Geert Goiris, Prophet

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Roma Publications (here). Softcover, 64 pages, with 49 color and black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays. The photobook includes a signed/numbered print, and is available in an edition of 500. The book was published in conjunction with an exhibit at Foam, Amsterdam entitled Geert Goiris – Flashbulb Memories, Ash Grey Prophesies, which ran from March 30 to May 24, 2015 (here).(Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Geert Goiris’ smart new photobook provides all the clues to an elusive and mysterious story without actually giving us the central narrative – it is an indirect, often simmeringly scary tale, its individual photographs piling up into a larger mood of uncertainty. His dark, atmospheric pictures dance around an unspoken and unseen menace, and like the best of suspenseful horror literature, his story leaves the monster itself to our imagination. Like his subjects, we wander in the silent darkness with only a paltry flashlight, unsure of what might come next and somehow knowing it can’t be good.

Goiris is obviously aware of the now-hackneyed visual tropes of post-apocalyptic wastelands, science fiction alien landings, and jump out from the woods bad things, and he uses pieces of each of them to build up haunting tension. His setting is an unending winter, where the ice congeals in dense falls and the white snow overwhelms and suffocates the land, leaving thin insignificant human pathways through the buried, blanketed forest. His nighttime snowscapes are tinted blue and green and flash lit only far enough to see the close foreground, giving them an eerie enveloping quality, their muffled silence looming with claustrophobic weight.

The sky offers no relief from this muted strangeness – in fact, it signals even more potential for danger. Alternately decorated with the ethereal colored wisps of the northern lights (or some other more puzzling phenomena), dark masses of unfriendly storm clouds, and various inexplicable lights (from blasting spotlight cones that tunnel through the night to a pair of sparkling suns where only one should be), the once dependable vision of the unmovable sky above has now been filled with uncertainty.

The few odd humans in these images are struggling to adapt; perhaps they are survivors. They discuss and bicker with angry, fearful faces, wearing white suits (like those from a semiconductor clean room) that blend in with the environment or huddling under blankets against the cold. There is a sense of waiting for the worst, donning facemasks to prevent some kind of contagion and lamely wielding sticks at some invisible threat lurking in the dark woods. Houses have been abandoned and left to crumble and rot, the food supply dwindled to greasy chicken feet.

If all this spooky scene setting wasn’t enough, Goiris piles it on further with inexplicable (but easily recognizable) symbolic gestures. The imposing mass of Devil’s Tower (the landscape star of Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the “I Have Seen The Future” button offer the usual alien answers, while a massive rock ball, a field of mysterious rock cairns, and a pockmarked car hood rippled like the still surface of a lake provide other unrealities. The book ends with our hardy bunny-suited protagonists waiting under a futuristic structure, perhaps to boldly face what comes next or to meet their alien invaders; it is both plucky and delusionally dispiriting at the same time.

Photographically, Goiris builds suspense like a Hitchcock film, letting each page turn lead us to another near miss encounter with the unknown, after which we wring our hands in tingling anticipation of what comes next. Leveraging well-known styles and motifs to push our collective buttons, we play along with and ackowledge his overt manipulations – in a sense, we’re in on the game and like it that way. The narrative is deftly non-linear, the collection of inconclusive fragments arrayed like evidence to be pieced together after the fact. That his open ended photobook offers no narrative answers is entirely appropriate –  it’s the “thing” in the middle that hasn’t been described that delivers the satisfying sense of impeding doom.

This is one of those photobooks that grows on you – it’s head scratchingly inexplicable at first, but increasingly thoughtful and innovative as you let it seep in. By its very nature, photography is often highly literal, capturing whatever is put before the lens with high fidelity. But Goiris never actually puts his elusive subject in front of the camera, breaking that contract we have with the medium. He’s testing the ability of photography to describe without showing, to see without seeing, conjuring hints of atmosphere and emotion from the shadows.

Collector’s POV: Geert Goiris is represented by Galerie Art:Concept in Paris (here) and Galerie Catherine Bastide in Brussels (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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