Pylot Review

Review by Anne Sanders for Pylot Magazine

Nothing is new. There is nothing we can pluck from imagined obscurity that has not been made or
felt or seen before. True originality is in the processing of the known, the amalgamation of the
existing into something renewed – re-invented; re-reclaimed; reiterated. Re-: a prefix of Latin
origin, to mean again and again. To repeat. We are repeating ideas, again and again, and within
this repeated narrative, are the subtle inflexions where originality resides.

The Artist’s Familiars Series, published by Four Corners, explores re- publication as a new
artistic medium, reprinting out of copyright fiction alongside bodies of work created in response
to them. In this placing of images with words, secondary meanings are created, both text and
imagery influencing how the other is read. This cycle of informing, of copying to create something
new, is inherent to Dobai’s interest of working with and being influenced by literature.

Wrapped in layers of meaning, ‘The Overcoat‘ – both edition and re-edition, explores cyclical
nuances. Nikolai Gogol uses structural linguistic repetition to weave a story around his
protagonist, Akakiy Akakievitch, a lowly copyist. The overcoat, his outer layer both physically and
metaphorically, replaces his old that has worn so thin as to be a patchwork of repairs. The
narrative is hinged on the loss and acquiring of his new coat, and all that is lost and acquired
with it: love, money, respect, a life.

The importance placed on social hierarchy within bureaucracy is satirised by Gogol; wealth is worn
like a cloak, superficial layers venerated – a concept that Dobai explores in her accompanying
images that breathe new life and new meaning into the story. Within them, reflections and layers
create surreal 2D worlds; behind the still life settings of shop windows are aged posters or crisp
advertorials, glimmers of the living world reflected in the glass in front of them. Their journey,
from faded grandeur to clean, modern abstraction, act as mise-en-scènes for poor Akaky
Akakiyevich’s tale. Fragments of the story are mirrored by her work: a headless dummy wears a regal
uniform in gold thread trim, words in the pages that surround him finding new resonance with his
presence – “a prominent personage”, “grand and imposing, but rather exaggerated”.

Quiet and abstracted, the images do not look to contrive the meaning of the book, but create
further meanings, wrapping narrative within narrative. The re-edition itself wrapped in a new
layer: a cover, an overcoat, the packaging of a recent purchase.

Though taken in London and Paris, the photographs themselves feel placeless; the familiar landscape
of commerce universally understood, yet altogether unfamiliar. Within Dobai’s work, there is
something detached, almost alienating; an intentional aesthetic which serves to highlight social
issues – in the instance of The Overcoat, our preoccupation with consumerism.

Select images from the book were recently on show at FILET, an experimental art space in London.
Entitled ‘Principles & Deceptions’, the presented works once again take on new meaning within new
context. Located near Old Street and London’s financial heart, FILET, a disused shop space, was
chosen for its suggestive narrative, and in turn Dobai selected works informed by the space: “The
photographs with the suited figure and the empty jewellery vitrine, which allude to theft and the
absent object, were chosen with the financial industry in mind”

Both exhibition and book are “the outcome of an ongoing enquiry into consumer culture, ownership
and theft” remarked Dobai. The work itself a development of her prior project, Studio/Location
(2009-2011), which explores uneasy tensions between the subtle suggestions of high fashion glamour
with neglected, urban spaces, and the scenes of posed social
isolation within them.

This existing narrative is paralleled in ‘The Overcoat’, which Dobai describes as “a story of a
life fleetingly transformed by material aspiration”. Within the re-edition, she sought to visually
recreate Akaky Akakievich‘s disillusioned world of desire, drawing parallels between “the
aspiration that drives the narrative and the contemporary setting of consumption, display and
advertising”

Shot using a large-format camera, the life-like resolution of the images transcend the 2D realm to
become windows, mirrors, vitrines – enlarged and excessive fractures of consumerism that are both
recognisable and surreal. Advertisements are instantly known – or is that man merely reflected in
the glass? Empty displays remain full of suggestion – glass shapes await jewels to display, their
dazzling reflections a reflection of the object they wait for, diamonds perhaps. “I thought of the
producers and arrangers of these displays as picture makers, who consciously or unconsciously draw
on a reservoir of images taken from the history of painting, fashion photography and throwaway
popular culture”, remarks Dobai, “My decision to use an analogue large format camera was made in
part by wanting to draw parallel between the subject and the medium.
Through their play of surface and depth, and allowing mixes of lighting and reflection, the
photographs made for ‘The Overcoat’ take on a reflexive quality, the glassed in rectangle referring
back to the medium of photography itself.”

Below, we share Dobai’s selected excerpts from the book with introductions, alongside our edit of
her imagery. Both chosen for the different narratives they possess, in both placement and pairing,
a new narrative is formed from the separately curated text and imagery.

Introduction to the protagonist, Akaky Akakievich, a clerical copyist in a government office.

When and how he entered the department, and who appointed him, no one could remember. However
much the directors and chiefs of all kinds were changed, he was always to be seen in the same place,
the same attitude, the same occupation—always the letter-copying clerk—so that it was afterwards
affirmed that he had been born in uniform with a bald head. No respect was shown him in the
department. The porter not only did not rise from his seat when he passed, but never even glanced
at him, any more than if a fly had flown through the reception-room. His superiors treated him in
coolly despotic fashion. Some insignificant assistant to the head clerk would thrust a paper under
his nose without so much as saying,‘Copy,’ or, ‘Here’s an interesting little case,’ or anything
else agreeable, as is customary amongst well-bred officials. And he took it, looking only at the
paper, and not observing who handed it to him, or whether he had the right to do so; simply took
it, and set about copying it.

The young officials laughed at and made fun of him, so far as their official wit permitted; told in
his presence various stories concocted about him, and about his landlady, an old woman of seventy;
declared that she beat him; asked when the wedding was to be; and strewed bits of paper over his
head, calling them snow. But Akaky Akakievich answered not a word, any more than if there had been
no one there besides himself. It even had no effect upon his work.

Amid all these annoyances he never made a single mistake in a letter. But if the joking became
wholly unbearable, as when they jogged his head, and prevented his attending to his work, he would
exclaim: ‘Leave me alone!
Why do you insult me?’

Akaky Akakievich realizes he needs a new coat

There exists in St. Petersburg a powerful foe of all who receive a salary of four hundred roubles a
year, or thereabouts. This foe is no other than the Northern cold, although it is said to be very
healthy. At nine o’clock in the morning, at the very hour when the streets are filled with men bound for
the various official departments, it begins to bestow such powerful and piercing nips on all noses
impartially, that the poor officials really do not know what to do with them. At an hour, when the
foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with the cold, and tears start to their eyes,
the poor titular councillors are sometimes quite unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing as
quickly as possible, in their thin little overcoats, five or six streets, and then warming their
feet in the porter’s room, and so thawing all their talents and qualifications for official service,
which had become frozen on the way.

For months Akaky Akakievich saves up for the new overcoat, which is being made for him by his old 
tailor Petrovich.

To tell the truth, it was a little hard for him at first to accustom himself to these deprivations.
But he got used to them at length, after a fashion, and all went smoothly. He even got used to
being hungry in the evening, but he made up for it by treating himself, so to say, in spirit, by
bearing ever in mind the idea of his future overcoat.

From that time forth, his existence seemed to become, in some; way, fuller, as if he were married,
or as if some other man lived in him, as if, in fact, he were not alone, and some pleasant friend
had consented to travel along life’s path with him, the friend being no other than the overcoat,
with thick wadding and a strong lining incapable of wearing out. He became more lively, and even
his character grew firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal.
From his face and gait, doubt and indecision, all hesitating and wavering disappeared of
themselves. Fire gleamed in his eyes, and occasionally the boldest and most daring ideas flitted
through his mind. Why not, for instance, have marten fur on the collar?

At last, the coat arrives

It was—it is difficult to say precisely on what day, but probably the most glorious one in Akaky
Akakievich‘s life, when Petrovich at length brought home the overcoat. He brought it in the
morning, before the hour when it was necessary to start for the department. Never did an overcoat
arrive so exactly in the nick of time, for the severe cold had set in, and it seemed to threaten to
increase. Petrovich brought the overcoat himself as befits a good tailor. On his countenance was a
serious expression, such as Akaky Akakievich had never beheld there. He seemed fully sensible that
he had done no small deed, and crossed a gulf separating tailors who put in linings, and execute
repairs, from those who make new things. He took the overcoat out of the large handkerchief in
which he had brought it. The handkerchief was fresh from the laundress, and he put it in his pocket
for use. Taking out the overcoat, he gazed proudly at it, held it up with both hands, and flung it
skilfully over the shoulders of Akaky Akakievich. Then he pulled it and fitted it down behind with his
hand, and he draped it around Akaky Akakievich without buttoning it. Akaky Akakievich, like an
experienced man, wished to try the sleeves. Petrovich helped him on with them, and it turned out
that the sleeves were satisfactory also. In short, the overcoat appeared to be perfect, and most
seasonable……..

Meantime Akaky Akakievich went on in holiday mood. He was conscious every second of the time that
he had a new overcoat on his shoulders, and several times he laughed with internal satisfaction. In
fact, there were two advantages, one was its warmth, the other its beauty. ………..It is impossible to
say precisely how it was that every one in the department knew at once that Akaky Akakievich had a
new overcoat, and that the ‘cape’ no longer existed. All rushed at the same moment into the
ante-room to inspect it.They congratulated him, and said pleasant things to him, so that he began
at first to smile, and then to grow embarrassed. When all surrounded him, and said that the new
overcoat must be ‘christened,’ and that he must at least give them all a party, Akaky Akakievich lost
his head completely, and did not know where he stood, what to answer, or how to get out of it.

Returning home after the party

Afar, a tiny spark glimmered from some watchman’s-box, which seemed to stand on the edge of the
world. Akaky Akakievich‘s cheerfulness diminished at this point in a marked degree. He entered the
square, not without an involuntary sensation of fear, as though his heart warned him of some evil.
He glanced back, and on both sides it was like a sea about him. ‘No, it is better not to look,’ he
thought, and went on, closing his eyes. When he opened them, to see whether he was near the end of
the square, he suddenly beheld, standing just before his very nose, some bearded individuals of
precisely what sort, he could not make out. All grew dark before his eyes, and his heart throbbed.

‘Of course, the overcoat is mine!’ said one of them in a loud voice, seizing hold of his collar.
Akaky Akakievich was about to shout ‘Help!’ when the second man thrust a fist, about the size of an
official’s head, at his very mouth, muttering, ‘Just you dare to scream!’

Akaky Akakievich felt them strip off his overcoat, and give him a kick. He fell
headlong upon the snow, and felt no more.