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Book Review: Aliqual


Book Review Aliqual By Massimo Mastrorillo Reviewed by Adam Bell In 2009, an earthquake struck the town of L’Aquila, Italy. Measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake devastated the regional capital of Abruzzo and left over 300 dead. Fearing aftershocks and further devastation, the government forcibly evacuated the town center, leaving it largely abandoned.
AliqualBy Massimo MastrorilloSkinnerboox, 2015.
 
Aliqual
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Aliqual.
Photographs by Massimo Mastrorillo.
Skinnerboox. In Italian and English. 128 pp., 11½x7¾".


In 2009, an earthquake struck the town of L’Aquila, Italy. Measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake devastated the regional capital of Abruzzo and left over 300 dead. Fearing aftershocks and further devastation, the government forcibly evacuated the town center, leaving it largely abandoned. Starting in 2009, Massimo Mastrorillo re-entered the town, explored the buildings and took pictures of the empty, cracked, and junk strewn apartments and offices. Taken over the course of four years, the photographs that comprise Aliqual are a record of this devastating event, but they are also an intriguing meditation on the camera’s power of estrangement. Thrown into a maze of collapsed and dilapidated rooms, we’re forced to stare at the piles of junk and ruin left behind. Set against a stark and violent background, objects and things that were once common and familiar are made doubly strange by the dramatic rupture of the earthquake and coolly forensic eye of Mastrorillo.
AliqualBy Massimo MastrorilloSkinnerboox, 2015.

The book begins with a shot of a topographic model. Small trees and houses line a ridge. A flash illuminates the foreground and darkness encroaches in the distance. The book ends with an image of a completed jigsaw puzzle lying on the floor. A bucolic house in spring. Flowers surround the house and a stone pathway leads up from the foreground to the house’s right side. These two images suggest a variety of ways of representing the world — a map, a model, a photograph, a puzzle — that are then mirrored in the book. Distances are frequently collapsed or foreshortened, turning a wall or surface into a topographic surface, and what was once whole is shown broken and in pieces, waiting to be brought together again. The opening image also serves as the book’s front and back cover. Like the earthquake that shook the town and turned things asunder, the image is flipped on the back.

Mastrorillo never mentions the earthquake in the book and it’s just as well. While its clear something terrible has happened, we can’t tell exactly what. Cracks appear throughout the book. They run up walls and lead to gapping holes in the floors and windows. Save one dog, there are no living things to be found. There’s a frozen spider, but no people. We’re the protagonists sorting through the rubble. The inhabitants left their stuff behind in haste — children’s toys, anatomical models, a keyboard, some shoes, and a computer. Mostly things are in disarray. Wires are hanging from the ceiling and wallpaper peels off the walls. It’s hard to tell if things just fell there or the rooms they’re in have been ransacked and the objects deemed worthless.

AliqualBy Massimo MastrorilloSkinnerboox, 2015.
AliqualBy Massimo MastrorilloSkinnerboox, 2015.

Photography has always gravitated to junk, dust and detritus, but Mastrorillo seems to be aiming for something more than a simplistic or romantic exploration of ruin and decay. There are a dozen terrible books to be made in the ruined rooms and landscape of L’Aquila. While Mastrorillo was drawn to the possibility offered by a city abandoned and partially destroyed, he pictures its ruins to a different effect. Purposely repetitive, narrow and myopic, he keeps looking at stuff until it falls apart and begins to come together again in new form. If the earthquake tore apart the familiar order, by staring long and hard, and repeating things, Mastrorillo hopes to restore order.

AliqualBy Massimo MastrorilloSkinnerboox, 2015.
AliqualBy Massimo MastrorilloSkinnerboox, 2015.

Tragic events can temporarily shift the social order of a place, but they can also reorient our perception of the things that surround us. Photography is uniquely qualified to examine this process of defamiliarization regardless of the circumstance or subject. As the partially redacted text in Italian and English discusses, Aliqual is a nonsense game whereby a word is repeated “again and again until its meaning breaks down and becomes something mysterious that disorients us and gives us the opportunity to image a world that has become something else.” It’s also an anagram of L’Aquila. Scrambled and reordered, the images represent another view or parallel reality of the city. Each image presents a world that we think we know, turned upside down, strange and new.—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 AfterimageThe Art Book ReviewThe Brooklyn RailfototazoFoam MagazineLay Flatphoto-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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