Teju Cole


Book review by Anneka French

In his third MACK title, Pharmakon — meaning poison, remedy, or scapegoat, Teju Cole explores the material of absence through images woven together with 12 short stories of post-apocalyptic or crisis scenarios, where displaced individuals, mortality, environmental threats, and bureaucratic challenges loom. An apt title, as Anneka French writes, for a book carrying significant political weight, Pharmakon indicating something that might cure, kill, or displace blame – feasibly all of these things simultaneously.

Anneka French | Book review | 14 Mar 2024

‘Time with a photobook is a wander off the beaten path…’ wrote Teju Cole in an article for The Guardian in 2020. ‘Sitting with it, you have to sit with yourself: this is a private experience in a time when those are becoming alarmingly rare, an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world.’

Materiality is prominent in Cole’s new title, Pharmakon, his third with MACK following Golden Apple of the Sun (2021) and Fernweh (2020). Pharmakon features a suite of highly enigmatic photographs that place emphasis on materials to signify absence. The images, taken over a four-year period, are frequently bleak, occasionally humorous, sometimes sensual. Traces of human-life are evoked, for instance, through peeling layers of paint or marks squeaked across dusty glass, through textures of weathered marble or worn concrete, sand, reflections and gentle ripples in water. Such tactile surfaces begin with Pharmakon’s cover, a thin, navy-blue leather-like buckram that lends the volume gravitas from the off. Cole, a novelist, essayist as well as a prolific photographer, has written 12 short stories that intersperse the images inside. These texts, from a few pages to a few paragraphs in length, which are complete pieces in and of themselves rather than fragments per se, open the images up to meanings beyond the initial impressions of the viewer, offering interpretations and parallel trains of thought that range from the ethereally abstract to the unequivocally political. All are unsettling to some extent, shaping the photographs that precede and follow them. There is equal weight between text and image.

The early pages of the book include pale blue skies carved up by overhead wiring and interrupted by the tops of two stone buildings – open and enigmatic but with a sense of curtailed possibility. These are followed by wooden fence panels that afford a glimpse of industrial hoardings beyond the slats. A narrow strip of sky is visible across the top and tarmac painted with yellow markings appears along the bottom section. Next comes a view of water from the window of a vehicle that overlays two pages, followed by a board printed with photographic images of the sea and sky, punctured by screws, and papers removed from a wall. Landscapes, buildings and objects are here offered just out of reach, our views of them altered or denied.

Cole’s first story comes like a punch in the gut. Visceral and shocking, it unfolds from a circular forest clearing into a scene of gunshots and attempted escape, sharp in its clarity, scale and impact. Two photographs of woodland or parkland, a public statue wrapped in brown fabric, an abundant apple tree and two views of a further tree against a building with large windows follow this, not the setting of the story exactly but something comparable, maybe even places that are closer to home. The photographs carry echoes of the story, their locations specific but non-identifiable. The last image in this sequence is a blurred view of open grass and trees, as if the photographer is moving very quickly through the landscape, running like the protagonists in the story.

Many of Cole’s photographs point towards the passage of time. Two facing plates show similar views of a high-rise building at night and in daylight. Our eyes are drawn to different areas of the two images as elements recede into darkness or slip into focus. The grid formation of the building’s windows is recalled in the braille panels that feature elsewhere in the publication and in ceramic tiles, bricks and blocks of stone that appear in several of the photographs. The tower formations are mimicked through trees and architectural structures scattered throughout – including one grand column behind which a piece of litter has been tucked – a stack of books with their spines turned away from the camera, and more loosely, in the rougher surfaces of multiple large rocks. Whole mountains, boulders, smaller rocks and sand chart an ever-diminishing sense of scale that is grounding and humbling.

Cole’s stories carry significant political weight. Post-apocalyptic or crisis scenarios are either foregrounded in the action or hover more insidiously in the background. There are multiple displaced people, dead people, people threatened by the landscape, weather, ill-health, violence and bureaucracy. There are repressed histories and memories that resurface. These themes are supported and extended by the photographs, so that even a quiet, apparently innocuous image – a brick wall, boulder or spillage – becomes highly charged. A piece of paper torn from a lamppost becomes an action of resistance or suppression, fences and walls become borders of exclusion, a mound of earth becomes a grave, a dead bird becomes a dead human. Specific formal arrangements and motifs – particularly water, rock and shadow – repeat, disappearing for a while and then bobbing back up like a float pushed beneath waves.

The complexity inherent in the word pharmakon, an Ancient Greek term meaning poison, remedy or scapegoat, makes it an apt title for the book. The word is semi-familiar and multi-faceted, indicating something that might cure, kill or displace blame – feasibly all of these things simultaneously. It is political. The closing pages of the book assemble images of grids and holes, curved pipes and shadows. The last story is titledCircle”, which returns us to Cole’s initial metaphor of the woodland clearing. In this story, Cole writes: ‘You cannot write about the circle from inside the circle. To write about the circle, you have to be outside it. No, he thinks, that’s not quite right: you could write about the circle from inside the circle. It would have to be possible, and perhaps necessary.’ This riddling is undercut with deep violence in the text’s final paragraph. The book concludes with a vapour trail in the sky, two facing plates of lilac-pink sky and an off-centre double page spread of the sea and another lilac-pink sky, calming, open and hopeful, even while this scene and all the others before it are affected, carefully and incisively, by the force of Cole’s words. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and MACK © Teju Cole

Pharmakon is published by MACK.

Anneka French is a Curator at Coventry Biennial and Project Editor for Anomie, an international publishing house for the arts. She contributes to Art QuarterlyBurlington Contemporary and Photomonitor, and has had written and editorial commissions from Turner Prize, Fire Station Artists’ Studios, TACO!, Grain Projects and Photoworks+. French served as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, Editorial Manager at this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London, Ikon, Birmingham and The New Art Gallery Walsall. 


1>6-Teju Cole, from Pharmakon (MACK, 2024). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Another Love Story

Book review by Anneka French

Through a combination of writing, photography and performance, Another Love Story, Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new photobook with Mörel, re-narrates the final moments of a romantic relationship by casting a similar-looking actor as her ex-lover. Part-fact, part-fiction, the project abounds with emotional and ethical complexity to reclaim the power of her own history whilst also revealing how identity construction can be played out in the digital space, writes Anneka French.

Anneka French | Book review | 10 Jan 2024

September unfolds through sun-soaked photographs shot lakeside. The sculpted curvature of a man’s back shines wet in the light as he climbs rocks and swims in turquoise waters. There is warm skin, fine hair, touch, seduction. A pair of bare feet seen from above indicate the perspective of the photographer as she looks down upon the man. He winks back up at her.

Fast forward to November and glimpses of something amiss might be derived from the inclusion of an image in which the dark-haired man’s shadow throws his profile starkly against a golden-beige wall. His face is heavily blurred in a preceding image, as if turning away from the photographer. Much of November takes place in an idyllic wooden chalet, its bedroom flooded by low-slung winter sun, with the close-cropped intimacy of the man cooking at a stovetop interspersed by shots of him bare-chested and smiling. There are rumpled sheets, sunsets and harbour views. Romantic cliches abound, and stacking up, they begin to feel disconcerting.

Screenshots of two text messages and a brief handwritten note appear at the very beginning of Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new photobook, Another Love Story, published by Mörel. The text provides fragments of information that signal a problem in the narrative, proving a hook which keeps the pages turning. It may not be a surprise to hear that there is no happy ending for the artist and her beau. Instead, the relationship, and importantly, the project, unravels gradually, month-by-month, into a story of one man’s deception. Hiraldo Voleau offers clarity in the form of an eight-page spread laid out as a script for two characters interleaved between the chapters of January and February. This transcript of a telephone conversation reveals the man, named within the book as X, to be leading a double life as the lover and live-in partner of another woman known as A. The text frames and contextualises the photographs within the book, a collection which is part-fact and part-fiction, and which abounds with emotional and ethical complexity.

In the book, Hiraldo Voleau, a Dominican-French artist photographer based in Lausanne, Switzerland, includes a small number of original photographs that were taken on a mobile phone camera during her relationship with X. The majority of the images in the book, however, have been recreated especially for the project, faithfully and painstakingly remade at the same locations and using highly similar objects and garments as props and costumes for the new photographs. In-the-moment snaps thus become examined and forensically re-staged tableaux. As a rule, where the face of X appears, the man presented alongside the artist is, in fact, an actor paid by her to play the role. This is a role that she is (re)performing too in an editing of memory, image and story. “It’s about 80 per cent reconstruction, 20 per cent true,” Hiraldo Voleau explains. However painful and however problematic casting a similar-looking actor as her ex-lover might be, she asserts Another Love Story as an attempt to reclaim her story and her experiences for herself.

In design terms, Another Love Story is reminiscent of a scrapbook, using torn strips of masking tape to roughly affix images so as to seem informal, some of which are afforded an additional sense of casual intimacy through domestic settings. In April, however, spectacular mountain views are made backdrop to a shot with the actor playing X’s head cut clean off and the photographer’s shown. In an adjacent image, further psychological layering takes place through multiple reflections in glass, splintering and fragmenting X as subject through the photographer’s gaze. In a number of instances, Hiraldo Voleau includes intensive repetition of the man’s face, as if the photographer (or viewer) is trying to work X out or, perhaps, as if to search for comparisons between X and the actor she has cast to play him. At the least, there is something verging on the voyeuristic in the repetitions, subjects that the photographer has explored in past bodies of work such as Hola Mi Amol (2019). A range of formats including small-scale prints arranged in lines and grids are mixed with full-bleeds. Resolution varies, and, while reaffirming the materiality of the images, the design of the book also references social media feeds and mobile phone camera rolls, those digital spaces that document, shape and underpin the ways lives are lived. These spaces are also part of the mechanisms through which relationships might be created and conveyed publicly, notable because in Hiraldo Voleau’s project, she intentionally re-visits and re-produces images that are personally significant after the fact.

May, the penultimate chapter, begins with sweaty bodies and smiling faces. These make way overleaf for images where photographer and actor-X are depicted wearing face masks on public transport, the bottom half of their faces redacted and unreadable. Actor-X sits at a restaurant table with his head in his hands, his face again hidden from sight. With June comes further obfuscation, a laptop now covering the lower half of his face. The concluding photograph in the book is a view in a car. Actor-X wears sunglasses, with the top half of his face glimpsed in the rear-view mirror in the top portion of the photograph. Through the windscreen, an open road lies ahead.

Three further text messages form an epilogue to the book. In this conversation between Hiraldo Voleau and A, who have formed, in a more genuinely surprising narrative twist, some sort of cathartic alliance in their shared experiences of X, there are self-reflexive mentions of the project, including its exhibition iterations which began with a display at MEP Studio in Paris in 2022. Optimistically, these snatches of text give both women some sense of closure. Hiraldo Voleau concludes: “Thank you. Nothing changes, I’m still so grateful that it is YOU in all of this. The show being in quite a long time, I’ll invite you to come later on. Please feel free to do so if you want! All the best til then!” ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Mörel © Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Another Love Story is published by Mörel.

Anneka French is a Curator at Coventry Biennial and Project Editor for Anomie, an international publishing house for the arts. She contributes to Art Quarterly, Burlington Contemporary and Photomonitor, and has had written and editorial commissions from Turner Prize, Fire Station Artists’ Studios, TACO!, Photoworks+ and Grain Projects. French served as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, Editorial Manager at this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London, Ikon, Birmingham and The New Art Gallery Walsall. 

Max Ferguson

Whistling for Owls

Book review by Anneka French

Max Ferguson’s debut publication, a contemplative study on paper, nature and the passage of time, transcends the physical limitations of its form to connect readers to their senses and memories, writes Anneka French.

Glassine, a smooth, distinctively rustling, semi-translucent paper, is a material I remember from childhood. My father, a teacher with a weekend philatelic side-hustle, displayed stamps in albums on pages separated by glassine leaves, stamps tweezed into tiny glassine envelopes when he made a sale. I remember scrambling on my knees under tables collecting sequins shed from the hall’s ballroom competitions the night before. Multiple memories surface as I open Whistling for Owls, the debut photobook by Max Ferguson and the first from his Oval Press imprint. Memory and the passing of time are two of the subjects at the heart of the publication, which contains within it a hand-folded triangle of glassine bound into its spine. The triangle is sandwiched between a photograph of three dead butterflies with their own glassine slips on the left-hand page and two transparent glass vases of dried flowers on the right, fitting because glassine is also used in entomological field specimen storage. Here, then, you might insert your own moth or marvel.

Whistling for Owls is filled with small, daily records, although to describe them as simply quotidian would be reductive. Photographs of objects ranging from the domestic to the industrial feature in a mixture of colour and black-and-white. They are undeniably romantic and many objects are gently decaying or have stalled. We find photographs of daisies, foxgloves and tangled weeds; concrete slabs and chunks of stone; a cutlery drawer; rusty oil drums; a broken intercom and an assortment of portraits. There are pairs of objects – two towers of stacked tyres repeated twice in subtle variation; two tomatoes balanced on a checked cloth; two teacups cradled in newspaper as if they have just been unpacked – all rendered symbolic, even if their precise meaning is unclear. Pairings are noteworthy since Ferguson himself places emphasis on the book being formed from two parts. He describes it as “image and text; France and London; memoir and fiction; truth and lies,” telling us everything and nothing. Indeed, much of the book’s impact is derived from its ambiguity, as well as its striking beauty.

Some of the strongest and most curious photographs are the portraits and other depictions of the human body that pepper the book, elevating the quieter still-life studies and cutting through some of the romanticism. These include an older man with grey hair caught out of focus in a hunched, turning movement; a sculptural-looking hand holding a cigarette; the lit underside of two inviting thighs; feet in plastic sliders. Again, we find photographs that echo one another in the close-up of a woman turned towards the right with eyes closed to the sun, followed a few pages later by another turned towards the left reclining on a sun lounger with her eyes closed too. Nearing the end of the book are more doubled images of bodies in repose, this time a woman in striped shirt with soft curls and bare legs preceded by a lumpy body in baggy clothing and boots with a dismembered hand – probably a scarecrow – though clever cropping initially disguises this. There is bliss, intimacy, violence.

A loose, non-linear narrative unfolds through eighty-four pages, revealing photographs in ones, twos and threes which are at times accompanied by fragments of text. Ferguson controls the viewing experience by giving images space to breathe, slowing the reading of the work and enabling connections to be traced through its entirety. Photographs are printed full bleed or on differing parts of the page and the effect is as though the images within Whistling for Owls flicker in and out as beats with a sinuous rhythm. In one photograph, worn render on a wall exposes stones like teeth in a grimace; in others we find a verdant green cricket and a discarded apple core. We are presented with the flavour of fresh, plump tomatoes, placed pleasingly amid pages of hot, dry grass, stone, plastic and skin. The photographs operate on frequencies that overlap with tangible experiences of small pleasures while attention is drawn to the heavy weight of emotion in Ferguson’s pages.

The text within Whistling for Owls is largely similar to the content of the photographs: paper, the weather, the passage of time. There are texts that introduce characters into the mix by way of the printer, the birdwatcher and the poet, giving rise to speculation about which portrait we might attach each of these labels too. The text is, in many instances, abstract and seemingly personal, with one page showing a sequence of apparently randomly spaced numbers, though pages are also given over to occasional descriptive lists. Narrative fragments are brief and yet full of possibility, as is the book’s title. The text is overtly poetic, dealing with feelings of desire and yearning. ‘The proximity of what you love makes you so lonely,’ reads the last line of a short passage set on the deck of a ferry. The feeling of loneliness connects with an earlier section describing coping with long months through therapeutic, repeated morning rituals. While most likely symptomatic of enforced periods of lockdown during the past two years, this sentiment remains implicit.

Whistling for Owls is bound in bright orange cloth with dark green endpapers and a lime green ribbon. These choices serve to highlight Ferguson’s precise and minimal use of colour within the photographs, particularly in leaves, grasses, berries and warm, glowing light. A reader can follow their own path here, from the front to the back of the book or leaf through pages more casually, and all these journeys into the book are fruitful. Images and lines of text touch one another physically and metaphorically, lying stacked on top of each other when the book’s pages are closed or pulling apart as the book is opened. The photographs of Whistling for Owls are lifted by the insertion of the audible and textural, glassine fragment folded into three-dimensions, but the photographs are evocative and emotive in and of themselves. In the end, what is significant is the way that Ferguson offers images that frequently move beyond their own physical limitations as flat images by extending out to our senses and our memories. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and Oval Press © Max Ferguson

Anneka French is a writer, artist and independent curator currently working with Coventry Biennial. She regularly contributes to Art Quarterly and Photomonitor, and has had writing and editorial commissions for Turner Prize 2021; Fire Station Artists’ Studios; TACO!; Photoworks+ and Grain Projects. She previously worked as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, as Editorial Manager of this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; The New Art Gallery Walsall, and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.