Cliff Lauson

Perspective subjects the artistic phenomenon to stable and even mathematically exact rules, but on the other hand, makes that phenomenon contingent upon human beings, indeed upon the individual: for these rules refer to the psychological and physical conditions of the visual impression, and the way they take effect is determined by the freely chosen position of a subjective ‘point of view’.

On a large wall in Noémie Goudal’s sunlit studio in Paris is a collage of photocopies and cutouts. A kind of ideas or mood board, it contains swathes of collected images of observatories from around the world loosely gathered together, from the Pantheon in Rome to Jantar Mantar, a group of five eighteenth-century equinoctial sundials scattered across India. These skywards-facing buildings are all examples of geomorphic architecture – they are buildings that evidence their relationship with nature through their construction. Observatories are perhaps some of the most extreme examples of geomorphic architecture, in a way due to their vast and cosmic subject matter: some are towers and staircases that attempt to ascend higher toward the heavens for a closer look, while others take on a dish or spherical appearance, attempting to catch the greatest amount of celestial rays. Goudal’s visual research surveys humankind’s engagement with the skies across time and space, a typological study that informs her own photographic series of towers and observatories which explore ‘the relation between the man-made and the organic’.

The Observatoires (2014) series is comprised of ten large monochromatic photographs that are architectural elevations of these buildings. Like headshot portraits, they appear uniformly sized and against backdrops without visual distractions, a comparative technique that has led writers to point out their similarity to the typological aesthetic employed by Bernd and Hiller Becher in their well-known studies of industrial buildings. Goudal’s studies, however, seem almost too even, too uniform in their composition, and this is due to the artificial nature of their creation. The Observatoires are in fact images of buildings (or building fragments) that have been staged by the artist. They are selections of found architectural imagery that have been enlarged to around the size of a person, tiled across multiple sheets of paper and pasted together onto a light wooden framework. Like set pieces or props, these are transported to the isolated coastal site where Goudal shoots them. The staged nature of her photographs, however, does not aspire to the seamless aesthetic of contemporary images that are heavily photoshopped. Instead, they are ‘straight’ shots of the stand-ups placed in the landscape. And thus printed at scale, clues indicating the artifice of the images’ construction are visible – close inspection reveals the ruffled edges of the pages, sometimes lifted slightly by the coastal wind, and sometimes slightly misaligned. The paper stand-ups do not last long once exposed to the natural elements.

 Recast from their natural surroundings into an abstract coastal environment, and sometimes mirrored in a tidal pool, the geomorphic buildings become detached from the original surroundings that once defined their form. Like follies, they appear to have been transplanted from a different time and a different place – abandoned footnotes from the history of architecture. In Goudal’s second series, Towers (2014), this effect is magnified as the buildings themselves are fictitious creations made by collaging ‘samples’ of textures, edges and details in such a way that maintains the overall look of a coherent structure. Here, the ephemerality of the paper printouts sharply contrasts the stone and concrete surfaces depicted upon them. The Towers really are follies, save for their shared ambition to reach skyward. These are beautiful and composed landscape images, but ones that also have an air of post-apocalyptic ruin in their singularity and abandon.

Both the Observatoires and Towers rely upon a fixed and centred camera position. As photographs, they have a frontality that allows the buildings to obtain a three-dimensional illusionism from a certain distance, while the aforementioned material ‘flaws’ betray their construction from up close. But if there is a critical ambiguity in Goudal’s work, it is less the age-old photographic conundrum concerning the truthfulness of the documentary image; instead, it is the overlapping relationship between perception and observation. Inasmuch as her photographic series describe a type of architecture built for looking, Goudal also invites the viewer to become immersed herself in the act of close inspection.

While living and studying in London, Goudal encountered Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in His Study (c. 1475) at the National Gallery. Besides being a contemplative rendering of biblical iconography, it is also a key example of linear perspective as discussed in art historian Erwin Panofsky’s foundational text Perspective as Symbolic Form. For Panofsky, the use of perspective creates a reciprocal relationship between the viewer and the image: ‘It is as much a consolidation and systemization of the external world, as an extension of the domain of the self.’ Exemplifying this principle, Goudal’s broader practice incorporates various visual frameworks that relate perspective to perception and observation.

The photographic series In Search of the First Line (2014) depicts a number of interventions in derelict and abandoned spaces. These areas share a columnar architecture that Goudal uses as the basis for framing large-scale backdrops that depict more complex architectural structures receding into space. Where there were once derelict voids, now appear multifaceted and sometimes ornamental doorways, windows and arches. And like her other photographic series, these backdrops are composed of tiled pieces of paper, which is evident in their irregular shading from page to page. Nevertheless, the overall effect is still very visually compelling. By using architecture to illustrate and reinforce the receding lines of perspectival space, Goudal constructs a kind of visual argument that harkens back not only to Renaissance painting such as the Urbino Città ideale (1480–90), but also to, as art historian Hubert Damisch has pointed out, Italian stage design of the same era. Various architectural details on the backdrop provide multiple orthogonals converging on the singular vanishing point, and this has an overwhelming phenomenological effect on the viewer, drawing them into illusionistic space.

If the Observatoires and Towers buildings are akin to props, the In Search of the First Line series expands upon this theatricality in the direction of larger stage sets. They transition from the illusionism of a depicted object to a trompe-l’oeil installation. And yet the works discussed so far have all been photographic images that make use of perspective in composition. Conversely, Study on Perspective (2014) is a freestanding sculptural installation that is similarly engaged with perspective, but through the third dimension. The artwork depicts an interior corridor within a Brutalist building. However, the scene is sliced up and spread across four layers rather than a continuous gradient. This construction very much mirrors the layered backdrops of a stage set scenery. But unlike a conventional theatre, in which the audience is confined to the front side of the proscenium arch, the viewer here is free to move around the artwork, inspecting it from all angles; its techniques of construction are laid bare.

Similarly involving the viewer in a more active way, Goudal’s stereoscopic images employ viewing glasses that must be peered through in order to resolve their three-dimensional images. Based upon the simple lenticular stereoscopes of the nineteenth century, the lenses focus on two different offset images which are viewed separately by each eye and combined in the brain to create the illusion of a single scene. In a way redoubling this artificiality, Goudal manipulates the depth effect of the photograph(s). Starting with a single image, she digitally cuts out and offsets certain elements of the image. Thus when viewed the manipulated elements appear flat at fixed depths against a flat background; they appear unnaturally as layers of reality, as in her previous works.

This is also the case in Goudal’s new room-sized stereoscopic installation Study on Perspective II (2016), presented for the first time at Le Bal. Based on the earliest form of this technology, the so-called Wheatstone stereoscope, the artwork involves a mirrored pyramid that splits the viewer’s vision sideways), directing it toward the two life-size images at opposite ends of the room. Again, the effect in viewing the manipulated image is that nature appears to be a kind of stand-up or set. Further, standing within a room amidst the optical effect is a kind of bodily immersion that recalls the prehistory of the camera itself, the camera obscura. The viewer is literally contained within the room that produces the image, enclosed within a particular type of the architecture built for seeing. Here, the camera – as architecture and apparatus – is the dispositif in Goudal’s practice, which is to say that it functions both as the viewing mechanism and also the visual paradigm for observation. We can trace this conceptual line in her work through a series of ‘darkened rooms’ decreasing in scale from the cosmic observatories, to the camera obscura, to the camera, to the interior of the eyeball itself. It also comes as no surprise then that some of the spherical observatories on Goudal’s studio wall have the appearance of giant eyeballs.

Resolved as this paradigm may seem, there is always a deliberate imperfection present in Goudal’s work, whether in the page edges, the tiled shading, or the layers of depth. It is in the act of looking at nature that the flaws of representing it are revealed. In terms of subject matter, the infinite space and ever-changing weather of the sky often seem to elude the rationality of the linear perspective system. This difficulty has been an issue for artists since its invention, and it is an omission that threatens to unravel the coherence of the illusion. In Goudal’s work, this imperfection is deployed with precision: a set of stereoscopic images featuring clouds have their subject matter unnaturally layered against the background sky. Furthermore, her Southern Light Stations (2015) series substitute large sections of sky with two-dimensional representations of it – their tiled surfaces as well as suspension cables both remaining visible. While the Observatoires aim vision skywards, the skies themselves problematise the point of view. Throughout the artist’s works, the various challenges in representation serve an inquisitive role in that they expose the space of perception. Goudal’s project is one that examines the scopic space, however imperfect, between the eye and the vanishing point, the lens and the CCD, between the earth and the heavens.

1 Erwin Panofsky Perspective as Symbolic Form, trans.
Christopher Wood (New York: Zone Books, 1997), p. 67.
2  Extracts from a conversation with Noémie Goudal, Loose
Associations, The Photographers’ Gallery, vol. 1, p. 22.
3 Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, p. 67.
4 Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, trans. by John
Goodman (London: MIT Press, 1987), p. 200.
5 See chapter 4 in Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/:
Toward a History of Painting, trans. by Janet Lloyd
(Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002).

Les InRockuptibles

Invitée par le commissaire Cliff Lauson, la jeune Noémie Goudal expose ses architectures sublimes au Bal.

Le spectateur est invité à s’approcher à deux centimètres d’une arête où  se rejoignent deux miroirs. Study on Perspective II est un dispositif optique qui reproduit celui du stéréoscope : deux photographies (ici des reliefs rocheux) presque identiques, situées face à face, composent une seule image en trois dimensions. Noémie Goudal, diplômée du Royal College of Art, renoue avec la tradition humaniste des artistes du Quattrocento. Leurs expérimentations ont abouti aux modes d’observation et de reproduction fondateurs de la culture occidentale. Face au miroir de Study on Perspective II, on songe à l’invention de la perspective par Alberti et Brunelleschi, ou encore à  celle du perspectograqphe de Dürer. Des systèmes perceptifs qui amènent à voir autant avec l’esprit qu’avec les yeux. Car c’est bien l’enjeu de l’oeuvre de Noémie Goudal que de confronter perception et observation.

Suivant son conseil, on commence l’exposition par le sous-sol occupé par les Observatoires et deux très grands formats, In search of the First Line. Nos rétines se mettent en branle, notre cerveau fait des connexions. On tente de distinguer le réel de la fiction et l’on reconstitue la fabrique de l’image. Ces architectures photographiées sont faites main : l’artiste assemble des fragments  d’architecture, imprime et colle le tout sur une structure qu’elle installe dans un nouvel espace, le temps de la prise de vue. On dispose d’indices : les feuilles imprimées  de devinent, ainsi le Scotch se décolle , le papier se corne. On épluche ainsi les strates de l’image.

Les Observatoires fictifs de Noémie Goudal s’inspirent des architectures géomorphiques – des constructions faites pour s’intégrer à la nature ou se rapprocher des astres. S’y glisse, nous dit-elle, l’église de Neiges en Allemagne, dont les formes imitent la roche. Les escaliers de l’Observatoire IV font le pont enter la terre et le ciel. L’artiste a étudié la voûte céleste, le ciel d’avent Galilée qu’elle représente dans la série  des Stations : la dimension magique du ciel faisait alors de lui le « miroir des dérèglements terrestres et la manifestation du sacré ».L’exposition annonce l’existence d’un cinquième corps. Les Observatoires semblent exister sur le même mode que le mont Analogue du roman de René Daumal, un mont qui ne peut être vu que sous un certain angle, une « voie unissant la terre au ciel ».


Frieze Magazine

It seems no accident that visitors to ‘Southern Light Stations’, Noémie Goudal’s first major solo show in London, have to climb all the way to the top floor of The Photographers’ Gallery. Indeed, it’s fitting that Goudal’s celestial themes should be presented as close to the heavens as possible. Upon reaching the fifth-floor gallery, viewers are greeted by images of enigmatic structures set within natural landscapes. These are displayed as a mix of photographic formats, from floor-to-ceiling wallpaper and large, framed works to tiny stereoscopic studies. This is all familiar territory for Goudal: if land, sea and sky are her work’s recurring motifs, then ‘Southern Light Stations’ hones in on these previous ventures, most of all on the sky. The exhibition is organized such that the photographs fall neatly into three categories: ‘Stations’, ‘Towers’ and ‘Cloud Plates’.

The ‘Stations’ series (2015, numbered I-V) features large, circular structures suspended above mountains or water or floating in space, while the equally ambiguous ‘Towers’ ( 2015, numbered I-III), sit on the horizon line between sea and sky, their reflections the sole clue to the presence of water. Both ‘Stations’ and ‘Towers’ recall something familiar: weather balloons or, perhaps, even planets in the case of the former, and stone monuments or landmarks in the latter.

However, as with all Goudal’s works, as soon as the seams and joins, ropes and guide wires and discovered, any notion or familiarity fades, and we are left with questions about the exact nature of these constructions and their function. Goudal makes no attempt to hide any evidence of fabrication, drawing attention to the artificial, man-made aspect of photography (lest anyone assume too much about its documentary nature). The sizes of the ‘Stations’ and ‘Towers’ prints have also been carefully considered. Given the gargantuan formats used in much recent art photography, these large-scale prints and wallpapers are not particularly unusual. Yet, the scale makes thematic sense in light of the monumentality of the objects depicted.

A large format would not, however, suit Goudal’s third category of images, the ‘Cloud Plates’ (2015, numbered I-VI), which are presented as tiny stereoscopic sets. The ‘Cloud Plates’ are exactly what you might imagine: some show blue skies, others orange, twilight or stormy grey ones, but all are scattered with clouds. Unlike with ‘Stations’ and ‘Towers’, there is no ambiguity here, no obvious construction or fabrication within the images. They are, however, housed within a brightly lit circular chamber in the middle of the gallery. Inside the structure, each set of plates has been installed with its own stereoscopic viewer so they can be seen in all their primitive 3D glory. The stereoscopic format (including its requisite viewing device) and the purpose-built chamber roughly mimic the experience of being in an observatory. It’s a little gimmicky – the least constructed images in the exhibition require the most highly constructed viewing apparatus – but effective. Indeed, heavy-handedness as opposed to sleight of hand is central to ‘Southern Light Stations’ and to Goudal’s broader oeuvre: we are supposed to notice the evidence of assemblage, construction and fabrication.

It is easy to see these photographs as staging a contrast between nature and  artifice; or to look at the clouds, celestial orbs and monumental obelisks and see our own relationship with the skies – which have helped us, since the beginning of time, to navigate paths both literal and figurative. What is perhaps most exciting about Goudal’s work, however, is her ability simultaneously to employ and sidestep photography’s clichés in order to create pieces that are objects as much as they are images. More than mirrors held up to our own world, or windows into other ones, Goudal’s photographs, like so many elements within them, are a form of construction themselves.

M – Le Magazine du Monde

La photographe française met en scène de petits mondes, des lieux sans existence, des îles solitaires…Ses fictions ont l’apparence de la réalité, mais plutôt que d’utiliser photoshop, la plasticienne préfère « bricoler ». A découvrir au BAL, à Paris, jusqu’au 8 mai.

Savez-vous que les yeux du sphinx de la pyramide de Kheops sont tournés vers le soleil levant ?”,  interroge Noémie Goudal. Voix posée, allure discrète, cette jeune artiste brune n’avoue aucun goût pour une quelconque transcendance, mais elle adore les bâtiments qui visent l’éther : toutes ces constructions qui cherchent à dépasser leur triste matérialité pour s’élever vers un au-delà impalpable et infini. Le bâtiment qu’elle préfère sur terre est une église, celle de Neviges, en Allemagne (1963) : un exemple accompli d’architecture brutaliste, monument de ciment brut toute en pointes et en pics : “Cela ressemble à une montagne à l’extérieur et à une grotte à l’intérieur.” Son livre de chevet ? Un ouvrage intitulé Cosmic Architectures in India, d’Andreas Volwahsen, qui recense d’étranges bâtiments pleins de promontoires dominant le vide, de cercles évoquant la course des planètes, d’escaliers qui mènent (peut-être) jusqu’au ciel.

Noémie Goudal est une bâtisseuse, à sa manière. Cette photographe française issue d’une famille d’artistes, qui a fait ses classes au Royal College of Art, à Londres, réussit l’exploit, à 31 ans, d’occuper  de ses œuvres la totalité des espaces du Bal, à Paris, avec son exposition “Cinquième Corps”. Elle y a construit des petits mondes en soi, avec des images où jamais on ne croise un être humain. Entrer dans ses séries de photographies, c’est visiter des îles solitaires et perdues en mer, vestiges venus d’on ne sait quelle civilisation, admirer des tours qui empilent des formes géométriques et ésotériques. Autant d’hétérotopies – concept emprunté à Michel Foucault -, de refuges où peuvent s’abriter les utopies. Mais  lesquelles ? A chaque fois, l’œil du spectateur, séduit, cherche en vain une référence, une histoire ou même une échelle auxquelles se raccrocher. Les bâtiments semblent aller de soi, mais ils n’existent pas : Noémie Goudal invente des fictions toujours assez indéterminées et assez réelles pour que s’y projettent tous les fantasmes. “On me demande toujours où c’est, et je dis : “Où veux tu que ce soit ?” ”

A l’heure où un logiciel comme Photoshop donne une forme à tous les rêves, l’artiste choisi, elle, de passer beaucoup de temps dans le monde réel, avec une petite équipe : à découper du polystyrène pour former une île aux allures de bateau échoué, à installer des échafaudages pour dresser une tour de papier sur la plage – elle en a bâti une dizaine pour sa série “Observatoires” -, à diriger une grue pour accrocher un miroir au-dessus d’un château fort. “Pour moi, la photographie ne saisit pas un moment, elle est le petit “clic-clac” qui vient tout à la fin”, explique-t-elle. D’ailleurs, jamais l’informatique, dit-elle, ne saurait donner assez de consistance à ses œuvres : l’imperfection du réel n’est pas possible à reproduire, les images trop léchées empêchent l’adhésion. Sans compter que le hasard joue sa part. Lorsqu’elle a réalisé sa récente série autour du cosmos, “Southern Light Stations”, elle a fabriqué des disques qui deviennent, une fois photographié, d’étranges sphères – morceaux de ciel ou astres inquiétants. Sur place, les fumigènes qu’elle avait prévus, indomptables et dérangés par le vent, ont soudain dessiné une étonnant halo. “Les accidents – pas tous – donnent parfois des résultats! ”

Devant ses œuvres, la seule chose dont on est certain, c’est d’avoir affaire à une image. Ou plutôt à des couches d’images superposées, qu’il s’agit de décrypter sans se laisser embobiner par l’apparence de réalité. L’artiste prend bien soin de dévoiler l’artifice, de laisser à chaque fois les coutures apparentes : si le spectateur regarde assez longtemps, il verra que la porte donnant sur la jungle au loin n’est qu’une affiche, que l’église monumentale est en papier, que la “planète” est suspendue par un fil. Ce qui en rajoute encore dans la confusion. “J’aime que le spectateur soit complice, qu’il assiste à la construction de l’image”, dit la jeune femme, qui traite en réalité moins d’architecture que du fonctionnement des images, espaces à deux dimensions capables d’en laisser imaginer trois. Inspirée par Piranèse et ses architectures labyrinthiques, Noémie Goudal a aussi conçu des vidéos où de petites silhouettes fantomatiques descendent une à une l’escalier d’une tour, dans un mouvement sans fin et hypnotique. Un autre voyage au royaume des images, où l’œil aime se perdre et en redemande.