July 18th, 2017
All That Paradise Allows
In Crimea and the Caribbean, Nicholas Muellner’s new photobook is a tropical gothic of seduction and violence.
By Adam Bell
Gracefully marrying image and text, Nicholas Muellner’s photobook In Most Tides an Island (2017) is a poignant meditation on loneliness, love, and isolation in our contemporary world. Structured in twelve chapters, the book tells two parallel but related stories: the real-life struggles of closeted, gay men in provincial Russia and Ukraine, yearning for a connection and love they can’t openly express; and the invented life of a solitary woman on a Caribbean island. Equal parts document, diary, and fictional invention, In Most Tides an Island defies easy categorization. Like Muellner’s previous books—The Amnesia Pavilions (2011) and The Photograph Commands Indifference (2009)—the work deftly combines image and text into a unique form, while, at the same time, poetically questioning the limits of each. The book’s parallel stories ultimately converge to offer a portrait of the heartrending reality of our disconnected, yet networked lives.
Adam Bell: You describe yourself as an artist who “operates at the intersection of photography and writing.” How did you come to this relationship and how do you see it working in In Most Tides an Island?
Nicholas Muellner: I came to that intersection in my work by way of a circle: it’s precisely where I started. Long before I knew myself as an artist, I loved following threads of language, and I loved making pictures. They were better places to live than inside myself—richer, safer, more satisfying. Simultaneously, and for as long as I can remember, I have been both thrilled and heartbroken by the inviolable separateness of each human consciousness, no matter the physical or emotional proximity. For me, these facts were inseparable. Words and images became like two lovers lying next to each other in bed who can never know the other’s mind. And, at some point, without a formal declaration, I made it my life’s work—what an absurd claim!—to reconcile those two fraught lovers, by making a romance of the space between them.
That’s a lie. My work never hopes to reconcile language and image. More accurately, it deploys their unbridgeable autonomies as both a means and a metaphor. In the new book, the reticence and stillness of the photographs often amplifies the loneliness and repression of the written narratives. Other times, the emotion of an image confesses what cannot be expressed in words. The language and the photographs collapse into disjunctive double exposures and create a broken double vision, moving in and out of sensory alignment.
Bell: The book combines two seemingly disparate bodies of work—encounters with closeted gay men living in the former Soviet Union, and a fictional woman living on a Caribbean island. The latter includes images from a project from 2013 titled The Nautiloid Heart, which you’ve exhibited, but haven’t published as its own book. How did these two projects come together? And what made you realize that this older work had a home as a key element of the new book?
Muellner: The work that has had an exhibition life as The Nautiloid Heart did not seem, in its original form, to call for a book. The tiny island where I photographed had passed, with little consideration, under the negligent rule of numerous colonial overlords. My spectral investigation was concerned with establishing what I call a “tropical gothic” mood through a particular photographic language: a beautiful seduction with secret violence at its core, echoing dark histories of exploitation and neglect beneath a canopy of waving palms.
The experience of photographing subsequently inspired an accompanying work of fiction. And, as I wrote, a different kind of narrative emerged: one about the construction of solitude, and the desire to penetrate the consciousness of a profoundly unavailable other. But the fiction and the photographs did not make a complete object, as each opened on ideas that were not echoed in the other. To become a book, I knew that a third element would need to emerge.
At the same time, I had started developing correspondences with gay men in various isolated and provincial parts of Russia and Ukraine. I perpetually think I am about to become a traditional journalist or documentarian, and this was a form of background research. But, when I began corresponding with several gay men in Crimea, on the unwitting verge of Russian invasion, a web of sudden possibility emerged. In my unfinished island fiction, I had attributed a dream of my own—almost unaltered—to the primary character, in the form of a bedtime story: the vision of an “almost-island” where beautiful men nurtured and murdered narrative. I suspected that the Crimean Peninsula was that almost-island, and that I needed to find those men.
Bell: Central to the work, and the title, is the metaphor of an island, which stands for the places where, and ways in which, we connect, create community, or find shelter, but also remain isolated. This idea has resonance for the closeted men who live in a society that is deeply homophobic, but also for the fictional woman. It’s also a more universal experience. Can you talk about the significance of the title?
Muellner: I wanted a title for this book that signaled melodrama—think Douglas Sirk’s films All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956)—filtered through the muffled cry of a frightened heart. Emotional realism, for this project, entails caveats and compromise, both of which are alien to melodrama. The figure of the island has been central to this project throughout. It is, as you say, both a site of refuge and a place of entrapment. The island on which I photographed has served as a plantation-prison for slaves, a haven for their descendants, a hideout for European pirates and indigenous Caribs, a jail for Nicaraguan political prisoners, and a place for Western hippies to drop out. Exile and escape; imprisonment and safety. A more complicated dialectic than we might imagine.
The island is an isolated point from which the entire world can be imagined. Everything is out there, beyond the ocean horizon. The island is also the individual, home alone with her laptop.
Bell: From Moscow Plastic Arts to The Amnesia Pavilions, much of your work has looked at the former Soviet Union and Russia. You first visited in 1990 and 1992, and have returned numerous times over the years, often searching for friends, revisiting cities, and, in this latest book, meeting and interviewing men you befriended online. What about this region attracts you?
Muellner: The closest thing to a valid answer would be: an accident of history. When I first went to the then Soviet Union, in 1990, it was in the throes of dissolution, and I was a heedlessly open, American twenty-year-old with a rough command of Russian, traveling through newly-opened provincial cities. Everyone wanted to talk to me, and I wanted to talk to everyone. That first trip produced an intense relationship between me and that culture. Relationships compel, even as things fail, change, go dark, morph.
Traveling to Russia always forces me to put my own brutal, angry, beautiful, benighted country in relief. The two nations represent two synthetic, conceptual ideas of identity, and all the wild distortions those fantastical nationhoods entail. Both identities have always been outrageous fictions, forced into reality through violence and projective imagination. That’s the fascination, for me, of current US–Russia relations: seeing both countries project onto each other again, and seeing how these projections create policies, actions, and chaos around the globe.
Bell: As much as the work speaks about the lives of others and addresses a specific place, it’s also intensely personal. You never disappear as narrator, journalist, or artist. While all work is autobiographical, your use of text foregrounds this quality, and places you in a central and, often, autobiographical or confessional role. Was this a position you assumed easily, or is it one that arose naturally out of your desire to merge image and text?
Muellner: Your question reveals something obvious that I’ve never articulated to myself as such: I am drawn to using language because it allows for a kind of autobiography—a directly personal expression that is not available in my image-making, at least not in the same way.
Looking compulsively at Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) when I was nineteen electrified me. I was so gripped by that expression of erotic, frank, immediate visual intimacy. But I also learned, eventually, that I was nothing like that. My version of the personal, of processing intimacy, includes the awareness of doubts, paradoxes, and distancing effects. I am a middle child, prone to serially forgetting and re-learning that I have a body; born into the poetics of ambivalence . . . and language allows me to leverage that.
Counterintuitively, I think I found my way to a personal voice through anthropology. When I was in college, on the cusp of the ’90s, the field was in a state of paralyzed doubt, fueled by postcolonial critique. The necessary questioning of an outsider’s right or ability to assert any authoritative truth about another culture had brought it to that point. But unlike my despondent anthropologist classmates, I realized, as an aspiring artist, that framing my interest within the distortions of my limited perspective allowed for a different kind of insight, a relational discovery grounded in autobiography. What I learned, to my great liberation, was: disclose your position, and make pictures from within the exposed frame of your own experience. The audience then has license to let you take them by the hand, with arrogance and humility, and lead them into your images. I use the personal in my work because, as you say, all work is already autobiography—because I am already there, holding the curtain.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in New York.
In Most Tides an Island is published by Self Publish Be Happy Editions.