Beyond Here Is Nothing
‘The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.’
These lines from the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who following World War II moved from Poland to the United States to escape the Communist regime, come to mind when looking at Beyond Here Is Nothing by Laura El-Tantawy. Having grown up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States herself, and having experienced the turmoil during the protests in Cairo in 2011, this book is a deeply-personal contemplation on identity, home and the desire to belong.
Designed by SYB, it is a small and precious object, bearing resemblance to a jewellery box. Consisting of three interwoven volumes opening in three directions, the book presents four images at a time in interchanging juxtapositions. Handling it is like trying to get to the very bottom of it. But to find what? ‘I feel like if I dig my hand deep into my soul, I will find nothing’, El-Tantawy writes in one of the diary-form fragments in the book.
At the same time, leafing through its pages feels very similar to opening windows and indeed a lot of them are also depicted. The images, however, at times mesmerisingly abstract, liquid even, and thriving on stark colours, picture an outside world that is too much to grasp. There is nothing tangible there, nothing to connect with. In a world that is becoming more and more fragmented, the notion of home becomes both elusive and illusive. For many this is an age of dislocation.
Switching between inside and outside, the book becomes a riff on the windows and mirrors concept by John Szarkowski, who stated that the photograph can be a mirror, where the photographer projects his or her sensibility onto the things out there in the world, or a window, showing the outside world in all its presence. In Beyond Here Is Nothing they are mirrors, yet one can sense that she desperately wants them to be windows. But all too often the outlook is hindered or turbid. Next to some dark silhouettes, El-Tantawy also photographs her own shadow, evidence of existing in this world. It was again Milosz who wrote: ‘And flowers and people throw shadows on the earth: what has no shadow has no strength to live.’ ♦
All images courtesy of the artist. © Laura El-Tantawy