The Overcoat – Sarah Dobai

  • Text  Anna Sanders
  • Photography   Sarah Dobai

Images: Sarah Dobai
Text: Anna Sanders

Nothing is new. There is nothing we can pluck from imagined obscurity that has not been made or felt or seen before. True originality is in the processing of the known, the amalgamation of the existing into something renewed – re-invented; re-reclaimed; reiterated. Re-: a prefix of Latin origin, to mean again and again. To repeat. We are repeating ideas, again and again, and within this repeated narrative, are the subtle inflexions where originality resides.

The Artist’s Familiars Series, published by Four Corners, explores re-publication as a new artistic medium, reprinting out of copyright fiction alongside bodies of work created in response to them. In this placing of images with words, secondary meanings are created, both text and imagery influencing how the other is read. This cycle of informing, of copying to create something new, is inherent to Dobai’s interest of working with and being influenced by literature.

Wrapped in layers of meaning, ‘The Overcoat‘ – both edition and re-edition, explores cyclical nuances. Nikolai Gogol uses structural linguistic repetition to weave a story around his protagonist, Akakiy Akakievitch, a lowly copyist. The overcoat, his outer layer both physically and metaphorically, replaces his old that has worn so thin as to be a patchwork of repairs. The narrative is hinged on the loss and acquiring of his new coat, and all that is lost and acquired with it: love, money, respect, a life.

The importance placed on social hierarchy within bureaucracy is satirised by Gogol; wealth is worn like a cloak, superficial layers venerated – a concept that Dobai explores in her accompanying images that breathe new life and new meaning into the story. Within them, reflections and layers create surreal 2D worlds; behind the still life settings of shop windows are aged posters or crisp advertorials, glimmers of the living world reflected in the glass in front of them. Their journey, from faded grandeur to clean, modern abstraction, act as mise-en-scènes for poor Akaky Akakiyevich’s tale.  Fragments of the story are mirrored by her work: a headless dummy wears a regal uniform in gold thread trim, words in the pages that surround him finding new resonance with his presence – “a prominent personage”, “grand and imposing, but rather exaggerated”.

Quiet and abstracted, the images do not look to contrive the meaning of the book, but create further meanings, wrapping narrative within narrative. The re-edition itself wrapped in a new layer: a cover, an overcoat, the packaging of a recent purchase.

Though taken in London and Paris, the photographs themselves feel placeless; the familiar landscape of commerce universally understood, yet altogether unfamiliar. Within Dobai’s work, there is something detached, almost alienating; an intentional aesthetic which serves to highlight social issues – in the instance of The Overcoat, our preoccupation with consumerism.

Sarah Dobai The Overcoat PYLOT_2

Select images from the book were recently on show at FILET, an experimental art space in London. Entitled ‘Principles & Deceptions’, the presented works once again take on new meaning within new context. Located near Old Street and London’s financial heart, FILET, a disused shop space, was chosen for its suggestive narrative, and in turn Dobai selected works informed by the space: “The photographs with the suited figure and the empty jewellery vitrine, which allude to theft and the absent object, were chosen with the financial industry in mind”

Both exhibition and book are “the outcome of an ongoing enquiry into consumer culture, ownership and theft” remarked Dobai. The work itself a development of her prior project, Studio/Location (2009-2011), which explores uneasy tensions between the subtle suggestions of high fashion glamour with neglected, urban spaces, and the scenes of posed social isolation within them.

This existing narrative is paralleled in ‘The Overcoat’, which Dobai describes as “a story of a life fleetingly transformed by material aspiration”. Within the re-edition, she sought to visually recreate Akaky Akakievich‘s disillusioned world of desire, drawing parallels between “the aspiration that drives the narrative and the contemporary setting of consumption, display and advertising”

Shot using a large-format camera, the life-like resolution of the images transcend the 2D realm to become windows, mirrors, vitrines – enlarged and excessive fractures of consumerism that are both recognisable and surreal. Advertisements are instantly known – or is that man merely reflected in the glass? Empty displays remain full of suggestion – glass shapes await jewels to display, their dazzling reflections a reflection of the object they wait for, diamonds perhaps. “I thought of the producers and arrangers of these displays as picture makers, who consciously or unconsciously draw on a reservoir of images taken from the history of painting, fashion photography and throwaway popular culture”, remarks Dobai, “My decision to use an analogue large format camera was made in part by wanting to draw parallel between the subject and the medium. Through their play of surface and depth, and allowing mixes of lighting and reflection, the photographs made for ‘The Overcoat’ take on a reflexive quality, the glassed in rectangle referring back to the medium of photography itself.”

Below, we share Dobai’s selected excerpts from the book with introductions, alongside our edit of her imagery. Both chosen for the different narratives they possess, in both placement and pairing, a new narrative is formed from the separately curated text and imagery.

Introduction to the protagonist, Akaky Akakievich, a clerical copyist in a government office.

When and how he entered the department, and who appointed him, no one could remember. However much the directors and chiefs of all kinds were changed, he was always to be seen in the same place, the same attitude, the same occupation—always the letter-copying clerk—so that it was afterwards affirmed that he had been born in uniform with a bald head. No respect was shown him in the department. The porter not only did not rise from his seat when he passed, but never even glanced at him, any more than if a fly had flown through the reception-room. His superiors treated him in coolly despotic fashion. Some insignificant assistant to the head clerk would thrust a paper under his nose without so much as saying,‘Copy,’ or, ‘Here’s an interesting little case,’ or anything else agreeable, as is customary amongst well-bred officials. And he took it, looking only at the paper, and not observing who handed it to him, or whether he had the right to do so; simply took it, and set about copying it.

The young officials laughed at and made fun of him, so far as their official wit permitted; told in his presence various stories concocted about him, and about his landlady, an old woman of seventy; declared that she beat him; asked when the wedding was to be; and strewed bits of paper over his head, calling them snow. But Akaky Akakievich answered not a word, any more than if there had been no one there besides himself. It even had no effect upon his work.

Amid all these annoyances he never made a single mistake in a letter. But if the joking became wholly unbearable, as when they jogged his head, and prevented his attending to his work, he would exclaim: ‘Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?’

Akaky Akakievich realizes he needs a new coat

There exists in St. Petersburg a powerful foe of all who receive a salary of four hundred roubles a year, or thereabouts. This foe is no other than the Northern cold, although it is said to be very healthy. At nine o’clock in the morning, at the very hour when the streets are filled with men bound for the various official departments, it begins to bestow such powerful and piercing nips on all noses impartially, that the poor officials really do not know what to do with them. At an hour, when the foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with the cold, and tears start to their eyes, the poor titular councillors are sometimes quite unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing as quickly as possible, in their thin little overcoats, five or six streets, and then warming their feet in the porter’s room, and so thawing all their talents and qualifications for official service, which had become frozen on the way.

For months Akaky Akakievich saves up for the new overcoat, which is being made for him by his old tailor Petrovich.

To tell the truth, it was a little hard for him at first to accustom himself to these deprivations. But he got used to them at length, after a fashion, and all went smoothly. He even got used to being hungry in the evening, but he made up for it by treating himself, so to say, in spirit, by bearing ever in mind the idea of his future overcoat.

From that time forth, his existence seemed to become, in some; way, fuller, as if he were married, or as if some other man lived in him, as if, in fact, he were not alone, and some pleasant friend had consented to travel along life’s path with him, the friend being no other than the overcoat, with thick wadding and a strong lining incapable of wearing out. He became more lively, and even his character grew firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal. From his face and gait, doubt and indecision, all hesitating and wavering disappeared of themselves. Fire gleamed in his eyes, and occasionally the boldest and most daring ideas flitted through his mind. Why not, for instance, have marten fur on the collar?

Sarah Dobai The Overcoat PYLOT_1

At last, the coat arrives

It was—it is difficult to say precisely on what day, but probably the most glorious one in Akaky Akakievich‘s life, when Petrovich at length brought home the overcoat. He brought it in the morning, before the hour when it was necessary to start for the department. Never did an overcoat arrive so exactly in the nick of time, for the severe cold had set in, and it seemed to threaten to increase. Petrovich brought the overcoat himself as befits a good tailor. On his countenance was a serious expression, such as Akaky Akakievich had never beheld there. He seemed fully sensible that he had done no small deed, and crossed a gulf separating tailors who put in linings, and execute repairs, from those who make new things. He took the overcoat out of the large handkerchief in which he had brought it. The handkerchief was fresh from the laundress, and he put it in his pocket for use. Taking out the overcoat, he gazed proudly at it, held it up with both hands, and flung it skilfully over the shoulders of Akaky Akakievich. Then he pulled it and fitted it down behind with his hand, and he draped it around Akaky Akakievich without buttoning it. Akaky Akakievich, like an experienced man, wished to try the sleeves. Petrovich helped him on with them, and it turned out that the sleeves were satisfactory also. In short, the overcoat appeared to be perfect, and most seasonable……..

Meantime Akaky Akakievich went on in holiday mood. He was conscious every second of the time that he had a new overcoat on his shoulders, and several times he laughed with internal satisfaction. In fact, there were two advantages, one was its warmth, the other its beauty. ………..It is impossible to say precisely how it was that every one in the department knew at once that Akaky Akakievich had a new overcoat, and that the ‘cape’ no longer existed. All rushed at the same moment into the ante-room to inspect it. They congratulated him, and said pleasant things to him, so that he began at first to smile, and then to grow embarrassed. When all surrounded him, and said that the new overcoat must be ‘christened,’ and that he must at least give them all a party, Akaky Akakievich lost his head completely, and did not know where he stood, what to answer, or how to get out of it.

Sarah Dobai The Overcoat PYLOT_3

Returning home after the party

Afar, a tiny spark glimmered from some watchman’s-box, which seemed to stand on the edge of the world. Akaky Akakievich‘s cheerfulness diminished at this point in a marked degree. He entered the square, not without an involuntary sensation of fear, as though his heart warned him of some evil. He glanced back, and on both sides it was like a sea about him. ‘No, it is better not to look,’ he thought, and went on, closing his eyes. When he opened them, to see whether he was near the end of the square, he suddenly beheld, standing just before his very nose, some bearded individuals of precisely what sort, he could not make out. All grew dark before his eyes, and his heart throbbed.

‘Of course, the overcoat is mine!’ said one of them in a loud voice, seizing hold of his collar. Akaky Akakievich was about to shout ‘Help!’ when the second man thrust a fist, about the size of an official’s head, at his very mouth, muttering, ‘Just you dare to scream!’

Akaky Akakievich felt them strip off his overcoat, and give him a kick. He fell headlong upon the snow, and felt no more.

Photography © Sarah Dobai

The Overcoat was republished by Four Corners Books in April, 2015.