Review by Douglas Stockdale •
Living in Southern California, I have a familiarity with border walls, specifically the American-Mexican wall that lies less than 100 miles south of my home. After relocating to California, a trip to the Tijuana tourist shops in near-by Mexico was usually on the list of go-to places for visiting relatives, parking in the big lot adjourning the border then walking thru the border station for a day of adventure. Even at this distance, you become attuned to the human ebb and flow of this border region. Thus, my dismay of how this region became a stupid political football for what turned out a losing American political team. Nevertheless, the resulting political antics about an American-Mexican borderland hint at the darker underside of a desire for an American autocracy. The American-Mexican borderland is one aspect of a three-part investigation by Rafal Milach, in his latest photobook, I Am Warning You.
Unlike another recent photobook that I received for review, it was very obvious that the corrugated set-up carton holding the four stiff-cover books functions similar to a slipcover. Perhaps it was the printed colophon and Milach’s signature on the inside cover of this carton that made this very self-evident. The set-up carton constructed from brown e-flute provides a very utilitarian function while the exterior graphic black printing visually hints at the contents within. The book’s title on the box’s cover is obscured by vertical strips that is representative of looking through a fence at something that is difficult to understand.
The books that compose this investigation are similar but different. The three photobooks are stiff-covers with an open spine (Swiss binding) and Smyth sewn thus allowing a lay-flat presentation. The fourth component to the set is stiff-cover zine, saddle stitch, that is a collection of the supporting essays by Michael Dear, Antje Rávic Strubel and Ziemowit Szczerek to provide context for the related photobooks, and printed yellow that is frequently associated with warning signs. Each of the three stiff-cover photobooks are styled, sequenced and designed uniquely as to how to engage the reader with the contents. An overall brilliant presentation designed by Ania Nałęcka-Milach and Rafal Milach.
The set of books could be thought of as a three-part harmony or perhaps more accurately a series of dissonant jazz cords, with the visual tension almost palpable. The first is the one is a subject I find more familiar to me, #13767, a book that is visually layered on top of a U.S. Government document, Border Wall Mockup and Prototype Test Final Report, resplendent with the extensive confidential black-boxes we have become so familiar when created by the previous Republican administration. Or how to build an impenetrable border wall between American and Mexico, unless of course there are simple power tools, wind or even Monsoon rain.
#13767 is a careful layering by Milach’s photographs within this government report, a series of juxtapositions with the report’s text, including the black-out of sensitive names (e.g. a past American president). The irony of the layering makes for at times a humorous read; one page has text about ‘Figure 87: Breaching…” and the facing page is a photograph of a very small dog whose size allows easy access through the open slats of the adjacent border wall. A page discussing ‘Minor Deviations’ faces a photograph of a hodge-podge constructed wall, or later, where the ‘wall’ zig-zags around a tree that apparently was on top of the border line, but no-one wanted to cut it down. The book ends with an image of this border wall extending into the Pacific Ocean, but only extending as far that a person at low tide could easily dog-paddle around it from one county to another, while in the foreground, some individuals are exercising at a beach park, while it is ambiguous as to which country we are observing.
Death Strip, the title for his narrative of the Berlin Wall is pretty dark, a border wall that was built in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), known as East Germany and started to come-down in 1989. The name for this border was made infamous for the no-man’s land where over the time of this border wall there were 136 victims which became to be known as the Death Strip. As in the other three books, this was a border wall installed in an attempt to control immigration, and for the GDR, this was to stop the flow of intellectuals out of East Berlin. There are still remnants of the Berlin wall still standing, short sections I saw in my last visit now almost ten years ago, as well as documented by Milach.
Milach examines from a broader viewpoint the current Berlin urban landscape and areas that might have once been associated with the infamous border wall that now appear ambiguous and rather ordinary. Within each page spread of this book is a smaller photo that is glued in, that documents a piece of the Berlin wall that was purchased on the internet. On the verso of the smaller photograph is what was paid to acquire this small ‘memento’ of this darker period in history. The glued in smaller images are always positioned to sit on top of photograph printed in the book, to act as a filter, an obscure layer as a constant reminder of how this wall, as well as the underlying politics, was imprinted on the lives of the Berliners. Lifting the glued-in photograph creates a juxtaposition of the small amount of currency with the underlying urban landscape as though those two elements are related. It is a mysterious relationship. Similar to the conflict of a war, the juxtapositions explore the emotional aftermath to the horrific events that occurred in Berlin. The book is constructed as remembrance, as to never forget.
The third of the books, I Am Warning You, investigates the geopolitical landscape of Hungarian borderlands that defines the regions of Hungarian-Serbian-Croatian. The title is drawn form an automatic message which is broadcast in several languages ranging from Arabic to English close to the electrified border fencing. Similar to the Berlin wall and the American-Mexican barriers, this too was an autocratic reaction to an immigration crisis.
The book design for I Am Warning You includes multiple half sheets, printed on both of the half pages, sewn into the book, as well a couple of pasted in images. The half-sheets create an interesting layering that extend the underlying photograph but indicate that the complexity of the narrative, as well as the underlying geopolitics. A point made by Ziemowit Szcaerek in the accompany essay is the regional blur as to what is considered Hungarian, as the architecture, culture and even the language extends beyond its current borders into the adjourning countries. What results is the concept of ‘sacred borders’ for a unified country that does not exist today which can be mythologized by an autocratic government, similar to the nationalism that occurred in America regarding its border with Mexico. Similar to the other photobooks in this set, Milach photographs the extensive military personal and border wall elements in a documentary style with the rolls of barbed wires a reoccurring, if not troubling, urban landscape theme.
This collection of books has a bare-bones esthetic, meant to convey the basic facts in an almost in-your-face methodology as a wake-up call and perhaps equally as a call-to-action. All in all, a complex and layered narrative for an equally complex and layered subject. I believe we need to continue to keep the issues and underlying reasons for these terrible border barriers on the forethought of our current political discussions.
Other photobooks by Rafal Milach featured on PhotoBook Journal: 7 Rooms
Douglas Stockdale is a visual artist and Senior Editor & founder PhotoBook Journal
I Am Warning You, Rafal Milach
Photographer; Rafal Milach, born Gliwice, Poland and resides in Katowice, Poland
Publisher: GOST, London, copyright 2021
Essays: Michael Dear, Antje Rávic Strubel and Ziemowit Szczerek
Boxed set of four books with soft covers and exposed spines, 210 x 265 mm, 312 pages (4 books of 68 / 76 / 144 / 24 pages), printed by Argraf, Poland, ISBN: 978-1-910401-60-6
Photobook Designer: Ania Nałęcka-Milach & Rafal Milach
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