Review: "Kleine Fotoenzyklopädie" by Guadalupe Ruiz

En español aquí

The table of contents of Guadalupe Ruiz's Kleine Fotoenzyklopädie (Small Encyclopedia) lays out an orderly sequence of 37 clearly defined entries containing a total of 645 photographs, but by the time we reach the second entry we have already run into problems.

The first chapter, entitled "Skyscrapers," contains photographs of…skyscrapers. The second chapter, "New Buildings," contains new buildings, but some of them are also skyscrapers. The third chapter, "Buildings, Chicago" creates more problems. Some of the buildings in it contain elements of all three of the categories established so far –new skyscrapers in Chicago. Why, then, are they listed in this chapter and not in one of the previous two? Is it because the buildings in the first two chapters all appear to be from New York, not Chicago? Then why does the third category include "Chicago" as part of its categorization, but the first two do not include "New York"? The system of organization has already shown its limitations and we're still in the opening pages.


The first six chapters all contain architecture and perhaps we can still hold on to the idea that the encyclopedia we have in our hands is actually an encyclopedia, despite the problems of its categorizations. Chapter seven, however, is composed of the covers of revolutionary books and magazines. It is followed by a chapter on Albanian paintings! What the hell is going on? The book dissolves into seeming free association, with subsequent chapters of photographs of a theme park, lots of flowers, separate chapters for Christmas in New York and Christmas in Bogota, and an entire chapter devoted to portraits of someone named Sandra Milena.

The specificity of the chapters telescopes in and out from "the countryside" to the items purchased from a particular deli. Subjects range from the universal, such as dogs, to the extremely personal, as in a chapter on items from Ruiz's parent's home. By the time we have finished the book for the first time, Ruiz's encyclopedia recalls the taxonomy of animals in the Chinese encyclopedia known as the Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos mentioned in Jorge Luis Borges' "The Analyticl Language of John Wilkins." In it, the world of animals is composed of the following:
(a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Viewing the chapters individually, we sense how Ruiz has critiqued and dismantled systems of classification, showing the absurdity and futility of our attempts to fully order what is around us and inspiring in the reader fundamental ontological and epistemological doubts about such a project. We also see in the chapters of photographs reference to one of the major questions facing photography today: how archivists, historians, and artists - among others – must decide which images have merit from the sea being produced today, what to let go, and how to select and give order to what will represent us and tell our narrative to future generations.

Just as the book itself begins to feel that it can be categorized as belonging to the worlds of conceptual photography, philosophical argumentation, and the intellect, however, something surprising happens.

Once we stop looking at the chapters individually, and look at them collectively, patterns become clear and a single person's sense of taste becomes palpable. We begin to feel the presence of someone who is drawn to flowers and fruits, as well as art and architecture, and who loves the color of supermarket packaging and desserts. We see someone's first impressions of Detroit through their photographs, and we look over objects from their parent's home. The person taking shape is someone who has traveled, from Mayan ruins to Genoa, who is curious about the differences between how people decorate for Christmas in Bogota and New York.

From the failure of the project's attempt at objective organization emerges the hidden hand that has been ordering the material, a subjective presence, the photographer herself. The puzzling disorder of chapters begins to have reason, but for just one person, the photographer herself. As we understand the book as the prism of this one woman's life, however, the puzzling disorder of chapters begins to have reason for us as well in how the chapters reflect all of our attempts to thread together and order our existence. This book that at first seemed of the head is also of the spirit.

Ruiz's work reminds us that the structure of the world is the structure that we give it. Kleine Fotoenzyklopädie therefore has political and cultural implications in today's age of Big Data, Cambridge Analytica, algorithms, Google Earth, DNA databases, and NSA files. Ruiz underscores the inherent limits, defects, and subjectiveness of such projects, no matter how much they may seem to accurately reflect reality, and by doing so she calls into question their authority and power. The systems we create to explain our surroundings also reveal as much about ourselves, our preoccupations and biases, as about what we attempt to classify. By reminding us that data accumulation projects reflect and serve the seemingly endless human demand to define, order, and know, she implicates each of us as well.

In this way, Ruiz's encyclopedia brings to mind another Borges story, "On Exactitude in Science." Borges writes of cartographers so ambitious that they create a map of their empire on a one-to-one scale. Future generations see the map project for the folly it was, leaving the map to disintegrate by exposing it to the elements. While Ruiz doesn't sketch out a future vision for our contemporary quest to completely order the universe, one can see the book as a critique of our direction, one as biting and witty as Borges', and Ruiz leaves it to us to decide what happens from here.