Lieux-dits (Spoken-of Places), text by Michel Poivert for the exhibition Pavillons et totems (Pavilions and totems), Contretype, Brussels, Belgium, 2019
The crudest of beliefs manifest themselves in the imaginary aspects of places we visit and remember for their atmosphere. Places of apparitions, chasms, paths: blanched monuments heavy with ancient stones or bricks. Why do they nourish so many fantasies? And why do some of the most modern buildings have the same votive charge? Because they have no known meaning. And this absence of meaning inspires our imaginations and invites worship. Pavillons et Totems expresses all of this in images and voices - the works of art make you hear the vernacular groans of places that inspire beliefs.
We often recognise places in images because images allow their voices to be heard. And when we are unsure of ourselves, images can inspire us to think about the future of our country. That is the strength of description: the suggestive power of words. They grab hold of us and challenge our eyes by expressing more, showing more detail and endlessly telling us new things.
What rites are associated with these buildings? What used to go on in them? Why do places that appear abandoned give us a feeling of the present? Are we, in ourselves, of another time? When things no longer have any meaning or function at first glance, they can resemble a ruin or a work of art because it is only in such “affectations” that we can accept that we cannot understand them, so we substitute a desire to believe in them.
The day will come when, in turn, the house will become the totem of a vanished civilisation.
Since the 1980s, most contemporary photography has gained a fearsome reputation as distant, conceptual and authoritarian. It is seen as combining the iconography of various “no-man’s lands” with impressions of anti-naturalism, in a style based on a deliberate break with “humanist” photography. However, there is a way to reverse this trend and to show the palpable force of “distanced” photography: by letting it speak. This readmission of feeling in an objective style of photographic practice can use diverse voices to express living things without having recourse to naturalism or the illusion of truth. Maxime Brygo is a practitioner of this amplified photography which allows him to examine less-picturesque places with “documentary lyricism” (Walker Evans).
Although devoid of people, Brygo’s photographs nevertheless always feature them out of shot. First, he questions the residents of the places he photographs, then he uses their answers to assemble a collection of impressions and memories that inspire his images and, through them, the places depicted. Thus, our everyday impressions of these places are transformed by the psychological weight of the witnesses’ evidence. These places and their visual treatment are a sort of endotic aesthetic — the opposite of an exotic one — whose inexhaustible poetry was revealed in the writings of Georges Perec, where “infraordinariness” is revealed as an adventurous journey to a place we thought was reserved for the humanities, in particular ethnography.
Returning to the role of the voice, the images in Pavillons et Totems are assembled works, somewhere between photographs and vocal recordings. They have a sort of “voice-over” quality, influenced by documentary film-making.
Before the invention of direct sound recording in cinematography, voice-over was used instead (as it was impossible to synchronise the filmed images with simultaneously recorded sound) and the authority of spoken words gave order to the images. Once the technology evolved to allow sound to be recorded on film at the same time as images, voice-over lost its value. But it reappeared, freed from its didactic use (as “his master’s voice”) and found a poetic and critical use in the “New Wave” films. This merely serves to remind us that, today, a voice-over commentary is a hybrid of a document and a poem, an objective and a subjective instru-ment: in a nutshell the objective of photography since it began.
In Pavillons et Totems the subjects speak in a psychological way — like in a Rorschach test, where they are asked to describe what they see in an ink blot. And this soundtrack informs us completely subjectively. Never before has the term “captions” been better exemplified than here: the voice comments on and captions the image in the same way as the place, the site, the “corner”, the building… finds itself caught up in a captioned story: the captions of legends.
Photography hears voices. That’s why it is haunted by cinema, or even more by radio which, like photography, makes the absent manifest.
We should remember that the basis on which Chris Marker constructs two-dimensional poetry is brought to life by voices; not quite film-making, nor mere photography, but rather a sort of novel-cum-photograph, which is perhaps impure but nonetheless old-fashioned — it was invented by Brecht in the photo-epigrams in his War Primer (a scrapbook of clipped newspaper photographs of the Second World War, with pieces of card pasted over their bottom edges on which he wrote four-line poems containing cynical, scornful comments on the disasters of war). He gives a voice to photos, like an Ancient Greek chorus commenting on the action on stage.
The documentary requirements of imagination are fulfilled: the mystery is revealed, allowing us to see and hear the transcendental nature of places and to objectivise what it means to be “haunted”.
Translation by Christopher Bourne