March 2012: Alec Soth at Sean Kelly


Alec Soth: Broken Manual
Sean Kelly Gallery
February 3 through March 11, 2012

“It’s not really about running away, it’s about the desire to run away.” Alec Soth says this several times throughout the course of Somewhere to Disappear, a film that accompanies his exhibition Broken Manual at Sean Kelly Gallery. The exhibition documents a trip that Soth took through America in order to meet people that live outside of civilization. According to the press release , the show explores the “mounting anger and frustration that some—specifically male—Americans feel with societal constraints and their subsequent desire to remove themselves from civilization.” The reasons for the withdrawal of these men vary and are explained in the film. One man is a monk, for example, and one is preparing for the collapse of the American empire. The exhibition includes many powerful photographs of remote areas as well as the people that live there in self-imposed isolation. The intimate and unnerving photos demonstrate the photographer’s ability to earn the trust of strangers. The full scope of Soth’s relationship with these people is captured on film, in which the humor and non-threatening nature of the photographer go a long way in gaining entry into these sensitive peoples’ homes.

The eponymous sculpture, ‘Broken Manual’ sums everthing up.  It consists of a stack of many art books resembling a dam made of sandbags. Each book is hollowed out within and contains a copy of Soth’s Broken Manual—a manual to escape. The book is glued shut. Hence, the manual is broken. As the artist explains in one YouTube video, “It’s a manual to run away, but it doesn’t function. You can’t actually run away from your life.” Above the mound of books, the gallery wall is covered with printouts of things a survivalist might be concerned with: tutorials on how to live outside of society, manuals about weapons and protection, news stories about hermits who have been discovered on the fringes of society. The wall resembles something a serial killer in a thriller movie would have in their bedroom, lending a foreboding feeling to the installation.

The photographs are similarly disquieting. In Edsel’s highway, spring (2006), a man stands before a bush of red berries on the outskirts of town, the sign of a Shell Station visible through a break in the foliage. In 2008_08zl0107 (2008), a nude man with a swastika tattoo stands in a river, the tan line at his waist from his pants somehow speaking to his insulated life. In 2008_08z10215 (2008), an alcove in a wall of rock has a metal bar installed in it, with coat hangers hanging, effectively turning the small section of cave into a closet. It looks like something that would appear in a comic book, perhaps inside Superman’s palace of solitude. Equal parts creepy and scenic, Soth’s photographs are likely to create ambivalent feelings in the viewer. If someone thought they were staged, as I did at first, they might misinterpret the show as a cynical rumination on the rejection of society. However, as the film testifies, the photographs are documents of real life. Thus, the film is the real meat of Soth’s exhibition, and the photographs are the potatoes—both will need to be ingested to be fulfilled by the exhibition. The Broken Manual is a metaphoric piece that sums up the project but will not make sense on its own.



Dan Tarnowski

Dan Tarnowski has published reviews of culture, and several chapbooks of his poetry. He lives in Brooklyn.

view all articles from this author