Arko Datto, What News of the Snake That Lost its Heart in the Fire

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by L’Artiere Edizioni (here). Softcover (23 × 30.5 cm) with folded poster jacket, 200 pages, with approximately 100 color images. Includes texts by Bornila Chatterjee and the artist. Design by Nicolas Polli. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Flash-lit urban night photography, almost anywhere it is done, tends to reveal the hidden underbelly of societies that only come out after dark. And throughout the history of the medium in the 20th century, we have been repeatedly exposed to nighttime events in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and other major cities, so much so that we have developed a set expectations of what such images (almost always dark black and white) typically show us: nightlife in bars, dark streets, illicit seduction, personal freedom, and a general sense of gritty.

But over the past decade, we’ve begun to see an alternative vision of nighttime photography emerge from South Asia and India, characterized by seething color, tropical warmth, spiritual ecstasy and wild intensity. Projects by Tiane Doan na Champassak (here), Sohrab Hura (here) and Vasantha Yogananthan (here), to name a few, have challenged the dominant nocturnal aesthetic, introducing a visual electricity that seems s deliberately linger on the edge of control. Most notably, the color palette of this South Asian night is eerily (and often surreal) vibrant, where deep blacks drift into enveloping purples and blues, energetic greens spring from the nearby jungle, and pinks, oranges and fiery reds cut through the darkness.

Arko Datto’s recent projects add to this growing list of newly expressive nocturnal explorations. Datto is producing an ambitious trilogy of three photobooks, with the night in South Asia as the main subject. Her photo book 2018 Will my model be home when I return? began the series with images from his native India; this book What news of the serpent that lost its heart in the fire spends the night in Malaysia and Indonesia; and a forthcoming third book will return to the geographic middle with images from Bangladesh. Seen together, they provide a foil to our Western notions of the night, bringing the complexities and nuances of life in developing Asia into visual conversation.

After a cover repainted in silver with the outline of a large moth (which will reappear later), the first thing that jumps out at Datto SNAKE FIRE (an apparently shortened version of the longer official title, placed as a graphic element on the back cover) is his amplified use of color – his photographs always appear more extreme than most nighttime images. This is the result of using a seven-color printing process – the usual CMYK, plus a pair of fluorescent colors and the metallic silver we first saw on the cover. This unusual production approach pushes Datto’s images into the realm of unstable energy hallucination, where everyday reality feels like it’s breaking down into something like a confused fever dream.

As noted in a short afterword by the artist, Datto, even as a relative insider, feels a profound sense of imbalance in places like Penang, where the original harmony between man and nature has been upset in ways significant. The story that gives the photobook its title follows the largest python on record, which slithered out of the jungle to a nearby construction site, where under the watchful eyes of mankind, it gave birth and then is died a few days later. Datto used the news reports and images of this unlikely (and in some sense unsettling) event as bookends for SNAKE FIREprinting enlargements of silver images on black paper and transforming them into quasi-abstractions.

From Datto’s perspective, this symbolic story of spent paradise is representative of the larger existential problems facing cities like Penang – the overdevelopment of luxury construction by speculative property developers; these new constructions leading to a rise in the cost of living which then drives local residents out of urban centres; and the mismanagement of rainforests by oil palm plantations and other industrial operations resulting in widespread environmental degradation that seeps into surrounding communities. Together, Datto sees these forces leading to viciously tangled cycles that encourage cutting down more forests, constructing more buildings, generating more money at the expense of nature, thus making the city itself all the stranger. and artificial. His photographs capture some of these subtle (and not-so-subtle) tendencies and the simmering mood of discontent and savagery that surrounds the ongoing process.

The confrontation between man and nature is a recurring subject in SNAKE FIRE, this broad theme taking many different forms. In some images, the modern built world looms behind a more traditional jungle or river scene, with towering lights in the distance matched by flash-lit foreground ugliness in the form of rubbish on the riverbanks. river and mechanical machinery and construction debris in the trees. In other images, Datto focuses on unsuccessfully controlled nature, with invasive plants in pots and trees leaping from walls and fences, their colors (and striking branches) pushed to unnatural limits.

Fear and apathy seem to have become the pervasive emotions in Datto’s nocturnal landscape, with people constantly peering behind grilles, bars and other visual barriers; various elders appear to have fallen asleep, but in particular, one woman watches in the jungle with obvious concern. Datto then expands this pattern of obstruction to include umbrellas, plastic sheeting, and even an enveloping transparent bubble, seeming to imply that residents have become entirely enclosed and separated from real life, like swimming in a plastic baby pool. The same goes for animals, which are regularly fenced off – birds in cages, a cow behind bars, a snake wrapped around a post and goldfish trapped in a plastic bag rather than swimming with the larger school nearby.

This artificiality is then amplified by Datto’s images of costumed performers and cosplayers, who peer behind stage curtains and wait on constructed sets, their mannered gazes drawing us further into the surreality of the nocturnal world. The strangeness then appears everywhere: people fishing for oranges in the river, volcanoes erupting against a candy-colored sky, and temple guards bundled up to avoid seeing everything. Fires ignite here and there, creating apocalyptic fogs and mists that smother the surroundings and spread the seething colors, as if the whole place is dissolving in smoke. Such places are clearly not for the timid or the faint of heart – unless they are inexplicably wearing helmets, like an older man.

Datto then takes this misting idea one step further, using silver ink sprays to cover several of his images. In a few cases, the metallic droplets cover the images like fogs or violent thunderstorms, but most of the time they seem to blow or splash aside, making the scenes all the more unreal, especially towards the end of the book, where money intrusions seem more frequent. The photobook ends with an image of an uneasy ferry being buffeted by the waves, with shimmering droplets covering the night sky like snow in the tropics – as the end point of Datto’s provocative visual narrative, he does not seem entirely optimistic.

Datto is taking a number of unlikely risks with SNAKE FIRE, and these choices (both in imagery and presentation) generally reinforce the power of the larger social and environmental story he has chosen to tell. South Asia clearly has a lot more nocturnal worlds to explore, and Datto seems determined to dig out more layers of life using darkness as an ally. Its bold nocturnal colors and flash of light create an indelible atmosphere, where performative strangeness seems to seep from the city itself, and the natural rhythms of life are increasingly altered and upset by the uneven shock of the man and nature.

Collector’s point of view: Arko Datto doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment, nor does he seem to have an active artist website. As a result, interested collectors should probably follow through the editor (linked in the sidebar).

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