessing are from what would be present-day "Mussolinia" but because Mussolinia is a concept rather than a thing, that doesn't quite work for me. But it's an interesting idea; how do you depict a town that physically only ever consisted of one brick, but conceptually represents the victory of Sicily over fascism.
Sinking Stone by Cristiano Volk is a visual story of tourist Venice. It's edited by Federico Clavarino and it tells in a flow of images where form and shape combine with emotional and political content. It's a dystopian mashup of pairings of monuments mixed with tourist bodies and faces, my favourite being the Gorgon statue paired with the white-haired lady. If you haven't got the message of the grotesqueness of the tourist experience, then the low views, the bright flash, the toxic skies should fill in the gaps for you. Think Parr, Gilden, Rodchenko all mixed up but in his own chaotic style.
The grotesques eyeball gapers in Sinking Stone are in Venice, but then that's what everybody really looks like when they're tourists. You become part of the furniture. That's what you look like. That's what I look like. Dont' try and think you don't because you do.