From his first group of large-format photographs portraying individuals falling from high elevations or accidentally tumbling to the ground, Kerry Skarbakka has repeatedly employed his own body as interlocutor in a philosophical exchange on human agency, chance, and the power of each to determine individual destiny. Works from this series, ‘The Struggle to Right Oneself,’ allude to an inner conflict wherein truth is sought outside of reason, and the physical world is rejected. These themes are represented by the body’s surrender to the pull of gravity or its mystical defiance of it. Central to this line of questioning is the body’s surrender to external forces, illustrating Descartes’ maxim: “… except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power.” 1
In Skarbakka’s photograph ‘Office (Last Flight of Neil Steinberg),’ he presents an allegory of the Cartesian mind/body problem in an up-to-date version of the Icarus myth. In the photo, a woman conducts business in an office tower while a man falls from the sky outside her window. Like the shepherd in Breughel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,’ so lost in his thoughts he misses Icarus’s fateful plunge, the businesswoman fails to notice the dramatic event. Bisecting the photograph vertically, the frame of the office window asserts an extreme contrast between mental and physical realms and intimates an interstitial one that is metaphysical in nature.
Other dualities arise in Skarbakka’s work including classic narrative conflicts like man versus nature, man versus himself, and man versus society. This is marked in his most recent photographs, collectively titled ‘Fluid.’ Photographed in various locations including Atlantic City, the St. Lawrence River, and Shark’s Cove on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii, ‘Fluid’ suggests the powerlessness of reason when pitted against nature’s awesome potential.
The series presents solitary figures set against or subsumed by vast bodies of water. Where the figure is absent, human presence is imparted by objects—a rototiller or tractor, for instance—which function as bodily surrogates or relics of a lost civilization. Later photographs in the series such as ‘In the Trees’ and ‘Underwater Brush Pile’ are more ominous and suggest the ultimate outcome of mankind’s conflict with nature. Here, Skarbakka depicts the figure lifeless and ensnared by objects far below the surface of the water.
Paradoxes such as the need for water to sustain and proliferate life and the inverse consequences that too much water can bring emerge from Skarbakka’s juxtaposition of imagery and the associations they prompt. This conflicted relationship between mankind and nature provides thematic continuity in Skarbakka’s work since 2001, depicting the epic duality between known realms and those that are unknown, unknowable, or irreconcilable.
The central figure in Skarbakka’s ‘Fluid’ series evokes the recurring image in nineteenth century painting of man dwarfed by and contemplating the vast expanse of the sea, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Monk by the Sea.’ Only Skarbakka’s protagonist in ‘Fluid’ often finds himself in opposition with and constricted by the natural world, rather than engaged in a spiritual communion with it. He struggles to maintain dominion in and of the world. In contrast Skarbakka’s “falling man” in ‘The Struggle to Right Oneself’ is pictured in a state of grace, already having surrendered his hold on the physical like Friedrich’s monk, consumed by nature’s magnificence. The protagonist in ‘Fluid’ seems to play out an allegory of mankind’s quixotic pursuit of truth via contrivances or social constructs that impede his undertaking and lead to his ultimate downfall.
Skarbakka’s photographs pose questions about our physical being and its relationship to the world, about sentience and thought, and about the consequences of actions within and beyond our control. The desire to know unknowable things requires the questioning of everything within one’s understanding and which might require the casting off of physical and mental trappings that provide comfort or stability in order to attain a sort of complete freedom (or salvation)—at least symbolically—a parallel state of being unencumbered by the mind or its container.
©2007 Michael Rooks
1. René Descartes, 'Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Science.' (Project Gutenberg, 1993), Etext 59. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/59
Kerry Skarbakka lives in Pittsburgh, PA. He participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program in July 2006. His photographs may be viewed on his website at http://www.skarbakka.com/.
Michael Rooks is curator of European and American Art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in Honolulu, HI.