Exhibition Review: Letters in the Dark ––Doug Hall

Done for my Photo Current Practice Class. 2016 September to December.



            Benrubi Gallery in New York City is currently featuring the work of Doug Hall in the exhibition, Letters in the Dark: Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská. The exhibition will run between September 15th 2016 to October 29th 2016. The exhibition consists of two video projections and a range of photographs based on letters exchanged between Kafka and Jesenská.



            In the gallery, one video associated with Kafka projects on the east wall and the other associated with Jesenská will be on the west wall. Viewers can sit in three gossip chairs between two projections. The gossip chair allows couples to sit and face opposite sides. The couple can still see and talk to each other. One video has a male voice reading Kafka’s letter. The other video has a female voice reading Jesenská’s fabricated letter.

            In another gallery space, photographs show symmetrical gates, a hallway, cemeteries, books and buildings. The location is in Prague, where Kafka lived. Some buildings are framed by angel statues, locked with gates, and decorated with panels of clear glass windows. One photo of a hallway is monochrome, drenched in white florescent light. Another photo shows an elaborate staircase leading to Kafka’s bedroom, surrounded by a mottled wall with minty turquoise paint on white, and windows with overexposed brightness.

            Two other monochromatic photos are of two cemeteries: one is Jewish and the other is Christian, both submerged in a deep forest, revealing Jesenská’s and Kafka’s identities through faith. In these photos, the architecture and places have no people occupying them: they are stark in atmosphere and archival in function. The artist takes some photos of Kafka’s book, The Castle. Notably, he doesn’t merely present the book as it is. He manipulates the book by obscuring some passages to emphasize particular sentences, dipping pages in water and drying the page to let yellowish wrinkles form symmetric shapes, and arranging the letter K on blank pages.



            In the videos, voices ruminate on the contradictory functions of the window and door: one as a portal to possibility and the other as an opening to mundane reality. In the photographs, Kafka’s surrounding is also perforated with doors and windows. The fictitious lives of Kafka and Jesenská are lived in anguish, as they are trapped by closed doors and windows, though with the hope that the window could be open and there will be something more than their dull environment: a desire to reach beyond the restraint of physical existence.

            “Central to the video installation is Hall’s recreation of Jesenská’s letters, which he fashioned from fragments of her other writing” (Benrubi Gallery, “Letters in the Dark: Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská”). Hall fabricates Jesenská’s letter to respond to Kafka’s yearning for emancipation. Hall takes a complex look into their mutual loneliness by arranging Kafka’s Jesenská inspired book, The Castle, with images of Jesenská, himself, the letter M, a jackdaw bird and a door flanked by two oval windows. The passage of The Castle taunts this sense of existential terror by lamenting the impossibility of two persons from different worlds coming together. The photos of cemeteries are quiet but challenging: the artist chooses to depict death to reveal their religious roots, and their fundamental conflict, unresolved even in the death.



            Doug Hall acts as both an anthropologist, digging up the history of this love affair, and a writer who fabricates images and fictions in order to capture the ethereal truth. This project uses videos to complete the narrative arc of Kafka and Jesenská. Photography becomes less a way to lead the story and more a method to archive the landmarks of emotional turbulence and substitute details for the viewers’ imagination. The lone architecture and space these photos capture become symbols of the lovers’ struggle against banality and their uncompromised differences.



Benrubi Gallery. Letters in the Dark: Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská. http://benrubigallery.com/exhibition/463/letters-dark-franz-kafka-and-milena-jesensk%C3%A1. Accessed 21 September 2016.

Hall, Doug. “Letters in the Dark: Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská.” Doug Hall Studio. http://www.doughallstudio.com/letters-in-the-dark/2016/2/28/letters-in-the-dark-excerpt. Accessed 21 September 2016.



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