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Book Review: Gull Juju


Book Review Gull Juju By Lukas Felzmann Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot I keep returning to a photograph called Feed me. A window speckled with bird whitewash looks out onto a landscape of brush with a few hills peeking through a bank of fog. Just over the windowsill, a lone seagull stands at attention next to a small bush, just a speck off in the distance, but altogether there.
Gull Juju. By Lukas Felzmann. Lars Muller, 2015.
Gull Juju
Reviewed by Sarah Bay Gachot

Gull Juju: Photographs from the Farallon Islands
Photographs by Lukas Felzmann
Lars Muller, Zürich, Switzerland, 2015. In English. 168 pp., 137 illustrations, 6¾x10x¾".


I keep returning to a photograph called Feed me. A window speckled with bird whitewash looks out onto a landscape of brush with a few hills peeking through a bank of fog. Just over the windowsill, a lone seagull stands at attention next to a small bush, just a speck off in the distance, but altogether there. I find photographs that include seagulls to often be this way — the contingency of their presence commands my attention no matter how little space they take up within the frame. I barely notice what’s on a shelf in the shadows adjacent to the window: a dying plant in a small pot with a note tucked under it that catches the daylight. “WATER ME,” the note says. Looking back out the window, I think I know what that seagull is thinking.

But this bird is not to be fed. Feed me is one of many photographs in Lukas Felzmann’s book Gull Juju, a work that documents his travels to the Farallon Islands, a group of volcanic islands 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, where normal folks are not allowed. Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, and plants cover the less-than one-quarter-square mile total area of the archipelago, including the largest single colony of western gulls in the world. For decades the only humans to visit and live on the Farallons have been a handful of scientists who study the ecosystem, as well as a few people who maintain the 150-plus-year-old lighthouse, and — occasionally — artists.

Gull Juju. By Lukas Felzmann. Lars Muller, 2015.

Felzmann explains in his introductory essay that he, a painter and a poet, initially tagged along with three environmental artists of the group Meadowsweet Dairy, who were invited to the Farallons to recycle old concrete into sculptures. Meadowsweet Dairy’s forms attracted birds to nest and also had built-in blinds from which scientists could study the birds’ behavior. The seagulls feed themselves, but, as Felzmann writes, they “are carefully watching the scientists who are watching them,” too.

The title of this book takes its name from a box kept by the scientists labeled “Gull Juju Archive. Strong Juju,” that Felzmann found while photographing their offices. Inside were colorful and insane little things that gulls had eaten elsewhere, carried back to the islands, and regurgitated into their nests: a toy car, pink comb, letter magnet, pieces of cut up credit cards, drink stirrers, a golf ball, and tons of other colorful trinkets plucked from “civilization.” Felzmann diligently photographed every item from the box on a white or black background.

Gull Juju. By Lukas Felzmann. Lars Muller, 2015.
Gull Juju. By Lukas Felzmann. Lars Muller, 2015.

The Gull Juju Archive series depicts just one part of a surreal landscape to which Felzmann successfully pays homage. Other pictures soar up hillsides and nestle into the corners of the scientists’ dwellings. I experience a rich and elegant quietude in these photographs. This is the kind of artist’s book in which it feels that text and image have traded roles — Felzmann’s essay seems to illustrate his pictures rather than the other way around; on several pages he lists hundreds of species, and includes a map and corresponding text to explain currents along the California coast as well as the North Pacific Gyre, a huge and slow vortex of water in the middle of the Pacific ocean that roils with micro-sized pieces of broken-down plastic. “This toxic cloud is a ground-down version of contemporary civilization,” writes Felzmann, and, “if not removed, this pollution will eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean to settle as a visible layer of plastic sediments, an indication of our time in the geological record.” Was it this vortex of human garbage that inspired the scientists to name their archive of peculiar gull-swallowed objects juju, or, as Felzmann puts it, “a West African word for objects or amulets used in witchcraft”? It is the short texts in this book that lend wonder to Felzmann’s photographs, which in their own right, and in their printing, are gorgeous anyway.

Gull Juju. By Lukas Felzmann. Lars Muller, 2015.

Open the book quickly, for, aside from being covered in a pleasant shade of slate blue, I feel the cloth boards, black spine, and a title in what looks to be scaled-thin Garamond over a line drawing of the islands do a tired disservice to what you will find within. Open the book, let your eyes adjust on the black endpapers, and then enjoy your flight: the first few pages depict horizon-less images of ocean, then a canted ocean horizon with tiny islands far off in the distance. Then craggy rocks, close up. And, of course, the seagulls.—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 magazineArtSlantThe PhotoBook ReviewThe 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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