Arko Datto, What News of the Snake That Lost its Heart in the Fire

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by L’Artiere Edizioni (here). Softcover (23×30.5 cm) with folded poster jacket, 200 pages, with roughly 100 color images. Includes texts by Bornila Chatterjee and the artist. Design by Nicolas Polli. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Flash lit urban night photography, almost wherever it is made, has the tendency to reveal the hidden underbelly of societies that only come out after dark. And across the 20th century history of the medium, we have been repeatedly exposed to nocturnal goings-on in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, and other major cities, so much so that we have developed a set of expectations for what such imagery (nearly always in shadowy black-and-white) typically shows us: nightlife in bars, dark streets, illicit seduction, personal freedom, and a general sense of anything-goes grittiness.

But in the past decade, we’ve started to see an alternate vision of night photography emerge from South Asia and India, one that is characterized by seething color, tropical heat, spiritual ecstasy, and feral intensity. Projects by Tiane Doan na Champassak (here), Sohrab Hura (here), and Vasantha Yogananthan (here), to name just a few, have challenged the prevailing night aesthetics, introducing visual electricity that seems to deliberately linger on the edge of control. Most notably, the color palette of this South Asian night is strangely (and often surreally) vibrant, where deep blacks drift toward enveloping purples and blues, energetic greens jump out of the nearby jungle, and fiery pinks, oranges, and reds slash through the darkness.

Arko Datto’s recent projects add to this growing list of newly expressive nighttime exploration. Datto is in the midst of producing an ambitious three photobook trilogy, with night in South Asia as his main subject. His 2018 photobook Will my Mannequin Be Home When I Return? began the series with images of his native India; this book What News of the Snake That Lost its Heart in the Fire moves on to night in Malaysia and Indonesia; and a third forthcoming book will move back to the geographic middle with images of Bangladesh. Seen together, they provide a foil to our Western notions of night, bringing the complexities and nuances of life in developing Asia into the visual conversation.

After a cover which is overpainted in silver with an outline of a large moth (which will reappear later), the first thing that jumps out about Datto’s SNAKE FIRE (a seemingly shortened version of the longer official title, placed as a graphic element on the back cover) is its amplified use of color – his photographs seem consistently more joltingly extreme than most night images. This is a result of the use of a seven color printing process – the usual CMYK, plus a pair of fluorescent colors, and the metallic silver we saw first on the cover. This unusual production approach pushes Datto’s pictures into the realm of unstable energized hallucination, where everyday reality feels like it is breaking down into something like a confused fever dream.

As outlined in a short afterword by the artist, Datto, even as a relative insider, feels a deep sense of imbalance in places like Penang, where the original harmony between man and nature has been meaningfully upset. The story that gives the photobook its title follows the largest python ever recorded, that slithered out of the jungle onto a nearby construction site, where under the glare of humanity, it gave birth and then proceeded to die a few days later. Datto has used the news reports and images of this unlikely (and in some sense troubling) event as endpaper bookends for SNAKE FIRE, printing image enlargements in silver on black paper, and turning them into near abstractions.

From Datto’s perspective, this symbolic tale of paradise exhausted is representative of larger existential issues facing cities like Penang – the overdevelopment of luxury construction by speculative real estate developers; these new buildings leading to rising costs of living which then drive local residents out of the urban centers; and tropical forest mismanagement by palm oil plantations and other industrial operations leading to widespread environmental degradation that seeps throughout the surrounding communities. Together, Datto sees these forces leading to viciously entangled cycles that encourage cutting down more forests, to build more buildings, to generate more money at the expense of nature, thereby making the city itself all the more strange and artificial. His photographs capture some of these subtle (and not so subtle) trends, and the simmering mood of discontent and savagery that surrounds the ongoing process.

The confrontation between man and nature is a consistent subject in SNAKE FIRE, this broad theme taking many different forms. In some images, the modern built world looms behind a more traditional jungle or river scene, with towering lights in the distance matched by flash lit foreground ugliness, in the form of garbage on the river banks and mechanical gear and construction debris in the trees. In other pictures, Datto focuses on nature being unsuccessfully controlled, with overgrown plants in pots and trees jumping walls and fences, their colors (and grasping branches) pushed to unnatural limits.

Fear and apathy seem to have become the pervasive emotions in Datto’s nightscape, with people consistently peering out from behind grates, bars, and other visual barriers; various elders seem to have fallen asleep, but in particular, one woman is shown looking up into the jungle with obvious trepidation. Datto then extends this obstruction motif to include umbrellas, plastic sheeting, and even one enveloping transparent bubble, seeming to imply that the residents have become entirely enclosed and separated from real life, like swimming in a plastic baby pool. The same is true for the animals, who are routinely fenced in – birds in cages, a cow behind bars, a snake wound around a pole, and goldfish trapped in a plastic bag rather than swimming with the larger school nearby.

This artificiality is then amplified further by Datto’s images of costumed performers and cosplayers, who peer out from behind stage curtains and wait on constructed sets, their mannered gazes drawing us further into the surreality of the nighttime world. Strangeness then appears everywhere: people fishing oranges out of the river, volcanoes erupting in candy colored skies, and temple guards wrapped up to avoid seeing it all. Fires spark up here and there, creating apocalyptic fogs and mists that choke the surroundings and spread the seething colors out, as if the whole place was dissolving into smoke. Such places are clearly not for the timid or the faint of heart – unless they are inexplicably wearing helmets, like one older man.

Datto then takes this misting idea one step further, by using silver sprays of ink to cover many of his images. In a few cases, the metallic droplets cover the images like think fogs or driving rainstorms, but mostly they seem to blow in or splash from the side, making the scenes all the more unreal, particularly toward the end of the book, where the silver intrusions seem more frequent. The photobook ends with an image of a ferry uneasily jostled by waves, with sparkling droplets covering the night sky like snow in the tropics – as the endpoint to Datto’s provocative visual narrative, it doesn’t feel entirely optimistic.

Datto takes a number of unlikely risks with SNAKE FIRE, and those choices (in both imagery and presentation) generally enhance the power of the larger social and environmental story he has chosen to tell. South Asia clearly has many more nocturnal worlds to explore, and Datto seems intent on excavating more layers of life using darkness as his ally. His bold nighttime colors and flash lit gaudiness create an indelible atmosphere, where performative strangeness seems to seep from the city itself, and the natural rhythms of life are increasingly altered and upended by the unequal clash of man and nature.

Collector’s POV: Arko Datto does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, not does he appear to have an active artist website. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up via the publisher (linked in the sidebar).

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