Book Review Island In My Mind By Irina Rozovsky Reviewed by Adam Bell For Americans, the illicit and until now legally forbidden landscape of Cuba has its own visual language — classic cars, or yank tanks, decaying grand villas, and verdant courtyards — whose picturesque appeal masks as much as it reveals. In 2012, Irina Rozovsky traveled to Cuba and began taking the photographs that make up her second book, Island In My Mind.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Island in My Mind
Photographs by Irina Rozovsky
Verlag Kettler, Dortmund, Germany, 2015. In English/ Spanish. 104 pp., 81 illustrations, 7¾x10¾".
For Americans, the illicit and until now legally forbidden landscape of Cuba has its own visual language — classic cars, or yank tanks, decaying grand villas, and verdant courtyards — whose picturesque appeal masks as much as it reveals. In 2012, Irina Rozovsky traveled to Cuba and began taking the photographs that make up her second book, Island In My Mind, which went on to win the 2014 Kassel Fotobook Festival Dummy Award. I’m ill equipped to judge the veracity of Rozovsky’s Cuba, but placed aside the clichéd images of the island, her images crackle with unsettling energy and strike me as true, even if they may be false. Hot, confusing, and exciting — Rozovsky leads us through a heat soaked and surreal landscape full of beauty and life.
Like Rozovsky’s previous book, One to Nothing, which navigates the visually and politically fraught landscape of Israel, Island In my Mind explores the similarly complex landscape of Cuba. Much looser in approach than her previous book, Rozovsky forgoes the monocular poetry of the 2 ¼ square for the broader perspective offered by 35mm. Often shot with a flash at night, the work has a dream-like quality as Rozovsky stumbles through the heat and haze capturing fleeing moments: a couple waving goodbye, boys on a swing, an impromptu dance, and a dog gleefully sprinting down a country road. At other times, Rozovsky reveals moments of magic — a single fish that seems to swim across the sidewalk, a bird hovering over a man by the sea, or a luminous water cooler in room of sand. Constantly on the move, and sequenced without a clear narrative, the images weave day and night, and move from city to country, forming a varied tapestry. This shifting perspective speaks not only to the excitement and delight Rozovsky must have felt exploring such a vibrant country, but more importantly serves to unsettle us as well, keeping us alert, and alive to the mysteries that lie around every corner.
While Rozovsky focuses on the urban landscape of Havana and its surroundings, the ocean is a constant presence. Dogs scamper along sea walls, boys leap off the rocks and dive into the waves, and we gaze out across the horizon, over the city to the surrounding sea. Another constant are the animals — both dead and alive. In one graphic image, a pig’s head, split in two, rests on plastic sheeting by the side of the road. In another spectacular image, a monkey, exhausted by the heat, rests against a wall. Splayed out with his eyes closed, he sits and waits for a breeze. Dogs, muzzled and barely tame or loose and feral, run wild. Another unspoken constant in the book is the heat. As Rozovsky notes in her brief statement at the close of the book, “I first came to Havana in July when it was impossibly hot and even the sea was sweating.” The heat seems to permeate all aspects of the pictures from the lounging figures glistening with sweat to the tropical haze that hovers in the air.
Well-designed, the spiral binding and simple matte printing feel true to both Rozovsky’s intimate and diaristic approach, but also to the humble subject matter of the book. Images run across the wires or appear to bleed across the perforated gutter into facing pictures, directing our attention within and outside the book. In one image, towards the beginning of the book, a shirtless man, glistening with sweat, beckons us to venture into the dark recess of a stone building. On the facing page, a rotated horizontal image shows a silhouetted dog trotting along a sea wall towards the edge of the frame. One points inward to parts unknown, while the other leads the way up and out, along the spine and sea. Aside from Rozovsky’s short concluding text, the book opens with a quote by Reinaldo Arenas, the celebrated Cuban writer. Taken from Arenas’ The Color of Summer, he writes “And then, at last, they saw the country and the counter-country — because every country, like all things in this world, has its contrary…”
Neither overtly political nor naively celebratory, Island In My Mind shows how people live and survive in a landscape so often misunderstood, oppressed, or vilified for various reasons. As Arenas’ quote suggests, every country has its counter-country, or that which suppresses its diversity and beauty. A romantic and idealistic sentiment indeed, but given the turmoil Cuba has experienced over the years, and the suffering endured by Arenas, rings true. In her subjective, but deeply penetrating images, Rozovsky seeks to navigate between these dualities and show us a Cuba that is wholly her own, but that also speaks to that true country too often overshadowed, distorted, or reduce to cliché. —Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)
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