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Book Review: The Castle


Book Review The Castle By Federico Clavarino Reviewed by Adam Bell Conceived in the aftermath of Word War II, the European Union is in a precarious state. The UK tragically voted for the Brexit, the economic state of various member states remains in peril, and the rise of divisive policies and rhetoric threatens to undo the goodwill that has held the EU together for years.
The CastleBy Federico Clavarino. Dalpine, 2016.
 
The Castle
Reviewed by Adam Bell

The Castle
Photographs by Federico Clavarino
Dalpine, Madrid, Spain, 2016. 160 pp., black-and-white illustrations, 8¼x11¾".


Conceived in the aftermath of Word War II, the European Union is in a precarious state. The UK tragically voted for the Brexit, the economic state of various member states remains in peril, and the rise of divisive policies and rhetoric threatens to undo the goodwill that has held the EU together for years. Visualizing the elusive bonds that hold any group of people together as a nation is always a challenge, but a loose affiliation of nations is even more challenging. Traditional symbols of nationalism no longer suffice and what bonds do exist are even less tangible. Although infused with doubt and paranoia, Federico Clavarino’s The Castle offers a cautiously optimistic assessment of Europe in the early 21st century. Over the course of the book’s four chapters, Clavarino points at the tragic roots that inspired the formation of the EU and attempts to visualize the illusory and often alienating bureaucracy that holds it together. Filled with vague iconography of power, dissolution, separation, and tension, The Castle does not offer easy solutions or glib propaganda about Europe and its fate in the 21st century. Like the castle in Kakfa’s famous novel of the same name, Clavarino’s castle rules with inscrutable authority; we live at its mercy. How we choose move forward is up to us.

The CastleBy Federico Clavarino. Dalpine, 2016.

At a quick glance, it might be hard to see The Castle as anything but a paranoid collage about a fractured, controlling authority. The book’s title is a direct reference to Kafka’s well-known book about a distant, controlling bureaucracy, and in the images, there is little hope — exits are foreclosed, cryptic symbols repeat throughout, and the few human faces or bodies we encounter are turned, shrouded, or truncated. As a contrast, it is helpful to examine how the work begins and ends. The first chapter, entitled ‘The Dead,’ offers glimpses of Europe’s past: a barbed fence alludes to the concentration camps of the Holocaust, tombstones inscribed with Hebrew letters point to the lives lost, and an older man shuffles down the street. The images flash by like a historical montage, often overlapping and bleeding into one another. The chapter ends with a blank film spool, exposed white and running off the page, and a closed wooden gate. Through direct and oblique visual clues, the tragedy of Europe’s history is presented. Yet, in the midst of these darker images, we’re shown a young couple in a park. The man, who lies on a bench with his head in the lap of the young woman, looks up at the woman, who brushes her hair from her face. It’s a scene you might find in any city park throughout Europe, but contrasted with the bleak images, points to a new generation, moving forward and living their lives. Their faces are caught in mid-conversation but they offer a sliver of hope and are one of the few instances of people touching or engaging one another. The final chapter, ‘At the Twilight,’ is a short sequence of five images that ends with a young man’s hand holding a thin twig between his forefinger and thumb. Although pessimistic about the means and symbols used to hold Europe together and its future, the book offers pointed symbolism in the end. This feels a bit heavy-handed, but Clavarino doesn’t suggest an outcome, just that something fragile lies in the balance.

The CastleBy Federico Clavarino. Dalpine, 2016.
The CastleBy Federico Clavarino. Dalpine, 2016.

If the opening and concluding chapters offer a cause and a provocation, the middle two chapters explore the alienating ties that bind and separate. In the second chapter, ‘The Organizing Principles,’ smaller images of signs, details or fragments are arranged on the four corners of each page like a grid. Resembling shifting Tarot cards, their meaning is left open to interpretation but is consistently ominous in tone — an otherwise innocuous silhouette in neon becomes a faceless watcher, and a twenty-sided die might suggest the random nature of fate. Chiseled walls repeat throughout and close off any exit. In the following chapter, ‘The Castle,’ similar images reappear and fill the page. Prefaced by the epigram ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ the chapter contains images of stone facades, shrouded faces, and in one case a barbed fence. Men in suits turn away from the camera or are cut off by the frame, and signs cast abstracted shadows on the walls of corporate lobbies. If the EU is the imagined castle, the obtuse images that comprise the middle two chapters suggest a paranoid vision of its control and invisible presence.

The CastleBy Federico Clavarino. Dalpine, 2016.
The CastleBy Federico Clavarino. Dalpine, 2016.

Whereas Clavarino’s recent Italia o Italia focused on Italy and the conflated symbolism of the Roman Empire and fascism, The Castle casts a wider net. Like Paul Graham’s New Europe, which looked to Europe before the birth of the EU with similar skepticism, The Castle does not provide easy answers. In an atmosphere full of inflammatory rhetoric ripe for conspiratorial musings, it might seem fool-hearty to perpetuate these narratives. At the same time, The Castle touches on a very real strain of pessimism that threatens to affect us all. Institutions are increasingly opaque; they control our lives with frightening precision, and when they do fail, they remerge stronger than before. It is hard to fight, let alone visualize these forces, but it is our only hope.—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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