Tommaso Tanini introduces a book to us that, from the outside, offers a minimum amount of information. It has a grey carton coloured cover, a couple of typed words, and a heavy black marker line crossing the page obliquely: a redaction. The title printed on the spine is merely suggestive: H. said he loved us.
Yes, that H.
The book's title is an ironic retort to the command of the German Democratic Republic regime that its people should love the state above all else, even family. And it is the surveillance culture that sought to enforce this love that is the book's topic. Tanini's book is what we might call historical fiction, a braid of made-up narratives wound from strands of fact. Here they are built up from excerpts from literature, real testimony of life and betrayal in East Germany, and photographs found or made by the artist himself.
Tanini forms one third of the London/Italy based collective Discipula, founded in 2013 for the exploration of visual culture; it considers its self-published and designed books and other printed matter its primary form of expression. Though the subject matter of H. said he loved us is weighty, the book itself avoids any sense of self-importance, measuring just under the size of an A4. Its binding is textured, stiff, almost waxy. It opens like a manila folder, as if we had in our hands a physical dossier. Inside, we are presented with a finely calibrated alternation of text and image, of literary quotation and excerpted government files, of apparent surveillance photos, colour portraits, nature studies and uncanny objects.
The book constructs loose narratives around four portraits of individuals and official documents that refer vaguely to what was perhaps their crime. This uncertainty around a sense of guilt only heightens our paranoia. Views toward darkened windows or looking out between blinds compound the sense of being watched, and literary quotations seem to speak directly to us, as CNN might seem to personally address a schizophrenic. A fruiting apple tree opens the book, but trees overcome by their urban environment continue to appear throughout. If it sounds like an obvious comment on the relationship of individual to state, the book itself never feels obvious or plodding; it succeeds through deft sequencing and the elegance of the photographs themselves. It certainly cannot be charged with irrelevance.
H. said he loved us won the 2014 Premio Pesaresi Prize for Contemporary Photography. It is a little known award, but one that hosts Gerry Badger on its jury. As might be expected then, it is a book lover's book. It wastes nothing of its 120 pages, yet it hardly feels spare or thin. It moves with poetic brevity, earning every square centimeter of its space on the shelf.
H. said he loved us is available from Discipula Editions.