Friday, January 23, 2009

The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/ Map of Babylon by John Gossage

"It is too easy to assert that those with whom we disagree are not just wrong but tyrannical, fascist, genocidal. But it is also true that certain ideologies are a danger to the public and need to be identified as such. These are closed fundamentalist doctrines that cannot coexist with other belief systems; their followers deplore diversity and demand an absolute free hand to implement their perfect system. The world as it is must be erased to make way for their purist invention." - Naomi Klein from The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." -Revelation 21:5

"Home is where the heart is." -Peter, Paul and Mary

We shape our surroundings to embody the moods and ideas we respect. In the case of certain neighborhoods, surroundings may reflect a collective set of ideas. In gated or vastly affluent communities, those set of ideas are protected and defended against any contaminant that threatens the status quo. John Gossage's newest contribution to the genre of artist book called The Thirty-two Inch Ruler/Map of Babylon is a look into power and privilege implied in the surroundings of his own neighborhood of Kalorama, Washington DC.

Gossage prefaces his images by informing us that Kalorama's most famous (or infamous) resident is the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Kalorama is an area where the private homes are interspersed among embassies and the residences of ambassadors. It is a community that is patrolled by three overlapping public security forces as well as the occasional private one when important dignitaries come to visit. Gossage describes it as, "A place of beauty and calm that you might choose to live, if you could. A place that makes visual the affectations of wealth and political power."

With such prodding, The Thirty-two Inch Ruler side of the book (I will explain later) draws the ideologue out of you. Most will have a tendency to find this portrait disturbing as it comments on the heritage of privilege and how the powerful can shape the world to their vision of what they think is best to meet everyone's desires (or at least the desires of the few that are important). It is the desire for the clean slate upon which to draw perfection. That may at least be the idea.

What Gossage shows is this ideology of the ruling class intermingled with small fissures that chip the foundations. The easy read is that it is a portrait of a crumbling empire but instead it seems to speak of one that is settling deeper and growing stronger roots - a foothold against contaminants. His color photographs with their identifiable style of very shallow focus and attention to detail overflowing with metaphor toy with our fear of powerlessness and yet appeal to our desires of wealth and power. Although we may despise Rumsfeld and this administration's power grab and bully tactics - and by extension Kalorama is the physical representation of those policies - it is the American Shangri-La which we also secretly covet.

Gossage's vision of this neighborhood is emptied of any human presence other than his own. Yards, fences, sidewalks and doors are all examined and the tone is that we don't belong and certainly a camera in this area would draw much suspicion. Gossage may belong but he is a spy among the hedges trying to see evidence of what this has all cost. What proof can be gleaned from these small details that speaks to the wider 'belief systems' and our aversion to them?

Gossage's 'ruler' (a play on words - read 'de facto dictatorship') is shortened. The 'haves' measure with a different scale which doesn't reflect the reality faced daily by the 'nots.' It is a split quantity that benefits some and short changes others. It is fitting that the 32 inch ruler that spans the first few pages is from a federal bank, and even more fitting that it is one that has since changed its name.

When the book is flipped we find another body of work called Map of Babylon, upon which one page states these are 'Photographs with qualities, but no real explanation.'

If we tend to read the Kalorama photos as a physical manifestation of an ideology then the Map of Babylon p
laces us back into the real world with all of its imperfections. It is a mixture of diversity where heritage blends with the nouveau riche in a world built by the proletariate. The first photograph is of a door peephole, and if one happens to look at the ruler side first, it is natural to deduce that we are looking out through our protective door of affluence into what we keep at bay and fear. Certainly not a horrorshow of crime and chaos but our 'drift of affluence' has pushed our tolerance meter to zero. The contaminants approach.

What form those contaminants take is a landscape of crushing debt to the Chinese, religious conflict, reminders of tragedy and war, dismembered hands and spilt blood, danger, short-term fixes, offensive decay and markers of defenselessness and vulnerability. We become aware of what were previously
innocuous still-lifes and imbue them with signals full of meaning and the propaganda of blind fear promoted by the powers-that-be. The last image of a darkened doorway offers only a slight glimmer of hope with a pin prick of light emanating from the peephole (you guessed what is on the otherside, just flip the book).

The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/ Map of Babylon is an ongoing cycle. It is two chapters which hold no order or hierarchy over one another and have no correct starting or finishing point. Designed with John's usual eye for playful form, the 'ruler' side features small rectangles of color that correspond to color in the photo on the opposite page.

This book will be officially published by Steidl next year. It was supposed to be released before the election but due to scheduling delays it was pushed back. What I am reviewing above is a small edition published via print-on-demand technology that came with a signed inkjet print and released for a scheduled booksigning at Paris Photo. The spine reads Stiedl Temporary Editions By John and Gerhard. Read that again...Stiedl (pronounced 'shteedel'). The final book is slated to have an introduction by Gerhard Steidl himself and John assures us in this volume that "it will be very good."


Anonymous said...

Great site. I really enjoyed your post on Walid Ra'ad. Would just like to recommend a photography book that I looked through recently - Sam Fentress' "Bible Road." I think it fits in well with a lot of the other work you've written about.

Keep it up, and thanks!

Anonymous said...

This comment has nothing to do with John Gossage -- I'm heading to Buenos Aires soon and wondering if there are any bookstores, galleries, or other photo recommendations 5b4 people can make. The books mention one single photo gallery -- there must be more.


Anonymous said...

the Museo de Arte Hispanoamerico "Issac Fernandez Blanco" publishes nice photo catalogues - they did a Robert Frank show last year.

Anonymous said...
I was in Buenos Aires and there was a place for photo exhibitons but I cannot remember its name, sorry.
I have written the links to some museums, I went to MALBA and the place is GREAT, the exhibitons are very well set up and I saw one photo exh.
Palermo area is full of good bookshops. ENJOY BA! Sure you will do it!

Anonymous said...

You mean the book will only be published in 2010? I thought "Shteedel" had announced it to the beginning of 2009...

Anonymous said...

Once again, beautifully written review. Can't wait to see the book!

Thanks and I hope you are well.

Chuck Shacochis

Anonymous said...


Thanks for pointing out my mistake. This will be a 2009 book. I started writing this review after Paris Photo last year.

The way I can post every two or three days is that I save up reviews on those infrequent times when I am inspired to write more than one in a sitting. When I had knee surgery last year I wrote about 20 within the 10 days I was laid up.

I do a lot of work on the blog but not nearly what it appears. I do have a life away from the computer.

Anonymous said...

for the life of me, I cant understand why JG moved from having his own publishing house (Loosestrife) which was very successful, and seemed to find funding and distribution quite well, to being on the never ending Steidl waiting list. This book would be out now if he'd done it himself.

2009 may well roll into 2010, judging by how late some Steidl books become.

Unknown said...

can't wait till this book comes out, does anyone know what type of camera he used for these photos?

channel_mixer said...

Communities like Kalorama are anesthetic. Sure they are "safe" but do people really aspire to live in such place, let alone feel covetous?