Dossier | The World as Representations: Collecting and Collating Images | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | The World as Representations: Collecting and Collating Images

  • Mathieu Pernot, Après la Guerre, 2008. Photo: courtesy of the artist
  • documentation céline duval, 3 temps en 4 mouvements, 2009. Photo: documentation céline duval, courtesy Galerie Semiose, Paris

The World as Representations:
Collecting and Collating Images
By Vanessa Morisset

Contemporary artists’ keen interest for collecting and collating images has recently given rise to a number of exhibitions and events,(1) reflecting as it does the widely received idea that we live in a world of images. Today, the shortest road to the heart of the world is through its representations. (2) It would be an injustice to the artists’ work, however, to dwell on this generality without examining the specific leanings it encompasses. For while current “iconographic artists” (3) likely all share the same observation, their goals diverge nonetheless and follow two different orientations. Some attempt to document the world, making transitive use of images that represent samples of existence that help better understand its doings and events; this current follows the great artistic tradition of enquiring into the real. Others simply compile their inventory of snapshots, implicitly positing that that is all there is. They accumulate a great variety of images, amateur photos, postcards and posters, magazines and ads, for, in the footsteps of such artists as Warhol, who lauded the surface, they are interested in representations as such. (4)

Among the artists who accumulate images, some are akin to the photographer in Antonioni’s Blow Up, who multiplied the prints and enlargements of his snapshots to get a better view of reality. Through the images, he seeks an ultimate truth. For him, they are all evidence, gathered to shore up the interpretation of an event. Such is the case with a piece by the artist of Lebanese descent, Walid Raad, whose Untitled (1982-2007) presents a series of photos he took as a teenager after an Israeli raid of Beirut. Found in his personal archives in 2007, they were selected, assembled in pairs, then endowed with captions and a text explaining their origin. “I was 15 in 1982, and wanted to be as close as possible to the events,” he says, explaining his motivation for using the images today. The result is a moving collection, bearing direct witness to real drama, yet distinguishing itself from journalistic work by the spontaneity of the artist’s youthful gaze. Indeed, the memories of an adolescence marked by war lend the piece a measure of sadness, emphasized by some spots or scratches due to the slightly damaged negatives. Far from weakening the image content, these formal stigmata accompany the traces of Lebanese history in sustaining an inspired meditation. Rather than a chasm between 1982 and the present, time gone by brings us closer to the past. This piece follows on Raad’s previous work with collections and archives. First a solo project, begun in 1990, and then a collective effort, The Atlas Group assembles documents, photos, films, and texts on the contemporary history of Lebanon to create an archive exhibited via installations and performances. With Raad, the assembled documents are always a key to understanding a complex, misunderstood reality.

French artist Mathieu Pernot (5) also works from photos and images, whether found or of his own making. Thus, Un camp pour les bohémiens (1998-99) is a series created from anthropometric photographs found in an archival facility in southern France. They represent Gypsies, filed in the 1940s by the administrators of a concentration camp for the purposes of internment. Women, children, and the elderly are all seen in front and profile shots with their name and assigned reference number. Pernot searched for survivors of the camp and gathered testimonials and administrative documents to puzzle out the reality of an event overlooked in official history. Making himself into an historian here, he conducts a sensitive and involved investigation. More recently, Pernot has initiated several projects of historical enquiry from a collection of photographs. In 2008, he produced a series titled Après la guerre, which reveals a village in northern France that was ravaged by the First World War. The works are in fact paintings that reproduce photo negatives found in an archive at the Nicéphore Niepce museum in Chalon-sur-Saône. Emulating the quality of the negatives, the dark-grey monochromes and an otherworldly light lend these representations of the village a ghostly aspect that emphasizes its dilapidation. Photographs, with Pernot, are a means of rediscovering a lost reality.

Other image-collecting artists seem rather divided between documenting the real and collecting images considered significant in themselves. While gathering elements that inform a particular phenomenon, as professionals of iconography these artists sometimes look for aesthetic effects in images, basing their selections, categories, and arrangements on formal qualities. documentation céline duval, (6) whether considered for her publications or for the exhibitions, is often situated in this ambivalent space. When explaining her artist’s name, and the choice of “documentation” over “collection” or “archives,” Duval refers to the desire at the base of her work to document the world.(7) Much of her production, from the earliest to the most recent, testifies to social involvement and an interest for the sociology of photographic practice. One example is marabout douchynois, a work published in 2008 with the participation of the residents of Douchy-les-Mines, a town in northern France. During a residency in this small municipality, the artist invited residents to meet around their family albums: each came with his or her memories to share with the others. The selected photographs are first assembled on double pages, following thematic analogies (families in their living rooms, for instance), then sequenced in juxtapositions from one end to the other, triggering a narrative line. The outcome is a little book in the humanist tradition subtly testifying to the residents’ intimate everyday reality. Thanks to Duval, they become heroes of their own story.

More recently, the artist carried out another collaborative project with local residents, one that favours formal development over humanist inclinations. Produced in Orthez, 3 temps en 4 mouvements, consists of a series of posters on the theme of the four seasons, unordered and full-page, produced from images provided by the residents, the artist herself, and other of her “image-hunting” collaborators. (8) The result differs from the previous publication because, while the jumble of posters still assembles the images along thematic lines, the analogies are irregular. Anonymous individuals are all lying on the grass, for instance, and the number of photographs being considerable, the whole effect leaves the sphere of the intimate to become monumental. Sociological, humanist, and intuitive aspects give way to a systematically arranged catalogue. More than a meeting of photographs, it is here a question of laying flat a drawerful of perhaps overly organized pictures. Additionally, the posters of fully-enlarged photographs heighten the amateur photo aesthetic. These three tendencies—sociological, systematic, aesthetic — are also present in revue en 4 images, which Duval published between 2002 and 2009. Sometimes the revue brings together anonymous portraits, strangers we come to like (No. 21, “mathilde,” December 2005). Sometimes she assembles different photos around a particular action, for instance a child or an elderly woman painting (No. 28, “devenir pintor,” July 2006). Sometimes her groupings reveal the beauty of found snapshots (No. 59, “shadows,” June 2009). In documentation céline duval, Duval shares her authorial status with anonymous people.

Taking a similar approach to Duval’s, La trocambulante, an “artistic association” created by Valérie Police in 2006, is devoted to the collecting and archiving of images, particularly amateur photos. (9) Whether donated or bought at flea markets, they are cleaned up and presented on the association’s website, where they are grouped by genre and sub-genre. Contrary to documentation céline duval, however, trocambulante sticks to just this task, leaving it to others to produce works and publications. Police’s goal is indeed to make the collection freely available for other artists to use. (10) The collecting-archiving operation then becomes an autonomous activity, where the images function in a closed system: they are now self-referential and are treated as materials in themselves.

Many artists view images as realities in their own right, whether they are deemed invasive, overwhelming, or indicative of a certain rapport with the world. The World as Will and Representation – Archive 2007, (11) by Canadian artist Roy Arden, gives thematic treatment to the profusion of images surrounding us and interrogates the world of images on the Internet. This work is in fact composed of images found on the Web, a frantic stream of images representing people, objects, children, pin-ups, stars, toys, bikes, sculptures.... More than 28,000 images rush by in an hour and a half, on a sonic background of elevator music. One might think it a glib, conventional critique about image bombardment in the age of the Internet, but that would be to forget the title of the piece, which refers to Schopenhauer’s great work. In this book, contrary to the traditional view of images as deceptive artifice, Schopenhauer maintains that they reveal a deep reality of which they are the emanations. Representations are not the degraded copies, but incarnations of the real. Arden’s piece reactivates this interpretation by adapting it to the world today.

This value reversal in the relationship between representation and reality also lies at the heart of the work of Ludovic Burel, who collects images to fashion books, films, or installations. In 2007, he published Another Picture of Me as Dracula, (12) juxtaposing images found through a Web search on the spare yet highly significant word “me.” Unlike Arden’s unordered accumulations, which seek to delimit as broad a field of representations as possible, Burel’s book is the outcome of a very specific selection: the profusion of images on the Net is made to nourish a particular reflection: the little word “me” opens onto the question of self-portraiture today. Holiday shots, memories with friends, or portraits of costumed or inebriated subjects reveal how each seeks to boost their image (or imagines they are doing so) in others’ eyes. But the title Burel chose, inspired by one of his found photos, lets the droll vampire figure hang over the rest of the portraits; it suggests that in these contemporary representations of self, human beings are captivated by their image, which, for better or worse, substitutes for their identity.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

 

NOTES
(1) In particular, Collecter/Recycler. Usages de l’archive photographique dans la création contemporain, March 20 to May 9, 2010, Centre photographique d’Ile-de-France, Pontault-Combault; La Revanche de l’archive photographique, June 4 to July 31, Centre de la photographie, Geneva; and L’Image à la puissance image, a one-day conference organized on January 21 at University of Rennes 2 by the magazine 2.0.1.
(2) The idea was already Schopenhauer’s in The World as Will and Representation (1818) (see Gallimard: Folio, 2009, for a new French translation in four volumes). For the significance of the work, see below.
(3) Garance Chabert and Adrien Môle, “Artistes iconographes,” Art 21, No. 25 (Winter 2009-10).
(4) Also see Gilles Deleuze, Logique du sens (1969), and its leitmotif inspired by Paul Valéry: “le plus profond, c’est la peau” — or skin is as deep as it gets.
(5) www.mathieupernot.com
(6) Céline Duval never uses capitals, whether in her name or in the titles of her works. See www.doc-cd.net.
(7) “The word ‘documentation’ already appeared on the photo albums recording my Sunday strolls when I was at the Beaux-Arts. An attempt to document the world.” (Céline Duval, interview with Jérôme Dupeyrat, “Revues d’artistes” special issue of the magazine 2.0.1, published online at www.revue-2-0-1.net
(8) For example, Fabien Breuvart, founder of images&portraits, an anonymous photography store, or Valérie Police, founder of La trocambulante (see below).
(9) http://trocambulante.free.fr/
(10) Artists need only contact La trocambulante and describe their project to gain access to the high-definition digital images.
(11) www.royarden.com/pages/worldas.html.
(12) Ludovic Burel, Another Picture of Me as Dracula (Paris: It: éditions, 2007).

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