The very first picture inside Mimi Mollica‘s Terra Nostra shows a group of boys playing in a garbage dump. The photograph is ambiguous in the way good pictures are, because the boys could have been tasked with cleaning up, or their job could have been to assemble the trash — mostly old furniture — from somewhere else, or they could have simply been playing on what for young adolescents with not much else to do might be a great playground. I’m personally never interested in getting the explanation because it ruins the mystique. It puts a damper on my own imagination (that’s why wherever I can, I avoid going to photographer talks – there’s nothing worse than photographers giving away their secrets).
But the picture is not just ambiguous, it’s also metaphorical, especially seen in the wider context of the book, of what is going to unfold therein. That dump comes to stand for the location, and those boys going about their play business stand in for the location’s inhabitants, going about what, if presented the right way, looks like a futile business, the importance of which can only be compared to young boys playing in a rubbish dump: general life.
The second picture, after the title page and the inevitable foreword, reinforces the hunch I had, the idea of the human comedy, while also grounding the pictures in Italy. I don’t speak Italian, but I know what “uscita” means (exit), and two signs that say “uscita” with arrows that point towards each other make me think of Italy. (Obviously, this is photography, and in that particular spot you could probably walk around the corner and take that exit in question, but, again, that’s really besides the point. If Eggleston says he’s at war with the obvious, I’m at war with the literal.) I was lucky enough to have visited Italy a few times, and I truly enjoy being there. But I also know that the next absurdist comedy is always just around the corner, much to the exasperation of the likes of me, possibly one of the most unmediterranean people you’ll ever meet.
This is, obviously for me, what makes Terra Nostra so enjoyable: it unmasks the comedy, while, at the same time, strongly hinting at the humans who are going about their business there, in this very Italian way of being in on the joke while, at least half the time, pretending it’s completely serious. I find that very charming. But then I’ll be swearing profusely when, for example, the whole computer system at Rome airport just collapses, and it’s the kind of mess that’s funnier when you’re not caught inside.
In terms of its geography, the work is located not just in Italy, but specifically in Sicily. The inside text says as much. I’ll admit that I am unable to tell from the pictures, and honestly, I’m not sure it matters that much. Even the fact that we’re dealing with Italy recedes more and more with each repeated viewing of the book (there’s my war with the literal again). It’s true, Italy and Sicily in particular have certain traits that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. But what makes all that interesting is not what differentiates us as people, as Germans versus Americans versus Italians etc., but rather what unites us. Underneath it all, underneath our different mores or clothes or habits, we’re all the same strange animal “homo sapiens,” a misnomer if there ever was one.
Because mostly, we’re neither human nor wise (I know, “speak for yourself, Colberg!” — still!). We’re petty, engaged in useless fights over stuff that ceases to matter if we’re zooming out just a little bit, while being utterly convinced that any of those differences are just so important. This all would be deeply comedic, if it weren’t bordering on the tragic so much, so that, to give just the most recent example, people who pray to the same god, albeit with somewhat different customs, aren’t allowed to enter the United States any longer because of some vague terrorism concerns that really just mask intolerance, an affront to the most basic ideas of human decency and dignity.
So these petty fights over pretty irrelevant nonsense divide us, and they end up costing some people their lives. Seen that way, Terra Nostra does indeed stand for the much larger whole, for all of us, wherever we live — especially right now, given that neofascists are using their levers to destroy our free societies right there, appealing to bases instincts previously kept in check by nobler considerations. So for me this whole book for hugely (“bigly”) metaphorical.
But not just that, Terra Nostra is also filled with great pictures, pictures that have had me come back to the book quite often since I first received it in the mail. My only complaint concerns the pictures that cross the gutter: I wish that hadn’t been done. Unlike many other people, I usually don’t mind seeing it. But here, it doesn’t work for me, given that the gutter cuts somewhat awkwardly through the square photographs. Not only that, they also end up being a bit too big in their larger version. That aside, it’s really a brilliant, highly enjoyable book that, as I noted above, strongly hints at the darker complexities of these various activities we humans are engaged in.
Terra Nostra; photographs by Mimi Mollica; texts by Roberto Scarpinato,Sean O’Hagan; 128 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2017
Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.9
(ratings explained here)