Lisa Barnard’s book, “The Canary and the Hammer” (MACK, 2019) is at once captivating and extraordinarily complex. After the financial crisis of 2008, Barnard became interested in how gold is valued in society. More specifically, she was interested in “our reverence for gold and its role in humanity’s ruthless pursuit of progress.”

A statement about the book by its publisher further illuminates her quest:

“Prompted by the financial crisis of 2008 and its stark reminder of the global west’s determination to accumulate wealth, Barnard sets out to question gold’s continued status as economic barometer amidst new intangible forms of technological high — finance. By addressing this through photography, Barnard in turn raises the question of how her chosen medium can respond to such abstract events and concepts. The result is an ambitious project, one sketching a personal journey in which she ultimately tackles the complexity of material representation in these fragmented and troubling times.”

Looking through the book can be jarring. It feels disjointed and fragmentary. That is intentional. In a review in the British Journal of Photography, Diane Smyth notes that Barnard’s book is an “assemblage of interlocking layers, presented in chapters that refer to the history of gold in key periods and places through a wide variety of images and documents.” Smyth also notes that wasn’t a mistake, because Barnard, “didn’t want to give the story a neat, phony narrative.” Indeed, as Barnard told Smyth: “That was very important to me. We live in a very fragmented world, and that’s how I photograph.”

The book has seven sections, each giving detailed information about the history of gold. For example, the first section, “Sweat of the Sun,” opens with the mythical tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece, which Barnard notes is one of the earliest accounts of the acquisition of gold. It then segues into a discussion of gold mining in present-day Peru, “now the sixth largest producer of gold in the world.”

The book is interspersed with meditations on and reminders of the role gold has played and plays in our daily lives. For all of its complexity and sometimes disjointedness, the book is one of the most interesting I have seen this year.

Barnard pursued the question about gold for over four years and across four continents. The book launches Thursday at Printed Matter in New York. You can buy the book and find out more at the publisher’s website, here. There is also a multimedia website for the project here.

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