Natascha Libbert, I Went Looking for a Ship

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Softcover paperback, 160 pages, with 236 color and black and white photographs. Includes various journal entries, logs, lists, glossaries, and other writings by the artist. In an edition of 600 copies. Design by Michaël Snitker. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 2015, the Dutch photographer Natascha Libbert was commissioned by the Province of North Holland and the North Holland Archive to document the reconstruction of the fourth sea lock at IJmuiden. The three existing locks at that location had been built over the previous half century, each one thought to be big enough to handle the world’s largest ships, thereby ensuring access to the busy (and commercially important) port of Amsterdam. In each case, the planners essentially got it wrong, at least in terms of seeing the future – ships have continued to increase in size, so much so that a new lock is now once again necessary. The construction (or reconstruction) process began in 2016 and is scheduled to finish in 2022, the new sea lock (when finished) becoming the largest in the world.

As photographic assignments go, this sea lock project turned out to be much more complicated than Libbert bargained for. The central problem is that the lock itself (or the construction effort that was taking place to build it) was painfully resistant to being photographed. Essentially a long, wide concrete trench cut through the land, it isn’t exactly a picturesque subject, nor does it easily fit into one frame. This also assumes that the lock is generally visible, which for the most part it wasn’t, as what was going on was largely screened off behind fences and other barriers.

So while I Went Looking for a Ship does indeed document the lock (to some extent), the photobook itself morphs into a broad and engagingly shaggy meditation on a variety of related topics. In many ways, it becomes less about the lock and more about the undulations of the artistic process – how Libbert chooses to search for a way into the topic, how her mind systematically wrestles with the associations, tangents, and open ended questions she uncovers, and what visual stories she ultimately chooses to tell once she finds herself inside.

The first part of the book puts two forces in opposition – Libbert’s desire to apply a rigorous analytical framework to her assignment and the honest reality of the artistic groping in the dark that is actually taking place. We watch as she grasps at the subject – she looks down at the swirling frothy textures of the churning water, she unearths archival footage of the construction of the previous locks, she wanders around on the island taking pictures of wavy grasses and thickets of brush, she turns her camera to the striated water stains on the sides of the old concrete walls, and she goes out in a boat and makes images of the rusty hulls of tankers (not unlike Clyfford Still abstractions). And while her results are consistently precise, it’s clear she’s frustrated – she hasn’t entirely found her point of traction yet.

But she’s keeps pushing, talking to lock attendants and staff members, eventually finding her way to the divers. The locks were occupied by the Germans during WWII, and so the depths of the water, where the construction needs to happen, are riddled with unexploded bombs – the divers she met wander through that murky darkness in search of waiting peril. This thread leads Libbert to images of explosions, abandoned concrete bunkers (with decaying textural walls), WWII re-enactors huddled in the grass, and other inexplicable pocked pipes and constructions buried in the sandy wastes. She then doubles back to more images of the construction mess, the non-places, the water, and the surface details of the blocky ship Freedom Ace, with a lonely yellow helmet, an array of pink plastic barriers, an endangered toad, and an unlikely field of red poppies in the rocky soil punctuating her growing list of singular details.

While Libbert seems to have found many pieces of a larger story, how it all fits together is much less clear. Is this lock project a story about water? Or the two poles of construction and destruction? Or the changes in the surrounding landscape? Or shipping, trade, capitalism, and the flow of goods? She swirls around these and other interleaved topics, but the organizing pattern never quite coalesces.

Libbert shows her commitment and determination by deciding to shake things up. Instead of trying to understand the lock from dry land, she books passage on a Polish ship bound for Norway. Once aboard the Yeoman Bontrup, she makes time lapse images of the ship as it passes through the locks, and then heads out into the enveloping greyness of the sea. She then turns inward to carefully document the surfaces, details, and routines of the ship, including grapefruit for breakfast and the orange jumpsuits worn by the deckhands and workers. When they arrive to pick up a load of crushed rock, she peers into the dark caverns and considers the rounded forms of the dusty piles. It’s then back to the emptiness of the dark skies and open water, her eye once again seduced by shipboard details like worn metal ladders and crawl holes for goggled crewmen. While Libbert’s efforts on land felt a bit like a disjointed group of mismatched parts, her results at sea are more like a continuous flow, where the rhythms of shipping life are revealed.

We can follow Libbert’s path not only through her well made photographs, but via her exhaustive logs and notes, where the personal side of her moods and reactions during the whole project comes through – these texts allow us to see her mind at work, as she grapples with the artistic problems that no one else seems to understand. In the end, she weaves the two halves of her story together, leaving it satisfyingly open ended. Her investigations of the locks and what they represent lead to a hundred different end points, all of which she glimpses only for a fleeting instant before they fade away. Her photobook thus becomes a kind of visual/diaristic record of her journey, and the central attempt to make thoughtful sense of her assigned subject.

The design and construction of I Went Looking for a Ship match the braininess of Libbert’s approach. Four different paper stocks/colors (white, black, grey, and pink) are used with precision, dividing the imagery, hosting the texts, and creating opportunities for different kinds of engagement, sequencing, and juxtaposition. The images themselves (in varying sizes) work through a rigorously numbered and captioned build up, always giving us the ability to ground ourselves in some context. Libbert spins out backstories and subtexts in her log entries and quietly brilliant glossary of associations, where her ideas percolate and recombine with sparkling speed and fluidity. The result is a photobook that is both academic (almost) and personal at the same time, with the intellectual process of artmaking woven directly into the evasive narrative of the locks themselves.

This is the kind of photobook that stubbornly resists the book fair table flip – if you try to get a feel for this book in that way, you will surely put it back down mystified. I know – I did just exactly that the first time I saw it. But when I came across it again a month or so later, I had the time to let it reveal itself on its own terms, and it was then that I was charmed by its authentic vitality and intelligence. The locks themselves are almost a Trojan horse; it’s the ability to tag along as Libbert struggles to figure out how to turn them into photographic art that is so durably compelling.

Collector’s POV: Natascha Libbert does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up with her directly via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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