26−November 23, 2019
[En anglais] “I think photography is about celebrating an instant,” the French-Swiss photographer Hélène Binet has said of her decades long practice in which she has produced some of the most iconic and enigmatic images of famous buildings by famous architects. We are familiar with this idea, of course, Cartier-Bresson’s “the decisive moment” and all, but I think Binet means it in a different, more expanded and aptly architectural sense. I don’t think she means that in photography the instant is frozen, preserving some of the real or lived moment, but that the instant lengthens, elongates, prolongs: as if to look and to photograph, to look at a photograph, is to extend time as a kind of spatial experience in and of itself. Binet’s work catches details, frames and reframes lines, geometries, apertures, and voids, to generate new visions, flickering and ephemeral, within sometimes familiar spaces, so that the photographs are worlds within themselves.
Time After Time at the Large Glass brings together an idiosyncratic and beguiling series of Binet’s photographs—both black and white (her more typical mode) and colour, always analogue—from the late 1980s to present day. Olivier Richon, in an elegant text that accompanies the exhibition, reminds us that “camera” is Latin for “room”; and indeed, each of Binet’s works invites us into a distinct environment that is delineated in light and dark—fields that seem to reverse, refract, reflect, twist and turn inside out. In the gallery’s front space, the eye skitters and adjusts, in and out of focus, grasping at forms, across three fragmented views of Hadrian’s Villa in Rome. Binet zooms in on and tightly frames details of the famous ruin, abstracting its cornices, arches, and oculi so that they become dark and highly textured shapes against the sky above, whose lit up negative space, gauzy with clouds, optically shifts between back- and foreground. I say the details become and the sky shifts, rather than that they seem to, because there is something wonderfully transformative about Binet’s photographs, which cause the spaces they capture to ricochet and turn in on themselves, to multiply curves and angles, illumination and shadow, in an Escher-like mise-en-abîme.
Does one need to have experienced the architect’s work in person to perceive the depth and complexity of Binet’s work, to apprehend the sense that she has at once absorbed and abstracted the properties of the site in question? Walking further into the gallery, I was arrested by four familiar views; though framed in entirely unexpected ways. They are from Le Corbusier’s Couvent Sainte Marie de la Tourette, built with the avant-garde Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, which was completed in 1961. Five years ago, I spent a week at la Tourette, and its strange, mesmeric spaces with their slivers of undulating windows, surprising views into green hills beyond, and vast expanses of rough concrete have stayed with me ever since. At the time, I considered the building unphotographable—too vast, too magnificent—but I was wrong: Binet’s images capture the precise experience of moving through the building, views flashing this way and that, different at each turn, and each window with a different geometric offering. The coarse concrete surface of the chapel’s exterior, with light wells just poking their cylindrical heads above its flat roof; the sharp pyramid of the oratory as seen from the other side of the quadrangle; the rough ribs of Xenakis’s windows flattened into tightly compressed ridges: like the most interesting and challenging works within their métier, these photographs sit precisely at the intersection of record and autonomous object.
Binet has worked with “starchitects” like Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, David Chipperfield, and Peter Zumthor, among others, but her recent work takes as its subject the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, in the Jiangsu province of China. While the gardens themselves are lush and extensively landscaped, Binet pauses on modest corners and walls, against which stand bare trees and lone branches. The pale backdrops are streaked with time, moss, accumulated grime, which through Binet’s lens resembles painted canvas—the elegant smudge of a Gerhard Richter or the wilting smear of a Cy Twombly. It is not possible to stage or to pose architecture, literally written in stone, for photographs; but in Binet’s work there is a sense of the theatrical or the orchestrated: she moves the lines and angles to where she wants them, waits for the main players—shadow and light—to emerge and fall into place, ready for their close-ups. These photographs are tiny contemplative architectures in 2D that telescope out of themselves and into the mind of the viewer to reconstruct on his or her own terms.