30 October 2005

Antonin Kratochvil - [ VANISHING]

This week I bought [VANISHING] a book by antonin kratochvil which was published last April by de.MO (design.Method of Operation). Kratochvil is a founding member of the high profile photo agency VII. This latest book draws upon sixteen years of work and is broken down into as many sections, each focusing on a single instance of some disappearing species or resource or environment or landscape or community or principle or history in geographically dispersed locales. Kratochvil's images are darkly powerful. The book is something of a collaboration with writer Michael Persson who authored the succinct, trenchant commentaries that introduce each new section of the book. I find the book itself stunningly beautiful in a tactile as well as a visual way. Given the subjects captured in the photographs, should this is be disturbing? The standard critical line will be "of course," but I do not see why. From the cover epigram - "maybe this world is another planet's hell" (Aldus Huxley) - to the query reiterated on the very final page, the book presses an unrelentingly bleak interrogative aimed not at inspiring hope but at provoking viewers to see beyond their own mundane preoccupations and interactions. And he relies on the design to help him accomplish this. Absent the design vehicle, Kratochvil could not carry off the provocation.

Kratochvil's dismal tour criss-crosses the developing world mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America but also (presciently, as Katrina revealed) Louisiana. His aim is to prompt viewers to see that their affluent everyday lives are sustained by processes of production and extraction that are almost unimaginably destructive of distant environments, both natural and social. It is not just global demand for luxury goods - gold (Guyana), 'bush meat' from poached wildlife (Congo), diamonds (Angola), or caviar (Azerbaijan) that are problematic here. Less remarkable commodities like tobacco (Zimbabwe), minerals such as tin (Bolivia), oil (Ecuador, the Caspian Sea, Iraq), illegally harvested timber (Cambodia) and chemicals (Louisiana) create mayhem as well. And the problem is not with "markets" for these items. Or, that is not the most acute problem, at least. What Kratochvil underscores is how the political economy of these products generates and, in turn, is sustained by massive violence; government repression, civil war, terror, military invasions, forced migration and mass murder are integral rather than incidental to the processes of production and extraction he depicts. In combination, these pressures threaten lives and life forms with extinction too. Kratochvil hopes to make us witness what is vanishing and to grasp why.

This tour ends in NYC. One of the final images is of the concrete barriers that now surround Grand Central Station. It suggests that just as lives and resources and communities are disappearing under pressure of production and violence in all of the places I just mentioned (and others) so too American principles and commonplaces (like liberty and security) are endangered. This theme persists in Kratochvil's more recent work. Aperture commissioned a spread of photographs from him for its May 2005 issue. (You can see the images as well as an interview with the photographer here.) The photographs are of the US in the summer of 2004 - the immediate prelude to our last election (yes, the one that finally lent "legitimacy" to an administration populated by an increasingly long list of incompetents and ideologues and indictees). In the Aperture interview Kratochvil relates his experience of being harassed (allegedly in the cause of "homeland security") by law enforcement officers for taking photographs of monuments on the mall in Washington over 4th of July. In response to a question about how he thinks his recent work will be received in Eastern Europe where America is viewed as a bastion of liberty, Kratochvil says: "I'm not trying to be subversive, I really do believe in this liberty that has been established in this country, regardless of its problems, it is a good model, what irritates me is that I see it vanishing."

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