At the Foot of the Long Wall

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After I received Xiaoxiao Xu‘s Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall, I realized that I actually didn’t know all that much about what in the English-speaking world is known as the Great Wall of China (in the following, I’m going to abbreviate the title as Long Wall).  I knew that it had been constructed over time, and I had seen photographs of what I’m assuming are the most well-preserved parts that are easiest to reach for tourists and visitors from Beijing.

I’ve never been to China, so I don’t know what it’s like to live somewhere near the Wall. But in my life time, I have had the opportunity to see other very old human sites. I once visited Pompeii, which made for a deeply touching experience. A few days later, I went to Ercolano to see the excavations of Herculaneum. I remember walking down an extended ramp from the city into what looked like its exposed bowels. There it was, the ancient city — if you looked up, you’d see parts of the modern city just above.

There were people living right next to the remains of Herculaneum. The same rather basic and seemingly not particularly deeply insightful fact is true for many other places in the world: people live right next to remnants of antiquity. In Ercolano, I couldn’t imagine living right there. Wouldn’t I be spending all my time looking out of my window in awe of what was on view? I later realized that I wouldn’t. Even if I did for a few days, at some stage, I’d take things for granted. I’d get used to it. And if I had been born there, I might not even notice.

So the relevance of all the buildings, artifacts, and pieces of art left behind by older or even ancient generations is a mental construct more than anything — and it tells us a lot about ourselves. Seen that way, they are mirrors that we can look into to learn about ourselves. Photographs can operate the same way.

Much like you can travel down the Mississippi and take a bunch of pictures of old mattresses to speak of your loneliness, you can travel along the Long Wall and photograph people living their lives near it to connect to something inside you. This is the basic idea of Long Wall.

In the book, photographs from a variety of locations are combined with a number of folk tales and other text pieces that provide some insight into a variety of aspects of Chinese culture.

The photographs show a China that is very different than the one that has attracted the attention of so many photographers over the past two decades. Instead of gigantic megacities and huge crowds of anonymous masses, here rural areas, many of them not very well maintained, dominate.

In light of the sheer extent of the Wall, this shouldn’t surprise us. Still, it’s a good reminder that our ideas of what China might be are woefully inadequate if the focus is only on recent developments in shiny megacities. There still are people who are plowing their fields in teams of two — one man pushing the plow, the other one pulling it.

There also still exist many other aspects of an older Chinese culture that its Communist Party has tried very hard to go away, for example its religions (such as Buddhism). So Long Wall invites the viewer to get a glimpse of a different China, one tied a lot closer to older traditions and a culture that has existed for thousands of years.

The challenge for the Western viewer is to be able to exposed to all of this without automatically applying ideas of economic utility: well, yes, you could view much of what is on view as underdeveloped — but why would you approach everything as if you were an economist working at the IMF?

A viewer would do well to simply look what is on view, look at the landscapes, look at the buildings, look at the faces of the many people portrayed in the book. The sheer variety of the photographs makes for a very engaging experience.

Having said all that, here’s my major concern about the book. The Eriskay Connection is a Dutch publisher that has produced a series of very well made photobooks, many of them relying on a combination of text and image. I usually look forward to seeing their books.

Unfortunately, I find Long Wall overdesigned and visually much too messy. Almost every spread shows a cluster of images, with configurations changing spread after spread after spread. As a consequence, almost all photographs find themselves in competition with other pictures, and the viewer hardly, if ever, can focus on an individual photograph.

Where they are single images across the gutter, those images mostly tend to be rather bland (the fact that the book doesn’t open wide enough for the full image to show doesn’t help). Maybe the worst aspect is that with the exception of the main essay, the bulk of the text is crammed into small spaces. That tiny text is very hard to read.

As a result of the bad design, it took me a few attempts to get into the book. In a photobook, layout and design should help transport the message — while making for an engaging experience for the viewer/reader. Here, the complete opposite is the case. I find this very, very unfortunate.

Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall; photographs by Xiaoxiao Xu; essay by Maria-Caterina Bellinetti; 112 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 1.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.1

Adam and Dyba Lach’s Look at Poland

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Over the course of most of its history, Poland suffered greatly from being sandwiched between Germany and Russia, as a consequence of which the country was moved around on the map many times — when it wasn’t occupied or even parceled up and absorbed by its neighbours. The country re-emerged on the map of Europe in 1918 after it had not existed as its own entity for over 100 years.

Twenty one year later, it was occupied again, this time by Nazi Germany, which led to enormous losses of life and cultural property. The subsequent liberation by the Soviet Union led to a de-facto occupation, which lasted until 1989. Thus, in the 20th Century Poland was a free country for little more than three decades.

Given this history, it should be very obvious why the question of Polish nationhood plays such a huge role in the country and why many of its politicians are so virulently anti-German and anti-Russian. At the same time, Poland has an incredibly rich culture, which often is at odds with focusing on nationhood.

Poland’s rich culture isn’t as well known abroad as it should be. For example, Poland’s interwar years were just as rich as neighbouring Weimar Germany’s. Polish writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the more recent one being Olga Tokarczuk (if you haven’t read her Flights, order yourself a copy). There are incredible movie directors and so much more. And there is a lot of photography to be looked at, with a very rich and active scene of younger artists.

As it turned out, joining the European Union in 2004 helped the country in many ways — Europe funneled huge amounts of money into the country. However,  a country that historically has needed to assert itself against its stronger neighbours is now increasingly finding itself at odds with the European Union, in particular since the far-right PiS party came to power, which has worked on turning Poland into a pseudo-democratic authoritarian state.

Add to all of that the fact that the Catholic church plays a huge role in Poland, and you got a volatile mix. This mix provides the background for Adam and Dyba Lach‘s How to Rejuvenate an Eagle. Through a combination of photographs and text, the couple attempts to provide an answer to the question: what is Poland?

Having traversed the country and visited a large number of locations, many people’s voices appear directly, transcribed from what might have been conversations. It’s not clear what exactly they were asked, but they speak of their country and what it means to them.

More often than not, the simplistic and at times cartoonish idea of Polishness advocated by the current government is thoroughly shattered, as minorities speak of their identity, young people talk about a lack of opportunities and a willingness to move to a different country, etc.

Photographically, the book deftly plays with ideas of Polishness as well, while, at the same time, looking very deeply into some of its real aspects. This is where political definitions of the essence of a country are so fraught: while there always is a real core, what’s constructed around it as much as what is omitted creates an artifice that demands paying lip service more than having actual conviction.

Over the past years, with authoritarian and want-to-be authoritarian politicians ascending all over the world (incl. the United States), we’ve see this mechanism in play frequently: none of the strongmen (it’s mostly just men, isn’t it?) offer much that’s even remotely worthwhile looking at. But their followers aren’t interested in reality. Instead they’re interested in belonging, in following what they might have openly criticized a few years earlier — even if belonging encompasses little more than being against everybody else.

While this is a scary development, it’s also one that’s great for photographers. All you need to do is to train your camera on what’s on display. More often than not, the spectacle is simply ludicrous. That said, there always is the temptation to rely on only making fun of the spectacle. That’s a recipe for disaster, because nobody learns anything from that.

In this book, the photographs deftly move back and forth from showing some of the more outrageous stuff along with scenes that don’t invite easy and obvious reads. I suspect that the book will be read differently in Poland than elsewhere, given that people outside of the country aren’t familiar with some of what’s on view. So for someone outside of Poland, visual cues might be different. I don’t think that matters all that much — unless you want to insist on a very particular read of the book (which usually is a bad idea).

Like most book designed by Ania Nałęska-Milach, How to Rejuvenate an Eagle uses a few nifty design and production choices. With white and red being Poland’s national colours, text and photographs are separated by being printed on two types of paper, one being red, the other being white. The text pages intersperse the book, which makes for an engaging viewing (regardless of whether you decide to read the text or not). And it’s a frequent reminder of Poland being the topic at hand.

This particular book is just the most recent addition to a long string of refreshing, very well made photobooks coming out of Poland. I’m hoping it will be seen widely. Self-published, its print run is relatively small (there are only 200 English language books). So if you want to get yourself a copy, don’t wait.


How to Rejuvenate an Eagle; photographs by Adam Lach; text by Dyba Lach; 136 pages; self-published; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.0

Max Zerrahn’s Snake Legs

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When I first looked at Max Zerrahn‘s Snake Legs, I immediately remembered being in Japan with a camera and trying to make a picture. Unless you’re a street photographer or tourist (in which case you’re mostly replicating what other people have photographed before you), Japan doesn’t lend itself easily to photographs if you’re not very familiar with the country. Its surface is either hyperpolished or too quaint.

I suppose I need to qualify the above by stating that obviously, it always depends on what you’re looking for. As someone who has lived in a foreign country for two decades now, I know that it takes a long time before one is able to see in ways that aren’t a foreigner’s any longer.

Outside of the world of the news, I don’t think there necessarily is a reason why an outside or an insider should or should not take certain pictures — as long as they’re both aware of their own shortcomings and as long as they challenge themselves (meaning: as long as they also make themselves aware of the history of their medium), they ought to be able to produce something interesting.

But it’s difficult to make interesting pictures in Japan as a visitor. During my first trip, I gave up all ideas of making something original and shamelessly focused on all those things that were just too obvious to ignore. This included the sheer number of cones (traffic and otherwise — there must be one or more for every Japanese person), the rotating platforms used in garages, covered cars, and a few more things. This ended up being a better exercise than anticipated, and I really got those items out of my system. The second time I went, I barely noticed them any longer.

I see these photographic difficulties weave through Zerrahn’s book. I don’t mean this as a criticism in any way. I have a book of photographs that Nobuyoshi Araki took in New York, and if it weren’t for the presence of the occasional sleazy nude (I suppose he just couldn’t help himself) I doubt anyone would be able to tell who the photographer is.

Actually, I do think that Snake Legs is a lot better than the Araki book, because a lot of the very obvious stuff is not included — or almost not included. There is one photograph of what might be that enormous Shibuya Crossing but it’s small in the book and in black and white.  For the most part Zerrahn stayed away from the expected and went out looking for something else.

In the world of Japanese photography, which has been centered on the book, the idea of the single photograph has historically been very different. While Western ideas have obviously made it into the country, the insistence on each and every photograph being a remarkable masterpiece is a lot less important than the whole, the book, communicating something (this obviously doesn’t mean that Japanese haven’t made remarkable masterpiece photographs).

In contrast, our Western ideas seem centered on the individual photograph that ought to be as brilliant as possible. You then build up a “project” in such a way that it’s a coherent “best of” of your good pictures that also happens to communicate something larger. I don’t necessarily find fault with that, because it’s a good method (so it’s great for teaching). But it’s important to realize that it’s only one of the possible methods: there are others.

To begin with, one might wonder why individual pictures have to live in projects after all? Aren’t projects mostly marketing or teaching tools? Why does every picture have to live in a project, and why is a picture only allowed to exist in one project?  You’ll notice that there are artists who will deviate from this simple model. But for the most part, the model holds a stranglehold over the world of art photography.

And then there is the fact that the accumulation of photographs that aren’t masterpieces could still result in a truly amazing book. The most well-known example might be Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu (The Map). The book is completely mind blowing in a way that the vast majority of its constituent photographs are not.

Having now said all of that, I do think that Snake Legs falls into the category of books where the accumulation of a number of photographs produces something a lot larger than its parts. There are pictures in the book that I quite like (obviously, my favourite photographs shows a cat). But the enjoyment of the book comes from going through the book and having its individual photographs slowly add up to more and more.

I suspect that this makes the book a bit of a hard sell: I could imagine picking up the book at some book fair, only to miss what it has to offer by going through it too quickly. Say whatever you want about book fairs or even the internet, but there are a lot of things that just cannot be communicated in brief intervals of time.

The book is also relatively diminutive: at 5.5×7.5″ (14x19cm) it’s at the small end of small books in my library. But this serves as another much needed reminder that more often than not, photobooks are simply too overblown. I get it, you’re working on your photobook, maybe even your first photobook, and you want to make a splash (full disclosure: I’m working on my first photobook right now).

But bigger isn’t always better, and at least in principle looking at a book is an intimate affair: it’s you and the book. Snake Legs feels right in that sense as well. I could imagine taking it on a trip, to look at it while traveling (most of the photobooks I own I can’t bring because they’re too large, too heavy, and/or too precious). And a trip might be the perfect occasion to look at the book — when you’re away from home and find yourself in a location you’re not familiar with.

In light of the above, I’m not going to apply my photobook-rating system here. I like the system for what it allows me to do, but I’ve also come to appreciate the fact that some books just fall outside of its domain.

Snake Legs; photographs by Max Zerrahn; 144 pages; White Belt Publishing; 2019

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The Living Mountain

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Before writing this review, I thought that the “hive mind” in the form of Wikipedia might help me with the question why I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. ‘The English idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover”,’ I read, ‘is a metaphorical phrase that means one shouldn’t prejudge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone.’ I suppose there are more than enough cases where this might in fact be useful. But the world of the photobook is one where adhering to this idea often can be ditched.

Take Awoiska van der Molen‘s The Living Mountain. It’s easily one of the best photobook covers in a long time, and if you were to judge the book by its cover you would do it absolute justice.

The photograph on the cover (which is not repeated inside, so we might as well treat it as a photograph from the book) shows a landscape somewhere in the mountains where that landscape is defined almost entirely through it being impossible to see. Against a darkish sky, there is a mountain that is flanked by two large trees, and everything beneath the mountain is hidden in a sea of black.

Throughout the book, almost every page uses a card stock that is treated on only one side. The printer had been tasked to saturate each page with ink, resulting in very well defined tones, with an intensely dark black at the extreme end. This makes it very difficult to photograph the book — whatever you see online is merely an insufficient approximation of what you’re going to encounter when you’re in the book’s presence.

To speak more about the book’s production choices is not going to take away anything from its sheer beauty — on the contrary. To print photographs on both sides of this particular paper means that they appear differently, depending on which side they find themselves on. The pictures on the treated side have a luster feel to them, and the viewer is tempted to see the ink sitting on top of the paper. In contrast, the untreated side has the ink sinking into the paper, and the overall texture of the paper stock adds to the way the pictures look. It takes a confident contemporary artist to accept this choice by the designer/publisher, Hans Gremmen, one of the most sophisticated photobook makers in the world.

I find the overall effect very luscious. Despite the fact that it’s a softcover book, it feels very precious, doing the work full justice. In fact, I don’t think producing the kind of expensive art book that the more conservative crowd might imagine would yield quite the same effect. You’d essentially end up with some catalogy hardcover book (catalogy — I know that’s not a word, but now it is), and frankly would be so boring.

What is more, the production choices resulted in a book that looks and feels precious despite only costing 30 Euros. Of late, I have become attracted to books that are not only less ostentatious, but that also are affordable for a larger audience.

Moving through the book, one encounters an experience that is not that dissimilar from Van der Molen’s previous works. There are variations here and there, and there are some added new avenues. This works very well for me: I feel as if I were in the presence of someone who is confident to know what she is doing while being aware of her own ability to expand her horizon, to find new things. What is new does not feel new for the sake of being new, and what is in line with earlier work convinces the viewer through its sheer astonishing beauty.

The work is a collaboration with composer Thomas Larcher, the performance of which was delayed because of the pandemic. In the book, the composer’s score is included in the center of the book (using a different type of paper), which makes for a neat addition to the book. I can’t read music (well, I can, but it’s much too slow to be useful), so to me the score mostly looks like an element of design, and the clusters of notes and their evolution resembles some of what can be seen in the pictures.

With The Living Mountain, Van der Molen demonstrates a few things that are worthwhile pointing out. To begin with, the Dutch artist has established her presence in the world of contemporary photography, showing how the old-fashioned landscape still has so much to offer. What is more, the work clearly arrives at its beauty through its maker being very receptive to what was in front of her: this is not a recording of what was in front of the camera — this is a being with the natural world and the taking of some of that, to craft photographs that speak of both an internal and the external world.

At the risk of inviting a lot of emails (or social-media “debates”), photographers aren’t necessarily known for being good listeners. All-too-often, they present themselves as these god-like creatures that impose their vision onto the world (this is in part related to what I discussed in my article about photography’s macho cult). This morning, I read a (completely unrelated) post by Yurie Nagashima on Instagram that ended with “In Japan, old people often tell children why we have one mouth and two ears. It’s because that [sic!] we should listen to people twice as much as we talk.”

To listen to others, to listen or be receptive of the world — there’s so much we can do to learn something or to expose ourselves to something we’re not aware of. Especially during these troubled times, maybe we should really listen a lot more, be more receptive. As Van der Molen demonstrates, being able to listen allows for the making of some very beautiful photography. And there is tremendous consolation to be had from sheer beauty.

Highly recommended.

The Living Mountain; photographs by Awoiska van der Molen; musical score by Thomas Larcher; 48 pages; FW:Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.5

The Incredible World of Photography

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You wouldn’t necessarily know this from the History of photography, but the medium is possibly the only one that not only allows access to what ordinary people were making and looking at, it also does so rather easily (in its capitalized form, with History of photography I’m specifically referring to the written history, which largely follows art-historical and other conventions; in non-capitalized form, I speak of the full history, regardless of whether it has been canonized or not).

That being said, while those studying written statements can get access to what people were thinking, anyone looking at photographs is barred from exactly that: photographs are mute — they do not communicate their makers’ intentions or thinking. For an incredible example of what accessing people’s written records can reveal, see Walter Kempowski’s Swansong 1945, and if you’re able to read German, you might as well read the monumental Das Echolot. Ein kollektives Tagebuch. 1.1. – 28.2.1943.

For the most part, photoland approaches pictures made by those who didn’t or deem themselves photographers along the lines of the world of art’s outsider art: where it is celebrated, it’s usually the more outlandish examples that, however, can possess considerable charm (see, for example, Erik KesselsIn Almost Every Picture). Instead of outsider photography we call that vast cache of pictures “vernacular photography.”

It is true, the vast bulk of vernacular photography is not terribly interesting. But neither is most of the photography shown in galleries and museums (however much it’s embellished by often outlandishly silly statements by either photographers and/or curators). In effect, all the “vernacular” label does is to turn the vast majority of photographs made into something that somehow isn’t worthy of our attention (this, in turn, makes non-vernacular pictures all the more precious). So we might as well call that bluff and drop the label.

Ever since it became feasible and up until the moment in time when other, digital forms became more convenient, the book — in the form of the album — was possibly the most valued way to express what photographs meant to both their makers and those in the pictures. More often than not, there was clear overlap between these two sides — such as in the case of families. An album would tell the history of a family, or some relevant part of it: a form of personal propaganda.

Possibly the biggest difference between physical albums and digital ones (that exist on social-media sites) is not the materiality (or its lack thereof) but instead the fact that digital albums can (and usually are) easily shared with others. Those others might be more or less complete strangers, even when they’re “friends” or “followers”. It will be interesting to see how future historians will deal with digital albums: is there actually going to be a way to do that, given that so many of them exist on corporate platforms?

In contrast, historical (physical) albums are increasingly simply disappearing where they haven’t done so already. For the most part, access is gained by finding them on eBay, at flea markets, or on piles of trash. In this, they share the fate of other private materials that over the course of history have simply gone lost — while the voices of those who managed to commission artists often are carefully handed down to younger generations.

We don’t know all that much about how ordinary people lived their lives during, say, the Roman Republic because there are very few traces of them left. It would be a real shame if the same would be said for all those societies that have had access to photography: whatever observations we might come to (there are going to be many that are less than flattering), the visual access photographs can offer provides a wealth of information.

An exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel entitled The Incredible World of Photography now does just that: to access as wide as possible the wealth contained in a very large collection of photographs, assembled by Ruth and Peter Herzog (I’m stuck in the world’s worst covid hot spot, so I’m relying on the catalog for this article). Among other artifacts, the collection includes 3,000 albums, produced all over the world. Make sure to check out the website the museum created for the exhibition  — it’s very impressively done.

Exposure Time, the catalog, is billed as A Photographic Encyclopaedia of Man in the Industrial Age by the publisher. Publishers obviously have an interest in selling their wares. But in this case, this is a pretty good description of what the book has to offer — you’ll only want to add the disclaimer that it’s European and North American men (and women).

I’m tempted to think that given its breadth, the Herzog collection might provide a very good starting point for a deeper dive into the history of photography, or at least for a dive that adds a lot of usually neglected material to the medium’s History.

I admit that one of the most startling aspects for me when reading Kempowski’s Echolot, a set of books ultimately so disturbing that I was unable to bring myself to finish it, was the sheer banality of what was on offer.

The book centers on the period of time at the beginning of 1943 when Nazi Germany would lose its entire 6th Army at Stalingrad (the same army had participated in various war crimes before). I’m not entirely sure what I had expected before attempting to read its 3,033 pages, but I remember that I thought that the focus would be very much on that siege. It wasn’t. Most people were going about their daily lives as if… as if what?

Well, I’ve been living through the so-called War on Terror, with its ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have been living my life as if it had nothing to do with me (I’m not a US citizen, but I’ve been paying my taxes here, so I can’t claim that I have no part in any of it).

So if I tried to understand, let’s say, the Iraq war through what I have produced, the utility of that would be limited. Or rather, the utility would be limited only as far as those far-away wars are concerned. In much the same fashion, in Exposure Time, a lot of the major events (whether wars or Europe’s colonialism or the fight for universal suffrage) barely show up. There are a few traces here and there, but for the most part, people go about their lives.

Instead, though, there are other things that do show up, related to what you can do with this initially new medium. For example, you can use it for scientific purposes, and there’s always a nasty spin off (police classification and surveillance, for example). I find this tremendously interesting: photography doesn’t necessarily show you important events with the weight that might be placed on them after the fact. But it always shows you how people think they can use a camera.

The number of uses of photography in Exposure Time is bewildering, and for each completely amazing one — maybe someone’s family dog dressed up for a picture — there’s a terrible one — a dead whale’s corpse being pulled ashore.

I think it’s the uses of photography that offer us a chance to connect with those in the past. Technology’s temptation is to draw attention onto itself, more precisely onto the latest new gizmo. But there are relatively few genuinely new technologies available. There are, in other words, very few actual quantum leaps. Even where there are those, the desires and solutions of those using older or newer technologies might align more than one might imagine.

We want to connect with those who lived in the past not necessarily to judge them (even though that’s something we have to be prepared to do). Judging someone who is long dead tends to come easy, and there often is little gained from it if the judgment comes with the implication that we, the judges, are somehow better than them. Let’s face it, often we’re not. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to approach the past by stating that some things simply were acceptable back then so we should accept that. Well, no. Such an approach is only useful for our times if we are prepared to interrogate what we believe in.

The truly interesting aspect of many of the photographs in Exposure Time is that it easily create a connection to our daily lives. At the same time, there is incredible overlap with many of the artists that we think are so special, given they’ve been written up in our History of photography. The reality is that a lot of photography is not as original as we might think it is. Originality is not a very good pointer to approach photography.

Ultimately, photography is a way for us to describe and understand the world in this deceptively easy and seemingly purely technical manner, where the technology allows for all our motivations, ideas, stereotypes, ideologies to become hidden. In retrospect, we have to excavate them, and it is large collections such as the Herzogs’ that allow us to do that.

The book is a hefty object. Both the selection of the images and the relatively large number of insightful essays (that each center on one particular aspect) make it an indispensable tool for anyone interested in excavating the past through an accumulation of photographs left behind.

There is much to be said for a vastly expanded (and more critical) new History of photography. What has long been dismissed as vernacular photography ought to have its proper part in that endeavour.


Exposure Time: Photographs from the Collection Ruth and Peter Herzog; Paul Mellenthin, Olga Osadtschy (ed.); essays by various authors (the book is available both in English and German); 360 pages; Kunstmuseum Basel/Christoph Merian Verlag; 2020

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