Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino by Boris Mikhailov

Writing in the foreword to his 1996 book Am Boden (By the Ground) Boris Mikhailov states; The fourth year of change. Not much has been reorganized, but a lot has changed. I already notice the tendency towards a "new" society, a deterioration in the quality of life for most people and the waning hope that some time everything will turn out fine for them. He continues; To a certain extent, I was always a street photographer. I always searched the streets for historical symbols of the present times. The streets reflect social processes like a mirror. What that book and its companion Die Dämmerung (At Dusk) described was bleak - everything seems to have collapsed at once spreading, in Mikhailov's words, the feeling of a natural catastrophe. It was felt in the book's titles - the darkening end of an era and the lowered perspective pulling us to the earth. the title of his newest offering Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König might be signaling a lighter, more positive view. Guess again.

Photographing in his hometown of Kharkov, Mikhailov has once again taken to the streets to reflect social process. On the cover, three men laugh and smile good-naturedly at the camera, almost mocking the choices offered by the book's title. What choice has been given by the arrival of western splendor? Cappuccino? The blossoming adverts that rise above the crumbled and muddy streets? Nearly everyone in the 200 color photographs seem to be carrying shopping bags and bundles full of goods giving the impression that success has been achieved but as Mikhailov speculates "a flux of cheap commodities has conquered ubiquitously, creating a colorful new plastic reality." The previous eras long breadlines have now been replaced by lines waiting for infrequent trams.

The facing spreads form disjointed panoramics which seem a natural continuum to By the Ground and At Dusk. Mikhailov notes that the photos 'fitted together in a chronologic order: what was photographed earlier is at the beginning, and the later photos are towards the end.' This order, bracketed by images of people kicking up their heels in impromptu can-can dances, seems to show a drift into a mental state of escapism and spectacle until a Kurt Cobain Jesus makes his appearance in the final photograph.

Bookwise, Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino is straightforward in design and printing. The flow of images seems daunting because of the amount but appropriate for a book that is partly about the dream of excess. The awkward cover design seems to be a nod towards the poor design of the ever-present advertising seen throughout the book.

As in all of Mikhailov's other books his presence is felt or literally seen as both insider and outsider. In Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino he pratfalls out of a kiosk doorway and perches on a small railing trying to inject humor as an occasional diversion. This portrait of Kharkov might be his darkest work yet. Even though Case History portrayed a populace often homeless and rife with disease there was a sense that death - an end to the misery - was close at hand. In Tea, Coffee, Cappuccino, what he has shown might be the state for a long time to come.

Monday, April 4, 2011

d.a. levy Electric Greek Poems by Jon Beacham

My love of typography especially that adapted by great designers like Jan Tschichold and others has led to an appreciation of the concrete poets working from the 1950s onward. These were poets who refused to think of words as mere indifferent vehicles without a visual life of their own that could further communicate by their physical arrangement on the printed page. People like Dick Higgins, Claus Bremmer and Emmett Williams are among the well known but my favorite who isn't usually cited would be Ferdinand Kriwet, who for photobook lovers, created the circular "poem" that precedes the photographs in Ed van der Elsken's classic book Sweet Life.

One poet who I knew little about before discovering a facsimile of his work produced by local Brooklyn artist and printmaker Jon Beacham is D.A. Levy. Levy was a Cleveland based poet and artist working in the 1960s and his self produced mimeograph books were his main medium.

As primarily a bookmaker, his most widely distributed works The North American Book of the Dead, Cleveland Undercovers, Suburban Monastery Death Poem, and Tombstone as a Lonely Charm count as only a few among over 160 publications he produced in his short lifetime before committing suicide on November 24,1968 at age 26 (11 days after I was born).

In the fall of 1968, Levy was invited to Madison to be a poet in residence at the University of Wisconsin by David Wagner and Morris Edelson. During this time he created a series of concrete poems and a collection titles Electric Greek Poems - a reference to the originators of visual poetry which were used as decoration for religious artworks and alter shaped poems dating back to the 2nd century BC. This facsimile collection contains some of the last works created by Levy before his death.

19 individual sheets printed by hand on a Vandercook, Jon Beacham has published an edition of 165 copies faithful in every way exactly to the original but for use of a brown cover stock instead of the original blue. The physical aesthetics of craft - the imperfect typewritten covers (set with an IBM Selectric typewriter) and the slight impression of the ink into the paper from the pass of the Vandercook's drum - are a welcome distraction from the digitized detachment from objects not touched by hands.

Go here to order and find out more about Beacham and his other projects.