Valentina Abenavoli is the co-founder with Alex Bocchetto, of the wonderful publishing house Akina Books. Specializing in various publications from zines to artist books, Akina did a great work by raising the standards of small print run photobooks, remaining affordable at the same time, which is not the least of qualities ; artist books are often reserved for wealthy collectors.
So, after some time of inactivity, for Akina at least, Valentina returns with a punching book, with a strong formal and visual structure, but above all, a dark and strong subject. It’s a black book with a thin golden square line on the cover and, written small between brackets, the title anesthesia. At first glance, the book intrigues, one wants to touch it, to look at it closely. The texture is very nice and attractive, as are always the books produced by Akina, remarkably well manufactured. Then it opens and we discover a bibliography that is hard to understand because normally these references come at the end of the book. Here it could work as a warning, the words “evil” and “war” are recurring. Using the principle of film editing, this list creates some tension for the reader. One stiffened in his chair. There follows a black page, then a white one, before the book begins. It starts like a movie, with a vertical frame rather than horizontal. A black rectangle appears with a subtitle such as those for hearing impaired in movies, describing sounds. A deafening noise before an explosion, then silence, and black that is spreading over the page. The previous sequence was on glossy white paper, with high contrast, white and black, good and evil. Everything is laid … and yet the book has not begun. We turn the page and we get the title of the book. The whole book is constructed as a cinematic metaphor and we just saw the pre-title sequence.
Paper has changed for a texture closer to those to which we had been accustomed by Akina, a cream paper, slightly thick and very pleasant to the touch. All along the book, text and images alternate and combine. For this book Valentina collected quotes (we came across philosophers, poets, essayists…), images and films found on the internet, through major medias feeds and is proposed, here, a kind of organization, an opportunity to put in order the chaos of the world. One walks in the desert in the company of a woman who remains unseen but who is suggested by the subtitles. She mourns her son’s death. We understand the issue because the decor looks familiar. We “know” these war scenes whose the medias feed us, even if we only confront them from our comfortable interiors, from distance or by proxy when our leaders decide to send troops on a particular theater of war.
And then the images are blurred, they mix and some seem already seen. We see bodies, faces, scars, corpses. One reads the horror, suffering, hatred and inhumanity too! We go from black to white, the movie continues and we lose our marks. Sitting in front of our television or reading a newspaper, we are told what is right and what is not. But in this book, one is struck in the maelstrom doubt which takes us all without distinction. The blast of violence sweeps away everything on its path.
Finally, a kind of nausea invades us. We want to leave the book as we can leave a theater, but we cannot, these images repel as much as they fascinate, we become like… anesthetized. This horror is expressed, in the middle of the book in a passage about Abu Ghraib, probably some of the most expressive sentences :
There was a door I was afraid to walk through
If you walk through it at which point do you say it is enough ?
What is it that you call enough ?
How do you go back from that ?
The history of the representation of war and its collateral damages has evolved through the history of photography. First, Roger Fenton showed us the Crimean War by cannonballs between camps, then Mathew Braddy was ruined for daring to show, in the heart of Mannhatan in his gallery of Broadway, the dead bodies of the Battle of Antietam, more recently, Nick Ut and Georges Griffiths among others, have changed the course of the Vietnam war by testifying of civilian massacres. Nowadays, it is very difficult to cover a conflict for photographers, but the images always come to us from various origins. The images multiply, reproduce and spread to the speed of electricity and networks. For his editorial work, Valentina Abenavoli brings us a book on contemporary war, the one in XXIst century, but also, and especially, about suffering, and our own positioning in front of horror. The book points out our role in this horror. We are one and only humanity that suffers and that hurts. There is no good neither evil, but a single whole, of which we are part. It reminds me of the complete sentence for “For whom the bell tolls” by Hemingway: never ask for whom the bell tolls it tolls for thee.
This book is hard to go through, in that sense that it makes unbearable the horror that has anesthetized us for too long. We can consider that this is the ultimate book, the aestheticism as a book (the book is beautiful) about horror, forces us to look at reality in the face: this duality is also ours. This book enters, for me, instantly in the category of major works.
Anaesthesia by Valentina Abenavoli can be purchased here.
Christer Ek is a French photographer and also a photobook collector. You can read his excellent photobook related blog, where this post originated here