At the very beginning of Mark Steinmetz’s Greater Atlanta, before its title page and the publisher’s info, we are confronted with a photograph: a car roof with a heart painted on it. The car appears to be functional and it will, one may assume, travel around Greater Atlanta. Right after the title page there is a photograph of a dark, Sphinx-like shape. Recent Archeo News, a poem by Linh Dinh, follows it. The poem starts with the line:
“20 February 3006 – Ancient toilet
Discovered in Boston, lid missing”
And finishes with:
“15 December 3005 – Nasty skull hookahs
And dead head bongs excite experts.”
After this beautiful poem, in which time goes backwards, the photographs follow as if set one thousand years in the past.
In the next Millennium, which is where and when the opening poem is set, our contemporary civilization will exist only when people of that time think of us. It is unlikely that in 1000 years from now anyone will hold this book in its present form; its first edition has only 1000 copies, and the future of possible new editions is uncertain, as is the future of paper books in general. But the opening poem situates us, the viewers, in that future. When I hold this book and investigate the images it contains I cannot help but look at it as some ancient visual testimony of scenes that are familiar but buried deeply in the past. But that the past is now because ‘now’ has shifted into the future, Greater Atlanta suggests. It is a play on time just like W.G. Sebald would imagine it. In his novel Austerlitz the lead character finds time somewhat ridiculous, “ a mendacious object” that can be bypassed, and its justice avoided “in the hope, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments in time have co-existed simultaneously”.
This play with time heavily influences the way I look at Greater Atlanta. It is as if the world depicted in the book is all that the world is/was. To find a better society, to which the gloomy world as depicted in Greater Atlanta is an off-product, we have to travel through time and not through space. The artist in a creative process often stumbles upon things beyond his/her understanding or things that would, even if understood, serve the work better if left out. In Reading Pictures Alberto Manguel tells us a story: “The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the first to recognize the genius of Paul Cézanne, wrote about a still life in which a master had left half an apple unfinished (in reserve, as it were), that Cézanne had painted only the parts of an apple he knew; the parts that were still a puzzle to him he left blank. ‘He only painted that which he utterly understood,’ Rilke concluded.” Studying Greater Atlanta seems as if the world it depicts is the half apple Mark Steinmetz understands or, rather, the half he is interested in. He has left out all the lies, all the fakes, of our contemporary civilization.
The sequence proper in Greater Atlanta starts with an image of a door shut, the knob missing, lit by the setting sunlight. That other world mentioned above, the missing duality, the lies, a half apple unfinished, stayed locked behind it.
Walter Benjamin wrote: ”Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history.” With no ability to predict what those modes of existence will look like and how human perception will operate a millennium from now, we have to rely on our own, of today. Even when Recent Archeo News transports us into other times we can still scream Been There.
Apart from the poem, no artist statement or introductory essay is offered in the book. The artist spares us of yet another interpretation of the work.
Instead, in Linh Dinh’s Recent Archeo News, Mark Steinmetz found a perfect companion for his photographs, one that not only sets the stage but also ensures a long life for this book. From that very first page we know that Greater Atlanta will stand the test of time not only because it is a beautiful work but also because we are already a Millennium ahead, and still riding in the car with a heart painted on its roof.
P.S. Some might ask (because people of today are obsessed with Now) why I write about a book that came out 4 years ago. My answer to them is a question: What is 4 years out of a 1000?