Olivia Arthur, Stranger

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Fishbar (here). Hardcover, 224 pages, with 90 color and black and white reproductions. Includes short quotes drawn from interviews in Dubai. There are no other texts or essays. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Dubai is a city literally bursting with visual contradictions. The flat expanse of the empty sand laid flush with the towering new construction. The cultural conservatism set against the immense wealth and overt luxury. The scale of the colossal shopping malls and skyscrapers compared with the tiny frame of a single human being. The unbridgeable gulf between those with money and those without. The air conditioned control of inside matched with the punishing heat and sunlight of outside. The sleek modernity of the 21st century brushing against centuries old tribal traditions and customs. Everywhere we look, there are competing resonances and bold incompatibilities seemingly ready to be documented. For an outsider looking in, the challenge is of course to get beyond these obvious short hand notes to an encounter with more nuance and insight.

Olivia Arthur’s new photobook Stranger (developed during a three-month residency in 2014) takes on the alienating push and pull of Dubai, but sidesteps the usual clichés and potholes by filtering her gaze through an imposed narrative framework. Arthur uses the story of the 1961 shipwreck of a passenger ship traveling between India/Pakistan and the Gulf as her organizing theme, her pictures imagining the visual reactions of a fictional survivor who visits the city some fifty years later. This structure allows her to look wide eyed at the openly surreal details of Dubai, seeing them with the unfiltered directness of an observant time traveler and bypassing the inherent baggage of the a more objective photojournalistic perspective. She still sees big buildings, desert wastelands, luxury cars, and exploited workers (along with gulf-specific oddities like goats in a car trunk and indoor ski hills), but her narrative thread recasts those views through an alternate lens. Murky underwater views of the sunken ship bookend her story, reinforcing a feeling of recovered memory, the sometimes inexplicable images of the city acting like the snatched reactions of an invisible third party.

A photographer’s paper choice usually isn’t the first thing to notice about a photobook, but in this case, Arthur’s decision to use transparent paper is a transformative one. All of the images are printed on a milky white tracing paper, allowing both the primary image to appear reversed when the page is turned and the secondary images below (on both sides) to show through underneath. The effect is disorienting and immersive, as if we are falling into a pot of memories that are all stewed together. Each image is recast by the images behind it, the visual ideas melting into one another like ghosts or echoes. Not only is there an elegant tactile fragility to this choice, the images start to feel like ambiguous flashbacks that are muddled together in a single mind, emerging and receding like the ebb and flow of waves. It’s an inspired construction decision that fits the tone of her narrative perfectly.

This see-through aspect of the book puts pressure on Arthur’s sequencing of the photographs, and she’s come up with some thoughtful and telling juxtapositions. Several Indian men/workers (on the phone, simply standing) seem enmeshed in the netting from the shipwreck; another man walking on the street amid a flutter of pigeons seems to intermingle with fish circling the sunken hulk. Sand plays a part in other combinations – one man walks in a dust storm of grandiose planned architecture, while another lies in the sand, the open doors of an expensive sports car giving him the appearance of wings. Still others benefit from fortuitous alignment – the open window of an empty parking lot perfectly framing a man walking near a vacant lot, making him look like he is walking on air, and the tiny speck of an airplane in the sky placed right within the blinged oval of diamond encrusted swimming goggles. Isolation and reflection are used repeatedly, and washed out portraits are reduced to hints and silhouettes, like memories almost forgotten.

Interleaved with the photographs, Arthur has added in snippets of conversations, like whispers from voices long gone. They speak of struggles and sacrifices, the grind to make money, and the effort to make a home far from home. While the words are just fragments taken out of context, they return again and again to a lack of freedom, to being an outsider, and to working hard to enable some other life. In the context of the sunken ship and the dead passengers, the phrases seem to rise from the bottom, haunting the adjacent pictures with their quiet entreaties and lessons.

What works so effectively here is Arthur’s effort to alter the vantage point of the project, to get out from under the predictable perspective of a British photographer and into the mind of a displaced, restlessly searching Indian worker. While the shipwreck construct is artificial, it succeeds – it shifts our entry point into the work, and its repeated refrain ensures our attention doesn’t wander. Arthur’s photobook package is extremely well integrated – the transparent photographs, the layering of imagery, the snatches of fragmented conversations, the spooky shipwreck, they all complement each other and support the larger experience. This isn’t Dubai seen with snarkily clever deadpan irony (as we might have expected), it’s Dubai seen with shifting mirage-like disquiet, where the details of its modern form linger and reform like shimmering disturbances in the dusty air.

Collector’s POV: While Olivia Arthur doesn’t appear to have separate gallery representation at this time, some of her works are available from the Magnum Photos Print Room (here), where she had an exhibition earlier this year. Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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