Julia Borissova, Let Me Fall Again

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Hardcover with hand-made binding, unpaginated, with 45 monochrome and color reproductions of photographs, collages, old postcards, stamps, and other found memorabilia, 5.71 x 7.87 inches. Includes stitching, inserts, gate- and origami-folds, with texts in Russian and English written by the artist, as well as two quotes by Samuel Beckett. Designed by Julia Borissova. In a limited edition of 239 signed and numbered copies.  (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: We fall in many ways. Down and from, in and out, for and into. Yet, despite its frequency, falling, both literal and metaphorical, is among the less favored and most feared experiences made in a lifetime. Preempting the agony of landing, it seems that somewhere in our heads “falling” and “failing” occupy the same semantic space.

For Estonian-born photographer and book-artist Julia Borissova, to stumble and fall are at the root of her practice. “I’m an artist who finds inspiration in coincidental discoveries,” she writes in her latest photobook, Let Me Fall Again. About two years ago, while visiting Tallinn, Estonia, Borissova was exploring the “notion of fall and failure in artistic practice”, when she came across a slender book titled Charles Leroux – viimne hüpe (the last jump). Unable to read the book, but fascinated with the persona of the American balloonist and parachutist, she began her research.

Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1856, Charles Leroux was a self-taught aeronaut, who performed his first public parachute-jump in New York in 1886. From there he travelled the world, including England and Germany, Poland and Russia, acrobatically entertaining his increasing audience. On September 8, 1889, during his 239th jump (Borissova’s edition-size is an homage to this number), Leroux died at the age of thirty-two, drowning off the coast of Tallinn.

What interested Borissova in exploring his story, was to consider Leroux less an athlete or adventurer, but more an artist – whose art was not defined by balloon flight, but by jumping from great heights. Merging the factual with the fictional, Let Me Fall Again imagines the Leroux’s life and performance-journey, while simultaneously exploring the difference between falling and failure. Sourcing the internet for information, Borissova found only few biographical traces, but eventually gathered some archival documents, including photographs, postcards, and advertising materials, which she bought on eBay and at flea markets. In her book, she presents these materials at times on their own, then re-photographed as two- or three-dimensional collages, alongside her own photographs.

Portraits of Leroux, showing the parachutist the at different ages, are joined by 19th century postcards giving color and sepia views of New York, Berlin, Riga, and Reval (today Tallinn) – cities in which he performed – as well as reproductions of the original Estonian book’s pages illustrating his local jumps. While these historic photographs, presented separately, provide the book with a sense of history and biographical gravitas, it is Borissova’s collages that inspire lightness and play. Drawn from the same historic material, but with a focus on Leroux’s face and figure, these images and faux postcards are adorned and (often) connected through curled strings and zigzagged wires, as well as colorful circles. Combined, they faintly recall a Calder mobile or Miró’s cutouts. The book’s mood however, mediating between an encouraging smile and a melancholic gaze, emerges from Borissova’s muted color photographs. Taken during her research trips, they  capture the nostalgic interior of a ceiling painted with clouds, a small wave laconically hitting a beach, or the greyish sky over the roofs of an Eastern European city.

As it is for all of Borissova’s books, form and content – that is, design and subject matter – are closely related. Making her own books for many years, while constantly expanding their creative borders, detail, innovation, and tactility are key:

In designing my books, I try to create a tactile interaction with the subject matter of my research – thus cementing the importance of the material in art against the immateriality of digital imagery […]. The combination of different layouts in my books can be understood as various mise-en-scènces where multiple reference points – the history of a country, private archive, characters from the domains of literature and mythology – intersect. I’m keen to invent new designs for my books, ones that do not look like books in the conventional sense, but also as objects to interact with and examine, as installations.

Let Me Fall Again is a beautiful example of exacting skill, creativity, and dedication to its subject. When Borissova was working on the dummy, she attended a workshop by Japanese photographer Kazuma Obara, whose advice was of important influence in developing her book. Drawing from the principles of origami art (and thereby reflecting and referencing the precision required when folding a parachute), Borissova deploys elaborate folds and accordion-like foldouts, under which she hides images, illustrations, and texts, with a recurring red thread redacting parts of the sentences (a hint for the viewer that not all information is necessarily accurate or true). Among the most unexpected elements of the book is a foldout letter that Borissova addressed to Leroux.

“Dear Charles,” she begins, explaining her motivation and origin of the project. What begins as an emotionally charged (and well written) statement, slowly develops into a meditation on the concept of falling:

Falling is commonly associated with failure in business and usually has negative connotations. However, this word means something else in the art world. The gap between the initial intention and realization of artwork can be seen as artistic failure. However, if unsuccessful attempts are not regarded as the final result, it encourages artists to work more and gives them opportunities to grow. Every time I feel I might fail in my work, I think: “not being able to fall – that would have meant failure to you.”

Separating the literal from the metaphorical, Borissova’s book (as much as her words) does not propagate an unconditional call to arms, or irresponsible risk-taking. Instead, it is a pondered reminder to learn which risks are worth taking. In her art, and her design of Let Me Fall Again, Borissova’s understanding of falling is not defined by its misconceived link to failure, but through its connection to discovery. In fact, this process of finding someone or something that was not known before, is the guiding principle, for both the hand and the mind, of this meticulously crafted book – with its slow pace, little secrets, and disarming carefulness. While discovery is never a failure, it always entails uncertainty. Fearlessness then, is not the absence of fear, but the decision to jump regardless.

Collector’s POV: Julia Borissova is represented by FotoDepartment Gallery in St. Petersburg (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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