By Leslie Fields.
Losing one’s balance, falling backwards, without rope or hand to help–it is the stuff of nightmares. The dichotomous moment of fear and flight–and also the knowledge that we, as human beings, cannot, will not, ever learn to fly. In Kerry Skarbakka‘s shockingly beautiful, eerie and slightly morbid series, “The Struggle to Right Oneself,” the artist explores the mental delicacy and physical uselessness of the body (to stop, to go forward or back) when one falls or leaps through air.
Influenced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Skarbakka builds on the theory that a person is in a constant state of falling and that it is up to he or she to restore the balance–to right oneself. As the Heidegger says himself, “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life–and only then will I be free to become myself. ” In the case of “The Struggle to Right Oneself,” Skarbakka has done just that. In these photos, he has forced himself into a position of helplessness, of falling-ness; his control over the situation is that he has put himself there. It’s no wonder that Heidegger also inspired other existential thinkers, like philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre (“No Exit”) and Science-Fiction writer Philip K. Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” The Adjustment Bureau,” “Total Recall”).
By constructing a series of rigs and harnesses, Skarbakka (as the subject) places himself in a variety of harrowing situations: falling head first down the stairs (Stairs); jumping through a fire (Engulfed); or slipping in the shower (Shower).
One of the things that makes these images so resonant is that they are all too familiar. In Green Tree, a man falls from a high branch bringing to my mind John Knowles “A Separate Peace.” Or the faceless men in their business suits (Trestle, Office, Onlookers) that bring to mind the jumpers during the attacks on the World Trade Centers on September 11th. Indeed, there is a reason for this. In struggling with his grief about his mother’s death (of cancer) and the tragic events during 9-11, he felt he needed explore an artistic path that would allow him to deal with his pain.
In a way, the series does not exude feelings of tragedy or helplessness, nor does it give way to happiness or absolute relief. Yet, it gives a sense of humanity–in all of our heartrending, heart breaking and equalizing frailty. It is a thrilling notion, the gift of the choice of weightlessness, the profundity of letting go and the acknowledgment of the consequences.