Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith by Jason Eskenazi

Jason Eskenazi's Wonderland, A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith is the culmination of ten years worth of work describing aspects of contemporary life behind the Iron Curtain. Taking a page from literary fairy tales and children's stories, Wonderland is structured - less as a documentary project - and more as a metaphoric journey into the quirky landscape of the former super power as it shifts from a communist empire to a wild mix of deeply rooted traditions holding out against creeping influence of the west.

Eskenazi, a Guggenheim fellow, opens the book with an image of a woman's back as she pensively looks out an apartment window overlooking Red Square. The flowery patterns of lace curtains hang over our protagonist as a reminder of innocence or perhaps idealism as the real world outside draws her attention. The sequence quickly evolves into the traditional storyline of a fairy tale - a young child is thrust into the world to fend for herself in an almost hallucinatory state, losing her innocence in an unsheltered world.

As the photographer, Eskenazi steers her journey to reflect the changes taking place within the empire. The agrarian culture seems to be far outdated while the more modern industrial infrastructure collapses. The women change from timid peasants covered head to toe in traditional worker garb into miniskirt wearing, hyper-sexualized beings. The only structure that seems to remain strong is with the military where men exercise and wear crisp uniforms but to defend what? An ideology or an empire now split into individual states?

Lingering remnants of statues, now headless, the slaughtering of a goat, and a barber shaving a man's neck are brilliantly sequenced to remind us that the head is now coming off and the state is dissolving into the fantastic. Our protagonist experiences war, poverty, drug addiction and rape while ballerinas and princesses appear in working in factories or wandering through dingy stairwells.

The style of Eskenazi's photography follows the lead of the likes of Gilles Peress -- an accomplishment considering the plethora of bad photojournalism that is far too wrapped up in visual geometry and gymnastics at the expense of deeper content. Eskenazi has learned to make compelling photographs that have the strength of both form and content.

Although my description may make it seem like a complete downer, Wonderland isn't a harsh book on the surface a'la Nachtwey or Richards. The deeper meaning may be dark but like a children's story, it is delivered with the rhythm of adventure into a landscape of the mysterious.

Published by De.MO and funded in part by the Joy of Giving Something Foundation, Wonderland has a handcrafted feel to the design that follows many of De.MO's other publications with an uncovered book-board cover and exposed spine. My only real criticism would lie with the trim size. At only around 5X7 inches, it seems like larger work forced into too small of a package. A small criticism but noteworthy.

Stalin had once said "We were born to make fairy tales come true." When the wall finally fell it was clear that the fantasy had not been realized to what was promised. As he writes, Eskenazi explored through its remnants "searching for metaphors but realizing, too late, that I had brought my own when I first arrived. And now that it's time to leave, I sit for a few moments on the edge of the bed to assure safe travel, as the Russians do, just before I lock the door, unable to return to what perhaps never was."