Photography and film combine the features of the biological and the technological eye, and perhaps thanks to that they are able to merge two models of knowledge–the optical, which is deemed passive, with the participatory one.
It could be asserted that for Wojciech Zamecznik, photography and film were ways of being in the world and the tools for changing it. Therefore, that which supports the hegemony of seeing–photography, perceived as the “witness” or “trace”–becomes a tool for its deconstruction or gradual modification.
Karolina Ziębińska-Lewandowska, The Power of Seeing
Do not go outside, return into yourself; it is in the interiority of the person where the truth dwells.
Human beings are destined for contemplation.
Revelations is the title of a humble and beautifully executed project and exhibition at the National Museum of History and Art (NMHA) in Luxembourg. In 2013 the museum commissioned Éric Chenal to take pictures during the renovation of the museum’s new wing. Chenal’s photographs depict entrances, windows, walls half covered with paint and markings, and other ordinary objects and parts of the buildings. The colors are muted with occasional bursts of light blue and green, vivid red and orange. Chenal describes his first encounter with the site as challenging. It didn’t have a lot of appeal and he admitted in a conversation we had that he was unable to stay long. He didn’t feel welcome. He would only photograph the buildings when nobody was around and it was quiet, because this was the only way he could enter into dialog with the empty space. But as it turned out, the project became a spiritual experience that not only started, but was also shared, and had its continuation within that space.
Chenal divides his time between Lorrain and Luxembourg. His career as a photographer started some twelve years ago and his main focus is commercial photography. In 2009 he began one of his first personal projects called Out of Breath followed by Esprit du Lieu (Nature of Space), and White Inside, which many think was inspired by Brian O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube. He photographs spaces in moments of transition: old churches being restored, contemporary art centers between exhibitions, houses in renovation. The key elements that thread through his work are the presence of light and a sense of being in the moment. He doesn’t stage anything; he uses natural light, and stays open, unassuming, and respectful. His aim is to let the place reveal itself. It is an organic and intuitive process. While working on Revelations he wasn’t interested in the museum’s past or future, he aimed to capture the here and now. The immediate relationship with the place, the dialog he maintained with the site revealed sublime aspects of the project. The camera became Chenal’s tool in uncovering something beyond measurement or calculation, something that can be perceived within oneself.
In this photographic and spiritual search Chenal has found inspiration and guidance in Jean-Louis Chrétien’s latest philosophical work, L’Espace Intérieur (The Interior Space), a book which combines elements of practical philosophy and Christian theology. Chrétien analyzes texts of Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Origen, Dante, Baudelaire, and Freud among others. Chenal was particularly interested in the idea of representing what Saint Augustine calls the interiority of a person, in other words, the human soul as a space, cell, temple, castle, or room, where it can stand face-to-face with God.
To discuss the concept of Chenal’s project I met with him at the Casino Luxembourg – Forum d’art contemporain. It’s 10:30 in the morning, the museum is still closed but I can get in to meet Éric. He wears a grey linen suit and welcomes me with a warm smile. There’s something modest and direct about him. The museum is between exhibitions so it’s noisy and full of people. Chenal seems to know everybody; he greets and shakes hands with the museum’s staff. We retreat to the Casino’s kitchen and sit by a small table. We talk about his commercial work and personal projects. Then I show him a selection of images from Revelations that resonate with me. It turns out they are also significant to Éric. “Tell me something about the entrance blocked by a big piece of play wood?” (Figure 1), I ask. “It’s a veil, the light is behind, you see, you’re in contact with it. You see how to get out”, replies Éric. When we look at the image of a pillar covered with a piece of semi transparent plastic (Figure 2) the first thing that comes to my mind is an offering pillar. When Éric sees this photograph he talks about generosity and sharing. Next we look at the image of a vivid red stain on a wall surrounded by patches of white paint (Figure 3). There is a moment of silence before we say anything. “It’s about how to accept the given moment”, observes Éric.
The exhibition space is intimate and transmits a sense of ascetic emptiness (Figures 4, 5). The design of the installation is simple and conveys the meditative nature of the project. The first room is an homage to Jean Louis Chrétien’s The Interior Space. The six wooden pillars scattered around the room have six quotes printed on top. The quotes come from Heraclitus, Pascal, St Augustine, St Ignatius de Loyola, Hugh of Saint Victor, and St Teresa of Ávila. These quotes, as well as a short text on the wall and the leaflet with a map, frame the exhibition. The pieces of text are meant to be a guide when you are exploring the rooms; they also introduce a contemplative mood and can help the viewer to understand the artwork. The exhibition’s layout is circular; you begin and end in the first room.
Can silence and simplicity give a profound experience of beauty? Can a state of being in the moment equate to being happy? To appreciate silence you need to disconnect from the usual rhythm of life. The message has to play itself rather than be played. Behind the words and images in Revelations there’s something that cannot be seen until it reveals itself. You just have to stay open and give yourself time. The exhibition doesn’t impose on you; it has the quality of a discovery. In an interview after the exhibition White Inside Éric said something that is also relevant to Revelations, “Photography taught me that everything is a gift. It is all offered to us. I’m just here to look at the light, to try not to search for it…”
We’re culture that is always looking for that other message, always looking for that new arrangement.
Cloude Levi Strauss The Strange Mind
The last couple of weeks I spent on reading about brands and branding, about material culture and self-transformation. I have also visited NEVER FOR MONEY ALWAYS FOR LOVE exhibition and had a chance to listen to Bruce Duckworth’s lecture on packaging design. The lecture inspired me to go back to a series of interviews from Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman and Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken. I also went to London to see CONSUMPTION at the V&A. And, the whole thing in this post is an interesting mix of different aspects of our material culture.
Design has successfully established itself-so much so that it has become an and in itself, something more than just a tool to boost sales; rather, it creates “meaning” and becomes the actual purpose of buying. … Good designers must be part-sociologist or “social seismographers”: they must be in close contact with the needs, desires and fantasies of society. … but design can make important contributions to help change people’s mentalities. Design is linked to daily life, its gestures and objects-and this is precisely the terrain on which profound social changes operate. If, in the past, design has helped to circulate the consumerist lifestyle, it can now in turn prepare the minds to accept a less predatory relationship to our natural and social resources-a relationship where the physical appearance of objects is not continually offered up to value and money. At the same time it can contribute to a more playful relationship to life in which not everything must necessarily be seen under the angle of power, wealth or self-affirmation, and where ‘gift’, ‘sharing’, and ‘free’ are not empty words.
Design, the ultimate stage of capitalism? by Anselm Jappe, philosopher and essayist
I think of brands as bundles of meaning and branding as a process of meaning manufacture and management. Branders find meaning in our culture and invest this meaning in brands.
CONSUMPTION, the fifth cycle of the Prix Pictet (the global award in photography and sustainability) at the V&A, London
We are all consumers. We have invented new forms of building, industrial production, farming and energy; we have emptied the seas and ravaged the land in our relentless drive to satisfy our unquenchable desires. We have at times sustained our appetites through the exploitation of the world’s poorest people. The consequences of our voracity are everywhere for us to see. We override the eternal cycle of the seasons to be sure to satisfy our daily cravings. Even our basic needs are now commoditised; we crave things we didn’t know we needed and which quickly become obsolete.
My favourite selection of photographs was scanned objects by a Chinese artist Hong Hao. For twelve years he’s been scanning objects he consumed. Hong Hao created a visual diary of things, a unique and personal inventory that attempts to question the culture of consumerism.
I like the fact that the world is a very strange place, but I also like the fact that even the most boring places can be quite interesting. So, part of my job is to see extraordinary in a very ordinary.
One popular American guidebook, The Laws of Etiquette; or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, informed readers that they ‘may wipe their lips on the tablecloth, but not blow their noses with it’. Another solemnly reminded readers that it was not polite in refined circles to smell a piece of meat while it was on one’s fork. It also explained: ‘The ordinary custom among well-bred persons is as follows: soup is taken with a spoon.’
If you just take a door of your house and you open the door but you don’t exit, you open the door, but you don’t enter. You just keep opening and closing the door for fifteen, twenty minutes. If you go to three hours the door is not the door anymore, the door transcends into something completely different. When you’re doing something long durational … you come to the state of boredom … if you’re really in the present the time doesn’t exist.
What Marian Bantjes, Ed Emberley, Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor have in common? They are passionate about what they do, they always move forward and they are true to themselves. Recently I’ve been exploring a collection of documentaries on lynda.com. The quotes below come from three documentaries I’ve watched a couple of days ago, and these were: Marian Bantjes, Graphic Artist;Ed Emberley, Children’s Book Illustrator and Jerry Uelsmann & Maggie Taylor: This is not photography.
You do what you’re told, and you do what you’re told over and over again, and eventually you learn. You learn what is the right way and the wrong way to do things. I mean, that’s one of the things I like about typography is that there is a right way and a wrong way. There are variations within that. There are personal tastes and various things, but you can really–you can screw it up.
Everything I do, I do for love.
So my goal at that time really was to just keep putting stuff out there, keep making things, keep exploring these ideas I was having, honing my skills, and just kind of stay busy during this time I wasn’t actually getting any commission work.
The dominant aesthetic, well, what we learned or we thought was the dominant aesthetic–it probably still is–is the decisive moment. That was coined by Cartier-Bresson. I tried to imply that those same decisive moments can occur in the context of the dark room, that the dark room was essentially a visual research lab. If you just do the mental gear shifting required to think that way, because I’ve had decisive moments when suddenly, whoa, that tree will blend to that building. Now, that’s a decisive moment.
Edgar Western said he defined art as the outer expression of inner growth. … I can’t define art any better today, but my work has changed. Art is not something to be learned apart from books and rules. It is a living thing that depends on full participation. As we grow in life, so we grow in art, each of us in his unique way.
Burri makes a pointed statement, the “artist” in him, with his interest in the play of forms and colors, loves confusion, puzzle and mystery. In his pictures we repeatedly find views through, inside or outside that are in someway unsettling. Windows and mirrors play an important role, they double the world: labyrinths for the eyes. The theme of the “picture in the picture” occurs regularly, the world as a stage, everyday life as a stage.
From the exhibition’s brochure
The exhibition gives a chance to know the stories behind some of the photographs. Here is one of them:
New York City, USA, 1998
I was at the top of the Magnum building on Spring Street and this was the building next door. I happened to look out and see those guys: she came out first, took off her clothes, and he started shooting. I became an unwitting, accidental paparazzo.
From Burri’s new publication Impossible Reminiscences
Here you can watch a video where René Burri talks about his colour photography.
More of Burri’s stories, told by himself, you can listen to here.
After the exhibition I spent some time thinking about windows, mirrors, a concept of a “picture in picture”. And I remembered The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes. I’ve chosen some quotes that, in some way, illustrate Burri’s photography.
In tombs surrounding the religious sites of these native peoples (the Olmecs and the Totonacs), mirrors have been found, buried, ostensibly, to guide the dead through the underworld. Concave, opaque, polished, they contain the spark of light in the midst of darkness…
…On this shore are the slate-black pyrite mirrors found at the pyramid of El Tajín, an astonishing site whose name means “lightning”… El Tajín is a mirror of time.
On the other shore, Cervantes’ Knight of the Mirrors does the battle with Don Quixote, attempting to cure him of his madness. The old hidalgo has a mirror in his mind, reflecting everything that he has ever read, which, poor fool, he considers to be the truth.
Nearby, in the Prado Museum of Madrid hangs a painting by Velázquez in which he pictures himself painting what he is actually painting, as if he had created a mirror. But in the very depth of his canvas, yet another mirror reflects the true witnesses of the work of art: you and I.
And this is what E.H Gombrich said about Las Meninas in The Story of Art:
What exactly does it all signify? We may never know, but I should like to fancy that Velázquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera.
Another painter I couldn’t resist thinking about was Johannes Vermeer. In the chapter The Mirror of Nature (The Story of Art) Gombrich writes:
Like a photographer who deliberately softens the strong contrasts of the picture without blurring the forms, Vermeer mellowed the outlines and yet retains the effect of solidity and firmness. It is a strange and unique combination of mellowness and precision which makes his best paintings so unforgettable. They make us see the quiet beauty of a simple scene with fresh eyes and give us an idea of what the light flooding through the window and heightening the colour of a piece of cloth.