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Book Review: Adrift


Book Review Adrift By Ben Alper Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot In late August of 1991, the Regal Princess sailed from Fort Lauderdale bound for the Caribbean a few weeks after being named by her “godmother,” Margaret Thatcher, in Brooklyn, New York. On board this new floating resort, with its dolphin-inspired silhouette designed by Renzo Piano, were over 2000 passengers, 600 crew, an art collection that included works by Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, and Helen Frankenthaler...
Adrift by Ben Alper. 
Flat Spaces Books, 2015.
Adrift
Reviewed by  Sarah Bay Gachot

Adrift
By Ben Alper.
Flat Space Books, Carrboro NC / Brooklyn, NY, 2015. 68 pp., 38 four-color illustrations, 10x8".


In late August of 1991, the Regal Princess sailed from Fort Lauderdale bound for the Caribbean a few weeks after being named by her “godmother,” Margaret Thatcher, in Brooklyn, New York. On board this new floating resort, with its dolphin-inspired silhouette designed by Renzo Piano, were over 2000 passengers, 600 crew, an art collection that included works by Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, and Helen Frankenthaler, suites with private balconies and marble bathrooms, eight different musical acts, Gavin MacLeod (the actor who played Captain Stubing on the original Love Boat), and, very likely, thousands and thousands of rolls of 35mm film, each ready to be loaded into a camera where it might capture a few facets of the spectacle.

Adrift by Ben Alper. Flat Spaces Books, 2015.

Twenty years later, in a junk store in Brooklyn, artist Ben Alper found a photo album filled with 4-by-6 photographs that focused on the Regal Princess’s inaugural cruise. Many of the photos depicted two guys who appeared to be in their thirties, not too far shy from somewhat polished versions of the rock duo Hall & Oates circa 1985. These guys were not bad shots; many of their photos appear to have had solid compositions and exposures, documenting entertainers with microphones, swimming pools, champagne-glass pyramids, cascading tropical waterfalls, the beach, and bounties of decoratively-cut fruit. Alper, who has been collecting vernacular photographs since the early 2000s, bought the album and has now selected and scanned 38 of the pictures to make Adrift, a book that jumps ship with an intoxicating rhapsody concocted from these blameless drugstore prints.

Adrift by Ben Alper. Flat Spaces Books, 2015.

Adrift’s full-bleed front-and-back cover has the beady low reflection of a matte-photo print. It’s a color image of a riot of streamers tangled across a blond-wood floor. (This image is also reproduced as the last in the book.) Red, blue, yellow, green, and white strips of paper twist around several pairs of legs that surround a man who seems to have crumpled to the ground. He has a plastic lei around his neck and a 35mm SLR camera cradled in his streamer-strewn lap. His demeanor is unclear by the angle of his head — he could have collapsed in laughter; he could be crying.

Like many of the images Alper has slotted into Adrift, this one has the perspective of a voyeur with its equivocal scenario in the midst of Alper’s curation. But the artist goes beyond a witty stringing-together of snapshots made strange and mysterious by their new syntax. He crops and manipulates some of the pictures, using Photoshop effects to heighten the weirdness of this queasy sense of intrusion. It’s a digital disturbance; Alper’s take on the Regal Princess is soused and slurred, honed in on corners only a drunk would lock onto, and wiggled in disorienting slices of ripped-up rainbow colors, off-register and pixel-smeared.

Adrift by Ben Alper. Flat Spaces Books, 2015.

In the first few pages I see a dystopian landscape played out through images that are mundane and odd. There is a lone white car on another ship deck, a crop from a larger image that is displayed next, likely taken from the deck of the Regal Princess: several ships lined up in port, including the Queen Elizabeth 2. Beyond the ships, Alper has shivered the city skyline with double and triple imaging. In the cropped picture, the white car is blurry, and this zoomed-in quality keens with a last chance vision of escape. The third and fourth images in the book are of our two guys posing, nearly full figure, taking turns standing inside a glass-doored, mirror-backed display cabinet with (what else?) a small, live, golden cocker spaniel. Their bodies are digitally manipulated as if in motion though their profiled reflections are crisp and in focus. There is a picture of a caged toucan (its black eye as deep as the Sargasso Sea...), a cropped image of a small megaphone and speaker attached to the ship’s deck windows barring the wide ocean and horizon beyond, and a full-bleed spread that depicts the entire Regal Princess at sea. Her muted colors slip and slide into red, green, and blue, aberrated with digital glitch like an off-key song.

Adrift by Ben Alper. Flat Spaces Books, 2015.

In some images the original photo is nearly as strange as Alper’s repurposing. Two elder women are draped in satin, sequins, and jeweled baubles, their eyes partially obscured under crooked and cracked masks. Alper has shifted and transformed some areas of the image, disrupting the cohesion of the ladies. In another, a woman in white furs, evening wear, and festooned with diamonds approaches a giant foregrounded hand that reaches into the frame. She is ghostly, surrounded by peculiar wisps of white and men in tuxedos whose heads didn’t quite make it onto the exposure.

Adrift by Ben Alper. Flat Spaces Books, 2015.

The clichés of the ocean-liner voyage — over-the top pampering, the gluttony of buffets and cocktail hours, enrichment lectures, island hops, mandatory formal-wear, and expanses of nearly-nude flesh cooking under a tropical sun — ratchet up to near-breaking point over the pages of Adrift. An artist who works with photography has a choice to record what is real, or to underline just how troubling that notion of capturing reality with a camera really is. Alper has hijacked the most innocent of dreams, a documentation of pure leisure time, at once corny, canned, and pinned into an album, and made it digitally inebriated and, compellingly, as real as any fantasy can ever be. —Sarah Bay Gachot


Sarah Bay Gachot is a writer and piñata-maker. She is currently at work on a book about the artist Robert Cumming and her publications include Aperture magazine, ArtSlant, The PhotoBook Review, The Daily Beast, and The Art Book Review. Her piñatas have been exhibited and then destroyed at the Hammer Museum, REDCAT, Machine Project, Human Resources LA, and Pomona College, among other places. She also co-hosts the monthly event Hyperience, a free, ongoing series of artist residencies and live collaborative events. Sarah lives in Los Angeles. Lylesfur.tumblr.com


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