Friday, October 24, 2008

CDG / JHE by J H Engstrom

The bright orange bookcloth of J H Engstrom's new book from Steidl CDG/JHE gives an impression that it may hold promise of something light and cheerful. The internal content however is another story.

In this body of work, Engstrom sets us in the midst of Charles de Gaulle airport and, like a traveller who somehow can't seem to make it into the terminal or the exit, we wander a no man's land heavy with concrete barriers and odd bits of technology. There is a sense of stillness (in a place where everything always seems full of movement) that is almost apocalyptic.

Engstrom distresses his prints somehow and the resulting haze of greyness acts as a veil suppressing tone, color, saturation and light. While the parking lot may be full, there are no people save for one driving a baggage cart, seen only after close inspection. The stillness, in combination with the ashen air, seems daunting and inhospitable.

What we are to make of this I am not entirely sure. The photographs, with their tones of greyish blue and desaturated color are oddly beautiful. What they describe is territory that has a structure and machinery but it has all been left in dust. We pause in front of various objects: a baggage cart piled with wood, a swirl of tar on a patch of roadway, a pair of rubber boots half buried in the dry soil, the stilled luggage return and a maze of overpasses. We may wonder at their existence or use but their form is what is engaging and seductive.

After 46 images, Engstrom finishes the book with 7 images that are stills shot of a video of a man and a woman meeting and embracing. (In an airport?). That is certainly implied but uncertain. Brightly colored without the distressed look of the previous work, these few images as the final act of the book, distract from the initial tone and rhythm that we
have settled into. Their inclusion seems to hint at a conceptual framework or meaning that is unclear and ultimately bothersome. The contrast between the two is not enlightening nor necessary.

Overlooking the last few pages, CDG/JHE is an compelling if enigmatic work. Due to the seductive tonalities and the cleanliness of the design, I don't mind lingering in this world of airport still lifes. But in such an environment where movement is the preoccupation, those that get left behind might risk absorbing the melancholy involved in standing still.