Perfect Pearl

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How people decide to live with each other forms the most hotly contested area for human beings. At the smallest and most basic scale, we typically have one person living with another person (there are other arrangements, but they’re rather rare). At the core of this arrangement sits love. It is an emotion that we all know intimately well, one of the most basic and important ones.

At no point in history have people been able to experience and enjoy love unconditionally, regardless of whether it’s romantic love or any other form of it. At first, this might sound like a strange statement. But these days, you don’t need to look very far to witness some people telling other people what they can or cannot do with each other.

In the West, we have witnessed massive progress regarding what it typically called one’s identity over the course of the past two decades. At the same time, a neofascist counter-movement has positioned itself to not only take away all current achievements (for example gay marriage), but also to roll back past ones. For that movement, some forms of love are more valid than others. It’s crazy that in 2022, this is the world we even have to live in. But here we are.

Even as many other areas on the planet are centered on very different cultural, societal, and political traditions, many of the West’s ideas have been sweeping the globe because of the dominance of neoliberal capitalism. As a consequence, in many places, traditional ideas are now competing with non-traditional, Western ones that often are known only through how they play out in terms of consumption.

A recent photobook that centers on how this can play out is Tara Fallaux‘s Perfect Pearl. The book looks at how ideas of (heterosexual) romance and love plays out for young women in China. The book is based on an artist residency in Xiamen that lasted almost half a year, giving Fallaux ample time to get to know a number of young women. In the back of the book, their names are given as Binge, Lova, Muse, and Rocy.

In many ways, focusing on a small number of people who are trying to deal with a very basic and essential conundrum is a good approach. As I already said, we all know what love is or, and (this is not necessarily the same thing) what it feels like; we also all have an idea of romance.

Furthermore, even as our individual ideas might all be a little bit (or very) different, we all are familiar with trying to figure them out, trying to deal with them: given my options and my preferences, what can I do to get to that perfect place in life that we all aspire to be at (and, let’s be realistic, mostly never get to — in part because neoliberal capitalism teaches us that we can always do better)?

Given that you cannot photograph many of the ideas around love and romance, Perfect Pearl uses text to fill in the gaps. There is a longer text by one of the young women. In addition, there are frequent short text snippets that are taken from anonymous WeChat messages. “I’ve admitted,” part of one reads, “that whatever I’m doing, it’s the little things that make me happy, as always. So I stopped looking for reasons to ne unhappy for myself to be happy enough.” Ok then, to be happy enough.

The book is produced following the binding that Hans Gremmen/FW:Books used for Andres Gonzalez’s American Origami. The idea is quite simple actually (as is pretty much always the case, the best ideas are simple). You basically produce a softcover book. Then, you fold it in half. As a consequence, when a viewer looks at the book, holding it in their hands, they only get to see the half of the pages closest to the fore-edge — unless they decide to open up the rest.

As you can imagine from this description, this construction creates two types of spaces in the book: the one you can see easily and the one that requires a little bit more work to access. Consequently, you can “hide” material in the latter part. In other words, the construction of the book creates a very nifty way to organize materials simply through the construction of the book (obviously, you could use a different construction and then have a graphic designer do the organization in other ways).

Here, the text messages are all hidden away in the book. To be able to access them, you have to fully open up the book. But unlike in American Origami, this book doesn’t follow this approach for each spread. As a consequence, you never quite know whether you will access more text or imagery that for a lack of a better word feels more intimate — or simply more of what you’ve already seen outside. I do think that this approach works in the book’s favour.

Most of the book plays out between the portraits Fallaux took of her friends and photographs of women or couples who are about the get married. There is a large beach in Xiamen which appears to serve as a frequently used backdrop for wedding photographers. There also are cityscapes, interiors, and still lifes. Especially the latter feel rather reductive, though.

Perfect Pearl deftly paints a picture of young women trying to find their place in life against the background of their culture and the various expectations placed onto them (whether by others or themselves). Even as details might differ considerably, this struggle is playing out all over the world, a struggle that, as I noted in the beginning, is not fully independent from the frameworks created by societies and political systems.

In the end, part of the question always remains to what extent one is supposed to — or maybe has to — push back against restrictions that are too tight and that only serve to define oneself in other people’s terms. There is no good answer. But we might note the choices we, and others, face.

Perfect Pearl; photographs by Tara Fallaux; texts by various authors; 60 pages; self-published; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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