(Fw: Books, 2019)
By Kris Koslowski Moore
Andres Gonzalez’s American Origami has 384 pages and over 700 photographs. Its bulk foretells the colossal scale, emotional weight and intricacies of its subject – mass shootings in American schools. It houses a narrative whose visual representation is complicated from two, if not more, directions: the arduity of representing something as visceral as grief, mourning and loss in the static plane of a photograph; and a story that is sensationalised by the fleeting, fetishistic gaze of the media. Gonzalez spent six years visiting seven sites of some of the deadliest school shootings, exhuming archival documents, handwritten letters, press materials and memorabilia sent in the wake of the events, before coalescing them with his own photographs and texts. The resulting book eschews embellished accounts to instead search out empathy, reflection and conversation against what appears an otherwise ordinary American backdrop.
At first glance, it may seem that American Origami’s sombre thematic thread is at odds with the gentility of the origami crane on its cover. The book’s cover refers to the Japanese legend that anyone who makes a thousand origami cranes is granted a wish by the gods. Inspired by the story, a Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki – who had developed leukaemia as a result of the Hiroshima bombing – started making origami cranes. On October 25, 1955, Sadako died at the age of twelve after making more than a thousand. Years later, in 1977, a fictionalised version of the story – in which Sadako never reached her goal of a thousand cranes – was published for an international audience. In the process, the origami crane not only became an emblem for those affected by Hiroshima and their prayers for peace, but also an emblem of healing, tragedy and collective grief around the world.
Like the formal intricacies of the crane, reading American Origami is a novel experience. Each shooting is given its own chapter, beginning with a sparse spread on which concise facts are laid bare: location, date, time, deaths and non-fatal injuries. Through sequence alone, Gonzalez recognises the autonomy of each shooting whilst pointing to the endless and systematic pattern of these events. What is most notable about American Origami’s construction, however, is its staplebound reversed gatefold. Every spread encompasses a second spread beneath the recto page, creating an extended and tiered reading of each event. Whereas the surface reading brims with an uneasiness similar to that found in Takashi Homma’s Tokyo Suburbia – one of manicured lawns, sterile facades and vacant dead ends – the extended reading moves emotionally and visually closer to the artefacts of grief. Flowers, personal photographs and notes, tribute cassette tapes and thousands of mementos sent from afar, make up the bulk of this strata. And while interviews, speeches and portraits that speak of continuing trauma meander on the surface, there is a distinct rift between how the two layers are experienced. This is what you see, this is what they see. A melding of two intertwined, yet separate, perceptions.
In performing this repeated action of revealing and concealing, we are peeling back the perplexing normality that resumes after mass shootings, instead making visible the enduring pain that for many is reality. Silent topography gives way to human voices, only for us to muffle them again. It is within this schema that the rhythm of American Origami is established. If it was not for this oscillation between distance and nearness, silence and noise, the resounding muteness that initially faces us would see amnesia settle like a thick fog. For some, the book’s intricate structure may feel like too much, and the length of the publication only exacerbates the risk of readers becoming preoccupied with its form. But Gonzalez’s intent is clear: the book’s construction is necessary to portray the various layers of experience that underscore mass shootings.
Gonzalez’s photographs represent the idea of residue, trading images of actual events with the melancholic traces left in their wake. Campus grounds, empty parking lots and uninhabited interiors are all treated alike. Imbued with powerful silence, they allow grief and remembrance to weigh heavily on our minds as we trudge on, and photography’s inextricable reminder of what has been only serves to strengthen these feelings. But this is what Gonzalez wants. American Origami is not intended to create yet another parade. Gone is the decisive moment, and any chance of theatrics are instead replaced with quiet observation. Ordinary over spectacle. Memorial over moment.
This belatedness, however, does come with a danger. The persistent distance between camera and subject is dramatically at odds with the emotive subject that writhes beneath, and Gonzalez’s redacted coolness is equally at odds with the complexities of the conversation. Such spatial and temporal distance from something so charged threatens to estrange readers from the brutality that defines mass shootings. In doing so, Gonzalez risks hampering the urgency he wishes to create. Yet he has chosen this overt restraint to mitigate the habitual hysteria that muddies our usual token responses to these events. Our usual diets of dopamine-driven snippets aren’t working, and this is Gonzalez’s response. He has held back from prodding an already inflamed narrative and come forward with a balanced and thorough assertion.
American Origami ends with the faces of four presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. A blunt reminder of where change has to start, but hasn’t yet. How that change can be best catalysed – through spectacle or banality – remains open to discussion. Both fail to come to terms with a subject so ungraspable, but whichever mode one favours, the conversation still needs to be had.
Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy’s inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.