PhotoMonitor Review

Review by Sophy Rickett in PhotoMonitor, 2016

Published in April, 2015, Sarah Dobai’s interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat depicts only
one corporate brand logo, unexpected perhaps in a series of large format works, made predominantly
on location, in the commercialised shopping districts of London and Paris. That corporate brand is
lens manufacturer Zeiss, a discreet form of product (context) placement, in the form of a label
that corresponds so precisely with the plane of the image that it is not clear if it is a subject
in the image or a graphic placed over it. It is just one of many strategies Dobai uses to explore
the themes of Gogol’s narrative, both on its own terms, but also as a text mediated through a
photographic understanding of the environment, which relates to surface, to the frame, to
composition, to form and to perspectival depth.

Originally published in 1842, Gogol’s The Overcoat centres on the life and death of Government
copyist, Akaky Akakievich, and the acquisition and subsequent theft of his newly tailored overcoat.
As a fable, it is a darkly humorous, yet scathing attack on the desperation, hope, pomposity,
complacency, money, politics and the greed endemic in a deeply damaged society, where divisions in
the social order are the cause of a fundamental breakdown in the political and economic fabric of
life. Dobai has described how her project first began to evolve during the 2008 crash in the global
financial market – a series of events that seemed to signal the failure of the free market, the
collapse of some of the world’s biggest financial institutions, perhaps even capitalism itself. In
this new context, Dobai explores the shop display as a seductive façade, where the real subject (of
image and scene) is both literally and metaphorically, displaced. In different ways, each work
references the processes of photography itself – the frame within a frame, flattened perspective,
reflections of things, refractions of light and differentiated focus all hovering somewhere between
the invisible flatness of the plane of the image and the restricted depth of the glass vitrine.

Many of the works explore themes of transience; the precariousness and the fragility of appearance
against the brightness and seductiveness of the contemporary urban space. Entitled The Overcoat –
Opticians, Mile End, the Zeiss image comes towards the end of the book, the penultimate work in a
series of seventeen, and corresponds with Akaky’s emergence as apparition following his death.
Through the loss of his physicality, Akaky has achieved a symbolic presence that enables him to
take a critical position and to exact revenge on the prominent personage who had humiliated him
when he was alive.  It is one of three works that Dobai reconstructed in her studio and shows a
display case loosely lined with folds of red satin to one side of the image, the white plastic
structure of a modular shelving unit containing a selection of glasses and lens cleaning fluid to
the other. Centre stage, against the shadows of a grey backdrop, like the apparition in the text,
is the reflection of the camera, an image of the mechanism producing an image of itself; the
precariousness of the relation between subject and periphery, the processes of seeing and being
seen seeing, revealed.

The images themselves do not fit comfortably into any one category; they combine the formal rigour,
and slightly stark oddness of Dobai’s unique visual language with something more fluid. In some of
the works, dirt on a window reveals the presence of that same window, the fox suggests both
artifice and menace, display plinths are left empty, subjects cropped, an image stands in for an
object – all different kinds of displacement, deflection, denial. It’s as if the artist’s ‘rules’
of determinacy are subject to nuanced, yet persistent, revision. There is a subtle discontinuity
between the images: a disjointedness both in relation to subject matter and approach. The
restlessness of moving through the urban space, the ‘invisibility’ of the photographer, recalls
Walter Benjamin’s seminal Arcades Project, where the arcades of Paris in the 19th century are
evoked as bustling, cluttered spaces, where “street and interior merge and historical time is
broken up into kaleidoscopic distractions and displays of ephemera”[1]. From the other side of
that modernist vision, how might these spaces now be understood, and in the age of one-click
purchases and same day deliveries, what is their symbolic function? Are they threatened by
the advancement of obsolescence, haunted by the ghosts of their modernist past, “neither
present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive[2]”