For a book that derives its title from a lapse in the state of awareness into oblivion, Anaesthesia by Valentina Abenavoli, is everything but that. I am uncomfortable. I shift in my seat, take deep breaths and swallow my anxiety deep into my belly as I recede into its pages.
Muted whites contrast stark blacks that rip me into a visual journey through the murky abyss of time. I see the cruelty man inflicts on his fellow man. I read the words of 'God': the reflections of man - philosophers, poets, psychiatrists, artists, and reporters. From Sigmund Freud and T.S. Eliot to Arthur Miller and Carl Jung. I read the accounts of victims and perpetrators. I am staring death in the eye. Throughout the book, the sense that the images are a repetition of ones I have stamped in my memory from times past is inescapable. Is history mocking us or are we making a mockery out of it?
Edited by the book’s author, Valentina Abenavoli (one half of the cutting-edge photobook publishing house Akina), the work is a skillfully curated selection of YouTube video screenshots showing the barbarity of war, with specific focus on Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Narrated in the words of its subjects and punctuated by statements from other authors, Anaesthesia is a rare occasion where the words can function independently of the imagery. The text conjures its own layer of complicated and thought provoking narrative.
The fact what sits between my hands is rumination on real events makes me feel nauseous. I am haunted by the weight of this responsibility. There are several moments throughout the book where I shrug my shoulders in despair: "This is not a world I wish to be a part of" I hear myself mutter. The bitter truth of Anaesthesia is that it's real. There is no turning away because the images stay with you like a tenacious stain. This book makes me angry at the state of humanity and this is an emotion I have never experienced with a photobook.
I heard people say Abenavoli is taking a neutral position in this work. I strongly disagree. This is an opinionated body of work. To make this work to begin with is in itself an act of revolt against neutrality. Sitting on the fence and dangling ones feet seems too disdainful against what the pages reveal. Is silence in itself not incriminating? The book is a violent shriek against our anaesthetised feelings because the horrors it unfolds demand everything but objectivity.
As one has become accustomed with all of Akina’s sleek productions, this book is not short of the precision and attention to detail that elevates a photobook from ordinary to exceptional. I smell it's paper before I open its pages. I feel its roughness before I read its words. This is a tactile book where the marriage of content and material is in utter harmony.
I previously wrote I never thought I would describe a book as brave, but I find it appropriate to describe Anaesthesia as such. I stand by my words. This is a book that should be appreciated for its content now, but perhaps even more in the next 10 or 20 years where I dream of a world where such hatred ceases to exist. Only then can one look at Anaesthesia with ease. For now, word by word and image by image, the weight of its pages is heavier with each turn.
Laura El-Tantawy / March 21, 2017