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Book Review: Neither


Book Review Neither By Kate Nolan Reviewed by Karen Jenkins The search for cultural identity and a sense of self is a decidedly betwixt and between proposition for the women Kate Nolan depicts in Neither. Residents of Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, their roots are neither deep nor firmly placed here.

Neither. By Kate Nolan.
Self-Publsihed, 2014.
 
Neither
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Neither
Photographs by Kate Nolan
Self-Published, 2014. 74 pp., 47 illustrations, 9½x12½".

The search for cultural identity and a sense of self is a decidedly betwixt and between proposition for the women Kate Nolan depicts in Neither. Residents of Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, their roots are neither deep nor firmly placed here. After its destruction in World War II, the former German city of Köenigsburg was annexed by the USSR, renamed and repopulated Рits native citizens expelled or emigrated out, as Soviets were relocated in their place. During the Cold War, Kaliningrad was heavily militarized; closed off and cut off from the motherland. With the fall of the USSR, this military presence, and its economic support, disintegrated. Today, its residents are at a geographical, political and psychological remove from Russia, facing economic pressures, travel restrictions and tension with neighboring EU states. Neither is a combination of pensive portraits and largely austere takes on Kaliningrad today. A mixed bag of cultural markers manifest in its structures, corridors and corners, in faded signs and worn remains, and everything damp. The images are animated by two sets of writings. Both the diaristic musings of her contemporary subjects and the reflective texts of Russian women relocated to Kaliningrad in 1945 tap into present anxieties and future hopes, and a sought after distillation of self and home.

Neither. By Kate Nolan. Self-Publsihed, 2014.

Neither is a limited edition, self-published work, designed by the Dutch innovator -SYB-, the moniker of Sybren Kuiper. A section of full-bleed color photographs is sandwiched within a smaller white booklet of writings by the women of Kaliningrad, past and present. While several subjects return Nolan’s gaze, their portraits all share an introspective tone and a certain psychological remove, as if lost in the thoughts laid out in those handwritten texts that precede the photographs. Many women are framed against or near windows; perhaps in part to tease out the best available light from Kaliningrad’s grey skies, but also as a symbolic demarcation between inward look and outward gaze. The other photographs contained here feel like so many points of contemplation for these women, more tempered than inciting, in Soviet-era buildings, empty intersections and leafless trees. Each page carries the weight of either transported thoughts or limited vision.

Neither. By Kate Nolan. Self-Publsihed, 2014.

The historical accounts of those women relocated to Kaliningrad in 1945, like their contemporary counterpoints, are neither all optimism and future promise, nor solely marked by anxiety or despair. Travel by train is the prevailing symbol in these relocation stories. Orchestras accompany departures and arrivals, with a formal pomposity that belies the indignities and discomforts of the occasion for those uneasy travelers whose journeys they bookend. Wagons carry forth livestock as seeds of future bounty, and such vehicles are also the crushed remains of the destroyed city that is their destination – what is wholeness and promise in one woman’s account is all broken and deflated in another’s.

Neither. By Kate Nolan. Self-Publsihed, 2014.

The texts written by the contemporary Kaliningrad women Nolan photographed are both connected to generations past and the distant motherland and full of desire for an autonomous self-determination. Natasha wonders “can blindness be geographical?” while Ekaterina decides that “Aware instead of asleep feels good.” The reproductions of their handwritten journals and notepads crackle with the range of their thoughtful, imaginative visions. Their words of worry and uncertainty, hope and pride animate their photographic portraits.

Neither. By Kate Nolan. Self-Publsihed, 2014.

Below each page of photographs is a narrow sliced off panel containing a short handwritten narrative spelled out on page after page, where anecdote is touchstone for the writer’s larger wishes and frustrations. The relationship between these tabs and the photographs above remind me of the children’s picture books sliced into sections, inviting the reader to interchange heads, torsos and feet to create mutable, hybrid creatures with the flip of a panel. Engaging with Nolan’s work in this way opens up rich potential for non-linear narratives and variable meanings. In design and content, image and word, Neither demands an active engagement. It defies an easy summary of post-World War II cultural remnants and ramifications and powerfully engages the neither/nor concept in its exploration of personal and nationalistic identity.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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