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Book of the Week: Selected by Meggan Gould

Book Review Abzgram Photographs by Karolina Wojtas Reviewed by Meggan Gould "This book is insane! To begin with: it’s a parallelogram, with just enough of a skew from the traditional rectangular book frame to make you question your bearings..."

Abzgram. By Karolina Wojtas.
Photographs by Karolina Wojtas

Spector Books, 2023. 204 pp., 153 illustrations, 7¼x10x¾".

This book is insane! To begin with: it’s a parallelogram, with just enough of a skew from the traditional rectangular book frame to make you question your bearings. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is unrelenting. Every square inch of page is covered. Small photographs pile up on backgrounds of lined orthographic paper, color fields intersect large photographs, diagrams, scribbles, notes and graph paper add up to nothing short of visual cacophony. I had a photography teacher who loved to talk about the inclusion of “pages de respiration” in a photobook — spaces for deliberate breath between photographs. Wojtas gives us no breathers — in we go, and in we stay.

If I breathe at all here, it might lean toward borderline hyperventilation. It takes a minute to place this unrelenting overstimulation, this frenetic tension, but once I get there it is obvious: school! Fluorescent. Caged. Bombarded on all sides. Repetitive. Underlying rigidity of structures. What is primary school, if not a seesaw from prescriptive tedium to tedium, with intermittent jolts of pleasure and provocation?

On first few flip-throughs, I am flummoxed by the sustained mayhem within this book. Maybe I rub my eyes for good measure. Is this for real? What is this inscrutable chaos? A camera flash fires, again and again and again and again and again and again. I decide that this artist loves school. I decide that this artist hates school. I decide that this might be a brilliant excoriation of a Kafkaesque educational institution. I decide that I never want to set foot in a school again.

I will describe a few moments of relative pause for me. Uniformed children singing in page after page of dizzying snapshot grids of singing school groups, lined up in orderly assembly formations; if you know the Polish national anthem, this might be its soundtrack moment. Indecipherable grading schemes on surprisingly varied iterations of graph paper. The inexhaustible numerals of pi typed out as the background of 11 pages (along with other stamps, marks, drawings), layered over frame after frame of a tousle-headed kid in a red hoodie. Young adults standing on classroom tables, deadpan stares at the camera, dressed in black with circular orange exclamation mark stickers on their chests. A kid in jeans and sneakers attempting to climb onto a bank of lockers. A thumbnail survey of exuberantly painted classroom doors, each illuminated by the ubiquitous flash. Unable to decode the scrawls on the walls and in the margins, I regret that I cannot parse even a smidge of the Polish language.

Trying to pause feels futile. I recommend submission, and simply being awash in this sum total of a chaos of shenanigans. I would have loved to see the exhibition version; Abzgram is a photo book translation of a sprawling multimedia exhibition in Berlin, which included extensive video and room-sized installation work. The exhibition and monograph were the fruits of the C/O Berlin Talent Award 2022, which Wojtas won in the Artist category. For the book iteration of the experience, Wojtas was paired with Mathias Gründig, who won the same award in the Theorist category. Gründig’s essay, entitled “Play and Punish”, soothes my (pleasantly frazzled) nerves; I feel camaraderie in this experience, where “all the dials are set to eleven, more is more.” Ruminating on the relationship between play and work in the context of Wojtas’ anarchic work, Gründig invokes the history of Polish pedagogy amid sprawling philosophical entry points, including Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Johan Huizinga. The book also includes an interview between Gründig and Wojtas, in which the question as to whether she liked school is answered and we read of the artist’s relationship to language, the camera, and maturity.

Abzgram. It is a pitch-perfect pleasure-pain title in that I can neither exactly pronounce nor explain it, but it feels right. It is somehow both knowable and unknowable, an exuberant almost-anarchy of letters to match the exuberant almost-anarchy of photography on display within these pages.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.