Chris Mottalini’s Land of Smiles is broken into three sections. In the first, fluorescent tube lights in the night sky are set against natural and urban landscapes. Against the dark purples and blues of the sky the tube lights shine like ink not laid down on paper or heat streaks restless and burning the cold sky, tearing through from somewhere else in the cosmos. The photographs are interesting, appealing, they make sense—the contrast (even if stark) of light and dark. The images set the tone as ambiguous and slightly foreboding. About as close to exact that any of the photographs get is one of a large billboard depicting, one can assume, a woman of importance. Wearing a yellow and red dress, she is flanked by vertically oriented fluorescent tube lights and is surrounded by what faintly appear to be flags. Whereas she is lit, the flags are not and the trace of their appearance is only made possible by light cast from the lights focused on her. Perhaps it is an image of former Prime Minister of Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra or perhaps a movie actress. In context it doesn’t matter. Although a striking photograph, it stands out as the most precise—almost too specific even if unrecognizable to someone like myself who doesn’t have much knowledge of Thailand. While in the rest of the photographs, these fluorescent tubes cut through blue and purple skies, black shadows of foliage, and the occasional trace of power lines suggesting this is what happened when… but with only a hint of what exactly that might have been.
In the second section, photographs of street alleys and narrow spaces between buildings are laid out as double truck images. In one image a man’s back is to the camera. In another, the edge of a truck extends into the scene but with seeming hesitation. These scenes are shot in daylight. They feel gritty in large part, due to the soft focus of the photographs—like they’ve been blown up to the point of loosing detail. The gutter bisects each photograph and disrupts any synthesis of visual information. Every scene is disrupted, information lost. I remember learning in documentary film class, one or two jump cuts look like a mistake. But three or more and the filmmaker is asking you to pay attention. There are forty-one double truck images, more out of focus than not, in this section of Land of Smiles. If the first section has us looking at slight details in dim light, the second section is full of light but what one might expect to see revealed, is left to be only forms converging into the center of the frame. What the light from the fluorescent tube lights might have pushed through the darkness, in the daylight all previously hidden and saturated forms are sucked into the folds of the page.
In the last section, the viewer has barely anything to hold onto. Dimly lit photographs of leaves, foliage, and flowers barely register the presence of light. Street lights do not jut from the sky, alleyways and narrow streets do not sink into the books spine. Information is withheld and barely there. Almost all visible light is gone—a summation of the way by which Thailand, as it were photographed by Mottalini from 2013 to 2015, is if anything a secret—an experience of information withheld.
The title itself reads a little more straightforward and like a travel channel cable show. Paired with the images however it plays as much contrast as Mottalini’s nightscape photographs. The text which accompanies the images also does its part to mislead. With more metaphor than the title, the passage (which is printed in both English and Thai) reads like a religious account of creation, “we were filled with greed when we ate that nutritive essence,” but ends in reductionism—our worldly bodies are to blame, our minds are pure. “It is thus desirable that the body be willed to disappear and the mind remain.” The title Land of Smiles is either sinister or pointing to some sort of other world hope. By Mottalini’s visual evidence, this is what happened when, but only in saturated metaphor.
Despite the photographs presenting so little information, cumulatively Land of Smiles feels so deliberate. If the images withhold, if the text and title mislead, it feels like the intent of Mottalini to do so. Even the texture of the paper and the uncut pages carry great but open meaning—paired with images that read like one sees with pupils dilated—they all coalesce in Land of Smiles. Not often is so little so satisfying. The difficulty is the reveal and the pleasure is not fully knowing.