Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sophie Ristelhueber at the Jeu de Paume

As so often happens, I went to see one exhibition and ended up at another this afternoon. With full intentions of going to the Robert Frank, I wandered into the Sophie Ristelhueber and was pleasantly surprised. Her photographs are usually, somewhat cautiously, referred to as very subtle war allegories. They are, in so far as they represent the traces of war, sometimes in places where the landscape of war is shockingly reconceived. If we look at her photographs as war allegories, some of the most compelling and disturbing examples depict the consequences of wars waged on the human face and body. In this exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, a man’s face (Everu One no. 8, 1994) and the entire length of a woman’s spine (Every One no. 14, 1994) bear not only the scars of the violent trauma that beset them, but their wounds are roughly stitched with thick black thread, a stitching that multiplies the brutality and aggression that marks these bodies. I found these battlefields to be way more compelling than those of the wastelands of bombed out buildings in Lebanon (Beyrouth series, 1984) or deserted checkpoints in the West Bank (WB series, 2005).

What captivated me most though were a series of diptychs on memory, the domestic sphere, and the private, secret, traumas of childhood and the family home: Vulaines, 1989. Each diptych consists of two images, one of an old black and white family photograph of children in their innocent games, and the other, a color print of the artist’s family home today. Both are blown up and juxtaposed. One of the three paired images exhibited here depicts a little girl having her hair washed by presumably her father in the back yard. It's an image of complete safety and love, trust and in it we see a special relationship. This is juxtaposed with a shot of an empty house, under the stairs, through a yellowish-brownish filter as if to echo the nostalgia and loss of that same childhood. The emptiness of the silent spaces, in hues that echo the deterioration of the image as it might be in the mind of the woman who was once the little girl having her hair washed, makes them haunting, awaiting the distortion of memories, both pleasurable and frightening. Similarly, the stasis and silence of the empty hallway open up a space into which we project our own memories of childhood as they might be secreted in the walls and floorboards, under the stairs of our own childhood homes.

There's also a photograph of four young children lined up peering through a wrought iron gate. The image evokes notions of children always looking at the forbidden, the out of bounds, and yet simultaneously, the spying and children’s seeming ability to see everything no matter how much their parents try to stop them. This double edge, the contradiction of childhood is only fully realized through the image which sits next to it: from a child's point of view, in a low angle, we see two immaculately made beds. They are separated, and what comes to mind as we see them is all of the secrets held in the space between the two beds, under the perfectly tucked covers. Children are not meant to see those secrets, to know what goes on in such spaces. And yet, together the two photographs reinforce that children see exactly what they want to see, however unique the perspective. Again, Ristelhueber’s provokes our own memories as they are linked to similar places and spaces from our past, most notably the family home as a repository for memory. It is here that the photographs become profound and even disturbing — for what they do not show, but encourage us to imagine.

While the image of the West Bank, Beirut, Iraq and so on are somewhat familiar, the enlarged diptych form of the photographs, the childhood perspective, the juxtaposition of color and black and white, and other elements such as frames painted with fabric patterns that might be found on the family sofa, make the Vulaines series innovative and fascinating. It is on the landscapes of domesticity, whether it be the body or the family home, that Ristelhueber shows her greatest potential as a photographer.

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