Free-Fall or Flight?

Mise-en-scene master Kerry Skarbakka, enacts our dizzying fear and unease post-9/11

Porch © 2002
Porch Photography by Kerry Skarbakka

Talk about metaphysical vertigo. Hurling himself through glass windows, plummeting down stairs, and toppling off roofs and ladders in The Struggle to Right Oneself and Life Goes On, its unclear whether performance-photographer Kerry Skarbakka is acting out a secret death wish, a daring escape, or is just unlucky as hell.

Due to the ambiguity of Skarbakka’s carefully crafted narratives (with a little help from climbing gear and rigging), we are left wondering about the uncertain conclusion to his perpetual free-fall. On closer observation, one realizes that the uncertainty of his daily surroundings, his spontaneous posture of fear and disorientation, is our own; that disaster and/or death can strike us all, unexpectedly, at any moment.

Skarbakka’s images act as ominous reminders that we are all vulnerable to losing our footing and grasp in life, and often in the seemingly “normal” contexts of an office, kitchen, or suburban backyard. Moreover, they convey the modern human condition as a precarious balancing act, a struggle between our primal instinct to survive, and our desire to transcend our humanness — even if it means throwing ourselves into the abyss of the unknown. 

What is the story behind The Struggle to Right Oneself  and Life Goes On?

The Struggle began as “backyard psychotherapy”, a way to synthesize personal anxieties in a time of increasing uncertainty: namely, the death of my mother, and the immediately post-9/11 world in which I lived. Life Goes On was a way to share my work and involve the public. Shot at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, against the backdrop of a farmer’s market, it was designed to place the audience in the middle of a “crisis” and record their reaction. So although many of the individual emotions from the overarching series The Struggle were inherent, this message relied more upon the audience participation. More importantly, the viewer of the final image becomes an additional participant, witnessing and reacting to an uncontrollable event, as it unfolds.

What was the audience reaction like?

The event itself ended up being maligned by the media, affecting the original intention. Because of the 9/11 attack, I dedicated the work as a response to the role mainstream media played, and the methods it employed to affect control on the public. When it really comes down to it, I’m not interested in directing what the viewer is supposed to feel or even understand about the work. These images capture a moment in time, offering a long look at what we wouldn’t normally be able to see. You could say I’m speaking of the moments between life and death, but more accurately, I’m referring to the action experienced after the point of no-return. I believe the thoughts that take place in those quick moments are some of the most profound.

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting those two series?

Logistics can be challenging. Money is never easy: Life Goes On was ultimately the most expensive one-day event of my career. The bumps and bruises aren’t the most fun. But I’d say, the most challenging aspect of my work is trying to be both in front of the camera and behind it simultaneously. I have a vision and there is only so much I can direct before I have to leave the rest up to chance.

What are you working on now?

I moved to the desert of Northern Arizona a couple of years ago to take a position teaching at a small liberal arts school. I’ve been looking at how this environment places further stress on its inhabitants, due to the additional pressures of debilitating heat and depleting water resources. It’s a continuation of my on-going theme of the external and internal difficulties of just being human.

Thanks to Capricious Magazine, buy issue #14 here

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