Kerry Skarbakka must like to live dangerously. Every image in The Struggle to Right Oneself, the breakthrough series of color photographs he made between 2001 and 2005, catches him in a precipitous fall: from treetops, volcanoes, and bridges; out of windows, beds and chairs; in bathtubs and on rugs. Both naked and clothed, he fell, or rather jumped, for the camera, everywhere he went—Hawaii, Sarajevo, Belize, Croatia, Seattle, Chicago, and New York, where he lives now.
The series is certainly dramatic. What makes it most compelling, however, is its ambiguity. In many pictures, Skarbakka, 35, appears suspended in midair, as if levitating in a trance. In others, he seems poised for a suicidal leap. Constantly teetering between ecstasy and terror, Skarbakka evokes the fear of the abyss and the joy of abandon all at once.
In 2005, after he staged 30 falls from the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, a New York tabloid accused him of disrespecting those forced to jump from the burning World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The actual purpose of the event, commissioned by the museum, was to let the public in on the artist’s process. (To make his photographs, Skarbakka harnesses himself to ropes and pulleys that keep him from hitting the ground, digitally erasing them from the resulting images so he appears to be hurtling through space.)
Citing such precedents as Yves Klein’s 1960 photomontage, Leap into the Void, Skarbakka says he began the series as a way to address the shattering effects of September 11th, but intends them to read as a metaphor for the critical decisions one has to make in life in general. “What’s it like to leave one’s foundation and let everything go?” he asks. “One of the few times anyone faces that question is in death.”
He also points out that an artist’s life can involve many leaps of faith—something he seems born to. Growing up poor in the Bible Belt of rural Tennessee, with parents who were Pentecostal Christians, Skarbakka was literally speaking in tongues by the age of seven. Tormented by a church-instilled fear of Hell, he learned only one way to settle any question: by flipping a coin and praying.
Eventually, he enlisted in the Army and was posted to Seattle, where he later earned a BA in Studio Arts at the University of Washington. At loose ends, he spent two years in Japan and traveled extensively in South America, returning home when he learned his mother was dying. The portraits Skarbakka made of her then changed his life, he says, by giving him a subject: mortality, and the nature of decay.
That, along with an increasing concern for the effects of global warming, is what drives Fluid, a new series of monumentally scaled photographs supported by Creative Capital. The project was sparked by a visit to Prague in 2002, when floodwaters wiped out part of the city. “Water became a force to reckon with,” he says. “I started thinking of what might happen [to our water supply] if we don’t take some stand.”
Assisted by a team of divers, Fluid will record Skarbakka plunging into the deep, dressed in a constricting business suit and without an air supply—doing such things as swimming with sharks, or awaiting a bus in a Brooklyn that rising tides have sunk beneath the East River.
By pushing his physical limits, Skarbakka joins such artists as Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, and Matthew Barney, who’ve put their own bodies on the line in the service of a larger point. Ironically, he learned of his Creative Capital grant for Fluid shortly after the 2004 tsunami hit the Indian Ocean. Then in August 2005 came the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. As Skarbakka now says of his interest in water, “It seems an appropriate subject.”
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