In cities these days, it is hard not to stumble on a nostalgic rural aesthetic – trendy bars, high-end shops, expensive restaurants, and cool ad agencies are built of reclaimed wood and corrugated iron; there are city farms and urban gardens, not to mention the lumberjack boots, overalls, and beards of the hipster uniform from London to Los Angeles. Is this yearning for some distilled bucolic life an attempted reconnection to nature, a sign of how far we have come from our primal roots, or something else entirely?
Spanish photographer Juan Aballe’s haunting series Country Fictions begins with the words “Iberian Peninsula, these times…” against a white page, as though in homage to the once-upon-a-time beginnings of fairytales. The light text, almost lost in the surrounding whiteness of the page, sets an ethereal tone, and his photographs steeped in fog, drenched in bleaching sunlight, and drawing on fairy-tale symbology – a white horse, empty beds, a gypsy caravan – blur the line between a fantasy of rural life and its often harsh reality.
Aballe says the series is about wanting to believe in a better, simpler life. He wanted to explore the ambiguous space between his own preconceived ideas about rural utopias and the sense of detachment that he actually felt in those places as opposed to any attempt at objective documentation of a certain lifestyle. He photographed friends and acquaintances who had been living in deserted Spanish villages for varying lengths of time, and found that life gets harder the further one gets from civilization.
He captures this tension beautifully, unsettlingly. The photographs are nearly quaint, almost cozy, just about idyllic or romantic, but there is always an underlying shadow or lurking struggle that is hard to name. He shoots naturally beautiful landscapes with almost enough distance to imagine a certain utopian perfection, but there is always something jagged or hollow or lonely about them, something decaying or desolate or abandoned. Not quite post-apocalyptic, they capture a gradual decline – a collapsed water tank, rusty cars, crumbling walls, fences leaning off to the side. His subjects seem tired, hardened, intense, a little stunned. The few photographs that are void of anything human-made feel alien and almost threatening, perhaps because they remind us of something wild and primal in ourselves. What happens to our true nature, the series seems to ask, when over a few generations we are divorced from a relationship with nature that evolved over millennia?
The series ends with more words on another whitewashed page: we live our own transition / our fragile utopia / trying to understand / what we are doing here / and who we are. It is an epilogue to the fairy-tale perhaps, an epitaph for a lost way of life, as well as a window into the imagination of a generation seeking roots in a concrete world.