New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 32 October 10 to 16, 2012

Death Notes
Fazal Sheikh
Ether by Fazal Sheikh. Source:
Fazal Sheikh, "Ether"

Varanasi, the holy city of India, is where the dead are brought by the living and where the living come to die. There bodies on fire float down the river Ganges to be taken by the gods. And it is in Varanasi Fazal Sheikh has made an extraordinary poem about sleep and death now on view at Pace/MacGill.

Primarily executed in browns, reds, and golds, his small, exquisite prints stand in telling contrast to the large, vacuous color work on display in so many galleries. Reminiscent of the sequences of Minor White, who modeled much of his work on poetic and musical forms, Sheikh’s series, Ether, is hung in groups of 2, 3, and 4 images, each comprising a short stanza in the overall poem.

While not every sequence works, the images of clouds and star-scapes being the weakest links, they serve to underscore the idea, albeit rather obviously, of cosmic return. On the other hand, those of ashes and embers, burning bones and glowing knots of fire, are beautifully rendered, poignant testaments to the fiery eradication of flesh.

Pilgrims from all over India come to Varanasi, many of them dying. They sleep, curled up in the clay dust of the city, their bronzed and burnished faces peaceful in the soft morning light. Even the dogs succumb utterly.

 by Fazal Sheikh. Source:
Fazal Sheikh

Yet, unlike Tim Hetherinton’s sleeping soldiers, so safe in their berths, so unsafe in their lives, Fazal’s street sleepers are covered in their shrouds, completely vulnerable. Sadhus and dogs, men young and old, lie out in the open, and have but to roll sideways before oncoming traffic to be hurt. Under such circumstances sleeping is an act of faith. Like sex, sleep is a ‘little death’; for that reason these images of sleepers, cocooned in their shawls, their mortal journeys almost over, are the most moving in the show.

At the other end of the life cycle is birth. Primarily illustrated by two black and white pictures of infants, both of which seem like the productions of a high-end baby photographer, this aspect of the work holds far less interest for Mr. Sheikh. To my mind the entire endeavor would have been more successful had he forthrightly concentrated on what does fascinate him: sleep and death.

By reaching for a broader statement than his material allows, he hovers dangerously close to pretentiousness. Since what he has done is quite wonderful, a little intellectual modesty would not have diminished his achievement. I, for one, cannot recollect anything quite like it in photography.

Fazal Sheikh

32 E 57th St. 9th Fl
Midtown         Map

212 759 7999

Friday, September 7 to
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Hours: Tue-Fri, 9:30 to 5:30; Sat 10 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat