The premises of her work thus laid down, the photographer became interested in places with atypical landscape elements, such as islands and caves. In history as in legends, these places are imbued with a certain dramaturgy, or at least are propitious to reconstructions or particular mises en scenes. These secluded and isolated landscapes have always attracted human beings, either because of an interest in the discovery of unknown and mysterious lands, or because of the feelings of shelter and protection that they provoke. Noémie Goudal says nothing other when, invoking these places that also interest her, she describes them as “heterotopias, created between a geographic reality and a part of human imagination.” The counterpart of these natural spaces, relatively difficult to access, consists of disused and deserted industrial places, where we find this atmosphere of sites nearing the end of their lives. She is not content with photographing them as though it were necessary to protect their memory, but re-appropriates them like ‘décor’. Inside them, she installs her photographs of similar places, enlarged to the size of the site she is filling, to interfere with the latter and to create a new imaginary world.
Hence, there is once again the question of the superposing of shots and the fragmentations of spaces to create new perceptions, by playing with the perspectives of the host site (caves, disused factories, ships lying high and dry, deserted barns) and the traces left by its history. Sites initially without a perspective find themselves extended and transformed into another natural or industrial ‘décor’, thanks to this superposing of images. There is nevertheless no confusion possible between the envelope and its contents, because the ‘imported’ images are themselves composed of fragments (here we are again) of the same image decomposed and printed on paper sheets suspended in the new space, squatting it in a way.
These spaces that have come out of nowhere are not accessible to the public, the perspective and harmony of the mise en scène can only be glimpsed from a unique and intangible point of view, the one that the photographer reserves for herself. The places taken over by Noémie Goudal transform into a medium for her visual installations, which, paradoxically, reveal the existence of the former by overshadowing them. She is not content with merely upsetting the perspectives of her images, she also disturbs the spaces that she takes over, whose perception she modifies so as to develop a new territory.
Demand, for example, builds life-size models of interiors that we are often familiar with due to their depiction in mass-media imagery. Though intricately constructed, his decision to work with everyday, throwaway materials such as cardboard and paper emphasizes that they are not intended to be reconstructions but representations, thus articulating the associative processes at work as we interpret the image. Taking a similar approach, Goudal creates a deliberate lack of reconciliation between the photograph and the environment it is inserted into, not only symbolically but also in their differing material qualities. Folded and creased, the tape affixing the backdrops still evident, the sense of labour and low-fi production ascribes it an object-value that holds particular appeal. In the age of the digitally-circulated image, it seems there is a certain currency to a tangible photograph that can claim authenticity from its existence in real time. By then taking the decision to photograph this construct, Goudal engineers an all-over quality and very contemporary mode of objectivity that asks us to step-back and examine exactly what is at work in our reading of the image. Functioning like the easel-legs in Rene Magritte’s trompe-l’oeil The Human Condition, the tensions between time and space act as signposts in the simulacra, allowing us to map out the process of viewing by signaling where one illusion ends, and another begins.
These cues, the schisms between truth and fiction, are akin to gaps in a story or inconsistencies in a film in that it is not only their presence but how we negotiate them that bear significance. Enacting Demand’s belief that the image is always only showing what’s necessary for a thought, and not the thought itself, Goudal’s dialectical propositions function through an awakening of memory and association, addressing the internal processes at work in what we accept as real, what we assign as make-believe, and what we are willing to leave blurry in the interest of a good story. (7) As visual cues slowly and deliberately unravel the allegory that she has so carefully constructed, we are simultaneously transported by the image and hyper-conscious of the act and effects of looking. Suggesting a journey akin to that of the crowds who populate Thomas Struth’s Museum series, at once transported and curiously detached, our flow of entry into a different sphere of space and time is interrupted, resulting in a viewing experience that oscillates between the poles of theatricality and absorption. (8)
Weaving throughout is Goudal’s interest in storytelling, engaging with the viewers’ desire to escape and concomitant will to suspend belief. Aligned with contemporary photographers Florian Maier-Aichen and Michael Reisch, who have experimented with digitally amalgamating existing landscapes in order to depict stunning (and convincingly natural) vistas, Goudal seeks to demonstrate that when we are absorbed into another place, whether visually or through the verbal act of telling a story, its actual existence at that moment is secondary: more important is its ability to transport us elsewhere. From the aforementioned sets to elaborately constructed rafts, nest-like sculptures, and collaged photographs of islands that are reminiscent of early landscape photography, these secluded, isolated spaces suggest nurture, shelter, and nourishment. They are places that we want to be transported to, and thus images that we want to spend time in.
For this reason, though the scenes are captured without people they are not without human presence. Quite the contrary, they are spaces that are couched in a sense of exploration and discovery and therefore spaces that we occupy entirely, for « we have a strange and hungry tendency to fill up empty spaces with ourselves, even if those spaces are our own yesterdays. » (9) Presented with a landscape that is other to what is known, our memories – a patchwork of remembered fictions – invoke a psychological separation that distances us from our everyday, allowing hopes, dreams and imagination to come to the fore. Such is our tendency, it would seem, to « make islands into metaphors of romantic individualism » (10) in the Deleuzian sense of breaking away, beginning anew, and all that this represents. (11) And yet Haven Her Body Was is an acknowledgement that for all the ideological possibilities that these spaces connote, if the debate about utopia is disappearing (a suggestion that Thomas Struth has engaged with in his Paradise series) then perhaps escape can only truly be achieved in moments where reality provides an opportunity for psychological and emotional separation from the space-time continuum: sites that Michel Foucault has termed heterotopias. Suspended in our minds between imagination and reality, the areas of Goudal’s focus, such as the curious, sublime « iceberg », or the disorienting interior of a ship (a site Foucault calls « the heterotopia par excellence », for « in civilizations without boats, dreams dry up »), are anchored in truth but sufficiently distinct from the ebb and flow of daily life to enact a mental « freeing up ». (12) Building a stage on which our imaginations can play out, a narrative in which we are protagonists, Goudal’s images brings us, as viewers, back to ourselves. Memory and truth appear before us like flotsam, and reality is brought into sharp resolve.
7 Susan Bright, Art Photography Now, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), p.120
8 Michael Fried introduced these concepts, arguing that whenever one is conscious of the act of viewing, absorption is sacrificed, and theatricality results. See Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
9 Tom Morton, ‘Out of the Cave’, Frieze, Issue 134, October 2010, <http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/out-of-the-cave/>, [accessed June 2012]
10 Jill Franks, Islands and the Modernists; The Allure of the Isolation in Art, (North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2006),
11 See Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953 – 1974, (Paris: Semiotext(e), 2002), pp.9-14
12 Michel Foucault, ‘Other Spaces’, in Richard Noble, Utopias, (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009), pp.60-68 (p.68)
In his essay Desert Islands, Gilles Deleuze opens by distinguishing between continental and oceanic islands. Continental islands are pieces of land separated from a mainland, he explains, « born of disarticulation, erosion, fracture ». Oceanic islands, on the other hand, emerge from the sea, some formed from coral reefs, others from underwater eruptions. « These two kinds of island, continental and originary, reveal a profound opposition between ocean and land » he continues.
« Continental islands serve as a reminder that the sea is on top of the earth, taking advantage of the slightest sagging in the highest structures; oceanic islands, that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to punch through to the surface. We can assume that these elements are in constant strife, displaying a repulsion for one another. In this we find nothing to reassure us. »
This text is one of the inspirations for Noemie Goudal’s latest series, Haven Her Body Was, and its duality echoes through her work. Through eight images depicting islands, caves and nests, she plays with light and shade, the natural and the artificial, the constructed and the found, sometimes within one shot and sometimes within the series. Even the idea of the « haven » is unstable – as Goudal points out, islands, caves and nests can be places of safety, but they can also represent stifling isolation.
« Deleuze’ text is brilliant and probably the basis of this project » she says. « When you have something sticking out of the water, it’s an island, but what we see and acknowledge is something floating, the part we can see. »
« Everybody comes with their own experience, so one person can look and say, ‘Oh that looks like it’s in that exotic country, like a structure on the lake’, and another, ‘That’s a bunker, definitely’. It’s interesting to see people start to think about the possibilities of what could be made.
« The series is the first Goudal has produced since graduating from the RCA in 2010. Upon leaving college she travelled extensively, but continued to work; after a year she felt she’d done enough research and took stock. The result is a project shot all over the world, in which the places where she worked are irrelevant. « What I’m trying to do is not be systematic she says. « I like each series to be almost like a film – you put things together so that you have loads of different perspectives, then hopefully, when you look at them all, you are immersed into different spaces. »
You did a BA in graphic design at Central Saint Martins in London and then a MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art. How did the evolution from graphic design to art photography come about?
I started to get interested in Photography when I was in high school. At St Martins I was using the colour and black-and-white darkroom all day long and when I graduated with a Graphic Design BA I only had pictures in my portfolio. I think that was the moment when I decided to go fully into photography; it appeared to be quite an obvious decision at the time.
Your works consist of sculptures or installations. We are confronted with, for example, industrial settings, which have been transformed into fictitious landscapes using paper backdrops, or sets where you have constructed alternative realities using another medium, such as plastic sheets to represent waterfalls. To what degree are those fabrications, as you call them, central to your photographic practice?
The constructions are in some ways the essence of my practice, as they exist before the photograph does. The backdrop, for example, represents fiction for me. I photograph a place, very often industrial, in decay, raw and I inject the large-scale backdrops into them, as if they were a story being told. The viewer knows it’s fiction; he can see the paper, he can see it’s a construction. But still gets into it. It’s telling a narrative. The other constructions, such as Cascade are interventions into landscapes. There is often a connection and juxtaposition between the man-made and the organic. I’m usually trying to find the right balance between what I can bring to a space to alter it and what might already be there. The process takes a lot of time and it’s very difficult to find the right equilibrium.
You call your work heterotopias, a term coinced by Michel Foucault in the ’60s, referring to spaces of otherness where mental and physical implications have a chance to merge. How did your interest in heterotopias come about, and how did you come up with the concept of portraying that fascination?
I always work at the intersection of fiction and reality; the represented and the prevaricated in photography and heterotopias are spaces that embody this idea. They don’t belong to a particular geography but lie in between the real world and the map of the human imagination. We know the places in the images exist somewhere as they are photographed, but nothing is given away about their locations. In my new series Haven Her Body Was, I explore remote and secluded spaces and constructed the series as three chapters; caves, nests and islands. The three types of space represent, each in its own way, the idea of isolation, shelter and remoteness.
Both of the projects you submitted, Les Amants and Haven Her Body Was refer to people, and yet no one is present in your images. Is the human presence in the title merely part of our imagined construct of what could be or might have been?
With the size of the images and the lack of any human presence, I’m hoping to invite the viewer inside the image to become the protagonist of the scene. The titles are a personification of the objects that I show, whether they are organic or constructed. I think of them as being alive when I photograph them as they tell me a story. Les Amants had several meanings; it was the relationship between the man-made and the organic, both fighting and espousing at the same time. However, the Cascade can also show the bed sheets of human lovers into the wild, the Promenade is an escape road for them to disappear. Haven Her Body Was refers to mother Earth and the cave as being the womb, the safe place, the birth place.
Can you talk to me about the three still lifes in that series? The tissue-like floating image, the pumpkin-like round thing and the thing on stilts. What are they, and how do they fit into the series for you?
I’m interested in using a variety of techniques to amplify the dialogue between the works. The still lifes are often very simple interventions. The coral/moonlike shape was a study on cavities that I made while I was gathering ideas and informations about caves and hollow formations. I sometimes integrate, within the same series, a picture that has not been constructed, such as Well. I like to confront this kind of image next to the constructed ones as it creates a vital dialogue between the invention and the what is called reality. With this blend, I’m hoping to provide the series with more dynamism and a more lively dialogue.
In Les Amants, I’m intrigued by the chair with the fishnet-like hairscape trawling from its loins, and the picture of the eggs escaping from their boxes. Can you tell me about the images?
Filet is a fishing net I found on the beach. It reminded me of an old and disintegrated wedding dress. I liked the opposition between the plastic of the net and the organic wood of the chair. However it almost looks as if the plastic of the net is eating the wood, growing around it. Kermebel was the first image of the series. I wanted to create an image in wich organic shapes exhibited human behaviour, as if nature was taking over. When I started the series Les Amants, I had a narrative in mind ; Men loved the Earth so much that they devoured it; they consumed it completely. Then they left because nothing remained for them. After their disappearance, nature grew and constructed new lands.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on my nest solo show wich will be held at the gallery Edel Assanti in London in September and then travel to the Project B gallery in Milan in November. It will show the series Haven Her Body Was, and include some installations. I am currently working on building stereoscopes. The lenses and the display of the stereoscope allow me to isolate the gaze of the viewer, wich is the main problematic of the show.
There are two of them, and each, in a different way interrogates perception, the question of seeing, the ambiguities of what we see and the disturbing dialogue between truth and falseness. In her last series of photos, Noémie Goudal invented impossible but imposing landscapes : in abandoned places with a certain fallen beauty, factories, warehouses and other industrial sites transformed by time and nature, she placed sublime, large format landscape photos.
Her current work is even more fraught with perceptual illusions. For Iceberg, Goudal made a fake block of ice out of polystyrene and then set it floating on the water. Another, even more confounding photo, Blockhaus, appears fake but really is a bunker, looking unreal half underwater. Our power of perception fail us ; in this world of tricks and false appearences we find ourselves dizzy in the face of the ontological loss of the fundamental difference between the true and the false.
In her black-and-white Observatoires from the series The Geometrical Determination of the Sunrise (2013), Goudal simultaneously explores her curiosity about ritual structures designed to frame the solstice and her fascinationwith concrete, the defining material for both modernist and fascist architecture, especially between the two world wars, producing a fictional inventory of modern architecture, a typology of forms.
The process involved here is relatively complex. She photographs an architectural element – for example, a fragment of the staircase at the Fondation Ricard – then reworks the image on a computer and prints it out and mounts it on a solid structure such as wood block cutto match the shape of the building. Finally, she takes this image/form and sets it into a real landscape. Here too, as in the preceding series, the fabrication is visible, signaling to the attentive eye that this cannot be « real » concrete nor a « real » building.
Plunged into white water, with no relief nor waves, these real but fake structures can be read as a kind of stele, like tombs from a twentieth century clogged with catastrophes ans massacres […].
Given the shape-shifting flexibility images have acquired in the digital age, photographic content should have gained prominence over photographic form. Indeed, as photographs migrate with ever-greater ease from the camera to the screen, to the internet, to print, mass-media outlets, their physical properties fluctuate. So much so that many artists on how a photograph is made than why.
For these artists, photography is defined more as a medium in the most fundamental and intangible sense of the word – as a means by which something is communicated or expressed – rather than as a singular object or substance in its own right.
But a number of young artists in recent years have been countering this definition. As the artist and writer Chris Wiley noted in his essay « Depth of Focus » (published in frieze in late 2011), they are choosing to foreground the formerly « repressed » aspects of the medium – the physical support upon which the image is registered, myriad chemical and technical processes, as well as the numerous choices that were made by the photographer in capturing the image. These artists were born in the late 1970s and early ’80s and were the last to be educated primarily in darkrooms and photographic studios, spellbound early on by the alchemical magic and intimate physical connection to the photographs that these environments provided. They were also the first to mature alongside a rapidly evolving and increasingly ethereal digital medium, which has rendered – along with nearly all the analogue machines, methods, and material associated with it – practically obsolete.
A remarkable shift has occurred in the years since the publication of Wiley’s text. Many of the artists he cited – including Michele Abeles, Walead Beshty, Lucas Blalock and Mariah Roberston – have become increasingly visible and fluent in this new-found language. […] A growing number of artists working with photography are successfully countering both the deconstructionist tendencies of 20th-century postmodernism and the increasing ubiquity of digital imagery. Loosely gathered under the banner of « constructed photography », their work makes the scaffolding of the photographic medium explicit and intricate. In so doing, it is re-establishing and, as the term implies, rebuilding photography as both a technical endeavour and a physical medium.
Rather than addressing particular histories, Asger Carlen’s « Hestrer » (2011-12) and Noémie Goudal’s « Observatoires »(Observatories, 2013-14) take on the familiar photographic tropes of the female nude and architectural typology, respectively. Both artists apply contemporary techniques to well-worn territories in a bid to reinvigorate them.
Goudal also invents realistic yet fictional photographic constructions through the amalgamation of existing ones – in the case, by digitally aggregating fragments of existing ones – in her case, by digitally aggregating fragments from images of concrete architecture found throughout Europe. She then reworks them into large-scale photographic backdrops that she rephotographs within barren landscapes or seascapes. The series reflects the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, yet catalogues a group of imagined rather than real post-industrial architectural monuments, which nevertheless convey a sense of rigour, purposefulness and stature. […]