Review by Steve Harp •
Where are we?
In looking through Sebastian Rogowski’s 2020 self-published monograph, Suicidal Birds, I was taken, strangely enough, back to my youth and to my fascination with the 1968 science-fiction film Planet of the Apes. Rogowski’s opening three images—particularly the second, which could almost be a still from the film—recalled for me the desolate, seemingly uninhabited planet on which the hapless astronauts find themselves. The stranded, lost explorers slog from desert to lush foliage before being confronted with the enigma on which the film is predicated—a society “turned inside-out.” This is a world that, to borrow Michel Foucault’s comments in the Preface of The Order of Things, “shatters . . . all the familiar landmarks of thought . . . [revealing] the stark impossibility of thinking that.” The film throughout screams the question, Where are we?, though of course, by the end, the viewer realizes the proper question should be When are we?
This perhaps oblique set of associations might seem a strange approach to Suicidal Birds though, as I trace my own interpretive trail, it seems fitting. In structuring this book, Rogowski refuses to set a clear path for the viewer. The opening ten images could all reasonably be considered landscapes, except—possibly—for the photograph of a fenced patio area featuring prominently a painting of a landscape and, above that, a painting of what appear to be wild horses. These could conceivably have been taken in the American West. No orienting textual information is provided. The eleventh image is of a black Mercedes, apparently driven up to a rock face. Its license plate is clearly not North American. Three additional images of desolate landscapes follow until—at this point surprisingly—we find a portrait of a young woman in a white dress sitting on a couch. Where are we?
I could continue in this vein, exploring the clues in each “chapter” of Suicidal Birds. (The book is divided into eight graphically demarked sections. Most spreads are image recto, verso blank. A photograph verso, followed by a blank page concludes and separates each section.) Rather than exhaustively describing each section, what I find more interesting to consider is the absolute sense of enigma that structures this book. On a purely visual level—if such a thing exists—the viewer is rewarded with each image simply but engagingly composed. There is a starkness, a stillness to these photographs. A muted palette, a softness or more accurately, a fadedness, matches the content of the images. The things photographed often seem past their prime—hulks of automobiles, desolate and seemingly unoccupied buildings, gaudy but unacknowledged statues and monuments.
While most of the photographs are unpeopled, a sort of “cast of characters” emerges through the portraits included. The woman in white returns, as does a young man in a red t-shirt (four times). Two women are photographed from behind—one young, with bright blue hair (the most color saturated photograph in the book) and one older with long, gray hair. A boy, seemingly in his early teens, holding an assault rifle and wearing Reebok camo pants and a parka appears on the recto/verso of one page, closing out that section. Two young men round out the “cast” but . . . who are they? The book, and the obscure journey we are on, concludes with more paintings of landscapes, and horses and a photograph of horses in the landscape. Where are we?
As an object, the book follows a standard presentation, 11″ x 9 ¼”, vertical orientation, image-wrap cover. Running vertically across the front is a turquoise cloth band bearing the author’s name and the title. However, the book dispenses with conventional publication formatting and layout. There is no pagination in the book, furthering the ambiguity of the flow of images, though clearly sequenced quite intentionally, given the purposeful structure described earlier. The first page inside the front endpaper contains the author’s name, followed by an image on the ensuing spread. The next spread gives the book title followed directly by the images. No half-title page or copyright page in the front printed matter, no dedication, introductory text, essay or epigraph. The final two pages of the book are text. The penultimate page is a poem—in English and Polish—written by Rogowski, referencing birds which “sometimes climb up high . . . sometimes linger down.”
The very last page of the book is the copyright page, and here at the very end (in another nod to Planet of the Apes?), amongst Rogowski’s thank you’s and dedication (editing and sequencing credit is given to Rafal Milach, creator of the truly wonderful photobooks 7 Rooms and In the Car With R.), we find that we have been viewing (post-Soviet) Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. On his web site, Rogowski discusses his journey more overtly than he does in the book itself, referring to people and land “shaped by the hardships of the communist era” and his desire for the road “so that I could make the time stop.” None of this needed to (nor should) be made explicit within the book and Rogowski and his designers wisely left the journey, the place, the time cryptic. That dislocation and uncertainty grips the viewer. These images, this quest haunts and won’t let go.
Where are we?
Suicidal Birds, Sebastian Rogowski
Photographer: Sebastian Rogowski, born Bydgoszcz, Poland and resides in the Hague, The Netherlands.
Publisher: self-published, copyright 2020
Poem by Sebastian Rogowski
Text: English and Polish (poem translation: Sebastian Rogowski, Adam Zdrodowski, David Schwarzman)
Hardcover book, sewn binding, image-wrap cover. Printing and binding: Argraf, Warszawa, (Warsaw) Poland
Photobook designer: Ania Nalecka/Tapir Book Design
Photobook edit & sequencing: Rafal Milach
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