Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Plan by Michael Schmelling / Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt by Jacob Kirch

As you can see I am doing some Spring cleaning with the Photobook Exchange so I thought two book reviews along those lines were in order. Michael Schmelling's The Plan from J&L Books and Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt by Jacob Kirch from the Institute for Book Arts in Leipzig will help with some tidying up and making a few home improvements.

In 1992 I moved into a tenement railroad style apartment on 35th street and 9th avenue in Manhattan. The elderly woman who occupied the place before me was a compulsive hoarder of cloth swatches and scraps that she would gather from the dumpsters of dozens of garment sweatshops that lined my street. I heard from neighbors that she had filled the front room of the apartment which was about 10' x 12' to a depth of about 5 feet deep with the swatches. It took two days to cart all of the material to the street and when the workers made substantial progress, they uncovered a full dining room set and various pieces of furniture that hadn't seen daylight for years. When I moved in I had one milk-crate of books, another full of clothing. The space echoed for about a year.

Michael Schmelling has been photographing the results of compulsive hoarding by tagging along with a New York-based agency called Disaster Masters as they venture into the homes and apartments which are filled to the threshold with clutter. His new book The Plan could be seen as not only documentation, but an extension of the mindset of someone suffering from pathological hoarding. At approximately 600 pages, the amount of material is as overwhelming as a room full of useless possessions.

The Plan opens with a small polaroid photo of a washbowl within which sits an arrangement of beer tabs found in Walker Evans's home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The lip of the sink is cluttered with other found objects rendering the basin unusable; not to mention the sign that rests just above the beer tabs that reads, "Please do not disturb the arrangement of tin beer caps in this washbowl." A still-life to be photographed to one day? or ready-made sculpture that has taken over a bathroom?

Schmelling finds hundreds of small still-lifes to describe and much of The Plan is concerned with those that follow in the spirit of Evans's beer tab arrangement. Setting about looking through this book is as unsettling as what the photos describe. It is bulky yet as unwieldy as a small phonebook. Its thin pages make it nearly impossible to grab just one. Its ink comes off on your fingers and smudges the white covers. Its construction leads to some confusion with a section of green pages (why?). In short, it is probably the perfect representation of a book about the disgust and repulsion of out of control filthy and clutter. Would you expect a book about such a subject to be clean? Why the green pages? Perhaps because venturing into one of these rooms piled high with junk is about as unpredictable as a book that suddenly reproduces its last pages in monochrome green.

There is a method to the madness but you need to decipher just what that is.

Once your home is cleaned and everything carted away by Disaster Masters, you can start repairing the damage. Jakob Kirch's Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt could be the guide you are looking for.

Platz Ist Wo's Hinkommt is an artist book/ graphic design thesis that compiles various illustrations that were common to home improvement magazines from 1975-1990 in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). Initially interested in Claude Lévi-Strausse's distinction between the "engineer" and the "amateur handyman" (an engineer makes use of objects made for a particular project, the handyman uses whatever is available to him) Kirch set up some formal rules in the creation of his book. The illustrations were chosen for their formal qualities yet Kirch arranges them into compositions on each page according to their original positions as they appeared in the handyman's magazines, making editing into a subtractive act to avoid overlapping images. Moves between subjective and an objective sets of rules, Kirch's new guide to home improvement force the formerly step-by-step illustrations into new associations that are puzzling yet hint at a deeper pool of knowledge beyond the rational.

The design of Platz is brilliant. It is comprised of 13 staple-bound booklets glued together to form one book. Each "section" provides illustrations from individual magazines and the last booklet - reproduced in bright yellow - provides a legend to provide each photo's caption and determine which magazine the illustration came from. This section folds out just beyond the main book block so it can remain open while the reader flips through the book, making access to the captions easy. Platz was published in only 150 copies by the Institut fur Buchkunst Leipzig in 2006 and is available for 30 euros.

The similarities to Schmelling's The Plan make these quite the pair. They are remarkably close in trim size, quality of reproduction (very rough), type of materials (thin paper) as well their tenor of what human activity creates and what it looks like when reinforced by a logic that might escape most people's understanding.