The book Soulèvements is the continuity of a large scale photographic project led by Noémie Goudal, a French photographer, related to the History of Sciences and major geological theories. Starting from archaeological finds revealing the existence of fossils on top of a mountain, the series Soulèvements is a reinvention of scientific interpretations about the formation of the Earth. Through an installation of thirty mirrors, each photographs is sculpting the landscape defying the gaze of the viewer as well as its imagination. More than a photobook, Soulèvements is composed of a series of photographs and a separate booklet melting theoretical texts, an archive of scientific iconography as well as images documenting the artist perspective.
Edel Assanti Gallery, London
January – March 2022
Les paysages impossibles de Noémie Goudal usent de l’ambigüité entre régime du visible et régime de vérité. Ils questionnent les potentialités de l’image photographique et ouvrent sur une machination sensible.
Les univers sensibles de Noémie Goudal sont source d’illusion. Ses structures architecturales, ses éclipses solaires, comme ses observatoires photographiés en pleine nature interrogent notre rapport au réel et à l’illusion. Dans le sillage de l’allégorie de la Caverne de Platon, l’artiste nous offre une vision tronquée de la réalité. Elle fait de nous les captifs d’un piège visuel à la beauté tout aussi poétique que saisissante. Elle fait de nous les prisonniers d’images photographiques trompeuses, d’univers illusoires où régime du visible et régime de vérité se fondent et se confondent.
Depuis 2010, l’artiste abuse nos sens et exerce une conviction trompeuse. Elle nous incite à croire en un jeu avec l’illusion et le visible. A cette date, après avoir quitté Paris pour effectuer des études en design graphique, puis en photographie au prestigieux Royal College of Art de Londres, un tournant s’opère dans sa pratique, un double-fond s’invite dans ses images. Lors de son projet photographique sur une île montagneuse du nord de l’Ecosse, les éléments météorologiques, les vents lui imposent de figer à postériori le réel, de réaliser ses prises de vue en studio à son retour à Londres. L’illusion dans laquelle elle nous plonge prend alors tout son sens en regard de son étymologique latine illudere, à savoir jouer, tromper abuser. Ses photographies comme ses installations troublent notre perception du visible. L’artiste se joue ainsi de nous et nous propose des univers tiraillés entre illusion et désillusion.
Ses œuvres prennent en effet à défaut le fonctionnement des sens et troublent le système de la perception. Ses structures, proches de décors théâtraux, confectionnées méticuleusement, déployées puis photographiées en pleine nature, au bord de mer, dans des déserts de sable et de sel, comme dans les cieux offrent en partage des espaces susceptibles d’héberger nos utopies. Pour autant ses « hétérotopies », « ces espaces autres », selon les termes empruntés à Michel Foucault, ne possèdent aucune coordonnée géographique et ne font partie que d’une cartographie sensible. Elles ne sont qu’une machination visuelle qui interroge notre rapport à l’espace, à l’image comme aux lieux photographiés.
L’artiste usurpe ainsi le réel, mieux elle se joue de notre regard. Pour cela elle intègre à la nature ses installations de papier et de bois tout en laissant la trace de son action, de la structure de son œuvre. Le scotch, les plis, les lignes de séparation, le rapport d’échelle restent visibles dans ses images. Ils en trahissent le subterfuge. Voulus par l’artiste, ces signes dévoilent l’artificialité des décors plats de ses observatoires en bord de mer, de ses structures telluriques, de ses ciels diurnes, comme de ses bâches entrouvrant une percée dans des lieux désaffectés. Pour autant ces indices ne parviennent pas à en faire tomber le mystère. Ils jouent avec l’illusion et la résistance de notre croyance.
Notre volonté de croire est en effet plus forte que tout risque de désillusion. Même si nous sommes conscient de la machination qui se trame devant nous, nous succombons sciemment aux apparences, aux illusions que Noémie Goudal élabore. Tels des naufragés en quête d’une terre promise, nous voulons croire en ses images refuges. Après tout, l’illusion la plus forte n’est-elle pas celle dont il n’existe aucune désillusion possible ? N’est-elle pas celle qui supplante l’expérience rationnelle par l’expérience artistique?
Pour Gaston Bachelard, “On veut toujours que l’imagination soit la faculté de former des images. Or elle est plutôt la faculté de déformer les images fournies par la perception, elle est surtout la faculté de nous libérer des images premières, de changer les images ». Cette citation semble parfaitement résonner avec vos œuvres. Si vous aviez la possibilité de lui répondre, que lui diriez-vous?
Oui c’est en effet exactement la maniere dont je conçois mes images. L’imagination s’entremèle avec la réalité, l’image ou le vécu pour pleinement exister. Je joue beaucoup de ça dans mes constructions, je compte sur elle pour ‘finir’ les oeuvres. C’est un travail d’équipe… D’ailleurs, dans mes expositions, je cherche à ce que le spectateur soit pris dans une trajectoire, dans un mouvement qui lui permette de se positionner face à l’image, que la physicalité de son corps soit pris en considération dans l’appréciation des images. Cela permet, il me semble, d’inviter ce spectateur à utiliser cet imaginaire qui lui est propre, à confronter les photos. Les images restent les mêmes certes, mais leur interprétation est complètement différente.
Le processus de réalisation de vos œuvres est de plus en plus monumental. Pourriez-vous nous dévoiler vos secrets de réalisation, les dessous de vos machinations?
En effet, mes photographie sont toujours faites à partir d’installations dans la nature, plus ou moins grandes. Je travaille avec une petite équide de cinéma. Nous construisons les installations et faisons des essais de longs mois avant de réaliser la prise de vue. J’aime beaucoup travailler en équipe, créer une dynamique particulière ou chacun est expert dans son domaine. Cela apporte une énergie fantastique, que j’aime vivre pendant les prises de vue, en parrallele d’une vie dans mon atelier, ou j’ai plus de temps pour travailler seule, et faire des recherches.
Dans vos dernières œuvres vous semblez attirer notre attention sur les enjeux du réchauffement climatique. Votre projet Pressure sur la fonte du glacier du Rhône en Suisse en est particulièrement révélateur. Pourriez-vous nous en dire plus…
Dans mon travail, je ne cherche surtout pas à emmetre un point de vue politique ou sociologique, au contraire, j’essai de présenter des images qui ont de multiples clés de lecture. J’essai de construire des images qui n’ont aucun repère de temps ou d’une géographie particulière et qui apportent, de par leur construction, une part d’interpretation importante. Le spectateur vient avec son propre vécu, et interprete l’image dans un context qui est le sien. Un des thème qui me passionne en ce moment, est le mouvement d’un paysage et sa chorégraphie à travers des âges. Ces phénomènes qui se développent dans une temporalité tres lente, plus lente que le temps ‘humain’, et qui, il me semble, nous oblige à regarder le payasge sous un angle différent, ou l’humain serait placé dans un ‘tout’ et ne serait pas lui seul ‘le tout’. Quand on regarde mes images, dans le context actuel, la première chose que l’on a en tête est ‘la destruction de l’environement’, mais, est ce que ces mêmes images ne pourraient-elles pas etre vu complètement différement dans un context scientifque, religieux, antérieur par exemple? Les images de Project Pressure sont bien évidement présentées dans un context tres spécifique, avec d’autres images qui évoquent toutes la fonte des glaciers, donc elles sont interprétées de cette manière mais c’est aussi une passion de l’observation et son interprétation que nous partageons.
Le risque de la désillusion semble dans votre démarche éminemment latent, comme dissimulé sous la beauté poétique de vos univers. Ce second niveau de lecture est-il intentionnel ?
Oui, il me semble qu’une image est ce qu’elle est mais elle est aussi ce que chacun en fait. C’est pourquoi offrir le plus de clés de lecture possible est très important pour moi. J’aime jouer avec la séduction et l’attraction d’une image peut apporter, tout en gardant sa fragilité, ses doutes, ses questionnements.
Vos œuvres voyagent. Votre série Telluris est présentée en ce moment aux Beaux-Arts de Le Locle en Suisse, à la biennale internationale de la photographie en Australie jusqu’au 13 octobre. Quel est votre prochain lieu d’accrochage en France? Donnez-nous rendez-vous…
Elles vont etre en Allemagne dans le Kunstvereim d’Hildesheim à l’automne puis en Autriche dans la Kunshalle de Vienne en 2020. Je suis en résidence à la Manufacture de Sêvres depuis deux ans et nous allons finir un gros projet de sculptures sur les théories de la Terre en 2020 qui sera présentée à Paris mais le lieu n’est pas encore confirmé.
Oscillating between fantasy and reality, Noémie Goudal’s images explore both real and fictional geography, creating ephemeral spaces that question the nature of the image and its representational qualities. Her work draws from the complex symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, between the artificial and the organic.
The series Stations continues to explore these subjects, focusing on human perception of the sky as influenced by projecting representational interpretations. The images blend together her references to mythology, legends, religious symbolism and scientific theory.
Basing off of the symbolic spherical shape in reference to infinity and perfection, Goudal constructs her installations out of paper, wood and mirrors. Suspended in the sky, shot from high viewpoints or in isolated locations, these objects question our perception of the intangible nature of the infinite sky.
Drawing inspiration from the cosmic architecture of Jantar Mantar, Observatoires depicts images of buildings (or fragments of buildings), staged by Noémie Goudal. The structures are created from images of concrete architecture that has been enlarged to human size, tiled across multiple sheets of paper and assembled atop a light frame. Like set pieces or props, these paper structures are transported to the isolated costal location for Goudal’s shoots. Their ephemeral presence within the photographic space and against their contrasting backdrops distorts or entirely erases all sense of scale and geography.
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.
Knowledge about the direct reference of photography to reality, the certainty that the object to be photographed was directly present at the time the release button was pressed, is a fact and of necessity just as old as photography itself. And yet the indexical credibility of the medium has never kept theory from constantly inquiring into its manipulative qualities and continuing on and on to doubt the truth-content of the photographic image. Since Postmodernism the complexity of the photographic medium has been ultimately obvious and theoretical discourses revolve around the social and media context in which photography is embedded. Even the producers of art have not remained unaffected and by them the discussion has been increasingly shifted from theory to practice; it is they who take part in the debate with conceptual approaches and “the photographic in general as an attitude, a special, time-bound construct of perception”.
Accordingly, among present-day artists there are not a few who deal with this photo-theoretical discourse in their work. This applies in particular to the younger ones among them, who have been accustomed to the constant presence of the new media from childhood. Is this sense of familiarity perhaps the reason why in their activities these above all inquire into the motif, the recognizable figure, the objectively identifiable somethingas a “truth” that may well have been constructed by the eye of the medium?
As members of a generation that is extremely aware of the manipulative uses to which the new media may be applied, the French artist Noémie Goudal (*1984) is also one who challenges the constructive possibilities of photography. She succeeds in this most impressively in her Observatoires(2013/14), a sequence of ten black-and-white pictures whose formal rigour manifests a conspicuous affinity with the architecture photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. With the strictly frontal view of the subject, the consistently diffuse sky in the background, the extreme minimalism of the image composition and the uniform image format of the entire series, Goudal positively quotes the basic parameters of the Bechers. This external similarity includes a substantial point: in this way the Observatoires allow us to assume, simply because of their cool aesthetic, their imperturbable presence, an indubitable documentarism; they do not, of course guarantee it.
So what was actually in front of Goudal’s camera at the moment the photo was taken? As viewers we take in modernist-looking tours, pyramidal constructions and sturdy central buildings, which rise above a centrally placed horizon. We recognize individual set pieces that remind us of the Pantheon in Rome, the pyramids of the Kukulcánin Chichén Itzá or the Indian Jantar Mantar, and which, encouraged by the monochrome prints, mimic a kind of concrete appearance. The monumentality suggested by the feigned material seems to be raised to a higher power by reflections in the water surrounding the constructions or by shadows cast on the ground, which reflect their apparent physicality—were it not for the many horizontal and vertical lines, which lie like a grid over the surface of the architecture, or the numerous kinks and dog-ears, which ultimately expose the whole thing as a set-up: Goudal’s typological studies are in fact elevations of montaged imaginary buildings, pasted as A3 prints onto man-high wooden boards. As such they represent totally ephemeral phenomena, whose credibility (and continuing existence) is guaranteed solely by photography. That the Observatoiresnonetheless evoke the association of an irrefutable reality is due to the way they are staged by the artists, whose significant components include the choice of perspective.
With her current series, Southern Light Stations(since 2015), Goudal now shifts our eyes away from the observatories towards the sky itself, against which background, in one case, something like like a solar eclipse seems to be taking place, in another the circular excerpt resembles the telescopic enlargement of a nocturnal constellation of stars, and in yet another a weather balloon seems to float across the picture. But, here again, only half of what we see at first sight is actually “real”. For, as with the Observatoires, Goudal (by means of the hardly visible strings that stabilize the templates and mirror) very subtly draws attention to her own manipulation, thus making it clear that „the photograph does not lie, but the photographer does indeed.”
 Urs Stahel, “Images, Research and Transfer”, in: Carl Aigner, Nela Eggenberger (ed.), 5 x 5. Photo Tracks, Vienna: ÖIP/EIKON, 2016, p. 4.
 The theme of seeing, the analysis of human vision and the possibility of controlling it with skillful interventions generally recur throughout Goudal’s work, from the Stereoscopes, made between 2012 and 2015, to the Studies of Perspective (2014 and 2016).
 Joan Fontcuberta, Pandora’s Camera, London: MACK, 2014, p. 8.
In 1681, the philosopher Thomas Burnet published the first part of his Telluris Theoria Sacra (‘Sacred Theory of the Earth’), a treatise on the history of the Earth in which he put forth a rationalist explanation for the Biblical narrative of the Great Flood. His idea was that the Earth was made of many layers, including one that was aqueous. This was the source, he reasoned, of the vast amounts of water that God summoned forth as punishment for humanity’s sins. When the waters receded, mountains and continents were revealed – the scar tissue where Earth’s once smooth and perfect surface had ruptured and cracked. Gone was the perfection of Creation; in its place was a world ‘lying in its own Rubbish’.
Though Burnet was the first to use the term ‘theory of the Earth’, philosophers had for centuries offered explanations for how the Earth had been formed. Many, like him, used a mythological model of the Earth as a primordial egg from which civilization had hatched – Burnet called this the ‘mundane egg’. What made his proposal revolutionary – and indeed controversial – was not only the notion that the landscape in which humankind dwells is merely the detritus of the deluge, but also the idea that Earth had taken shape through a series of catastrophic changes. The implication was that the Earth must be significantly older than the 6,000 years that contemporary interpretations of the Bible dictated. Yet, while theologians voiced their outrage, some scientists began to put forward their own theories that engaged with Burnet’s suggestions, developing a concept known today as ‘deep time’. In doing so, they effectively laid the foundations for the field of study that we now know as geology.
In the two centuries following the publication of Telluris Theoria Sacra – through both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – numerous theories about the Earth’s history emerged, yet still elements of Burnet’s treatise endured. Léonce Élie de Beaumont, professor of geology at the École des Mines in Paris from 1835, was among those who revived Burnet’s catastrophist approach. In a paper given in 1826 and published in 1852, he presented his idea of a ‘pentagonal network’. Using the symbol of a withered apple, he suggested that mountain ranges were formed by cataclysmic upheavals, which caused the Earth’s crust to rapidly cool and shrink, leaving behind a rumpled skin – the mountain formations –criss-crossing its surface.
While aspects of Burnet’s ideas continued to resonate among natural scientists, his prose garnered a different audience. Whatever its scientific merit, Telluris Theoria Sacra is a literary epic, and its doom-laden tales, baroque prose and sweeping narrative arc held great appeal to the Romantic poets from the late eighteenth century on. Among them was Samuel Taylor Coleridge – fittingly, a climbing devotee – who expressed his desire to translate Telluris into a poem. As the literary scholar Marjorie Hope Nicolson pointed out in 1959, Coleridge had classed Burnet’s grand style, had even classed him with Plato, stating that they both provided evidence that ‘poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre’.
The fact that Burnet excited the minds of individuals working in fields as diverse as those inhabited by Élie de Beaumont and Coleridge is not at all surprising, if we consider the close relationship between the arts and sciences in the intellectual imagination of the time. In Paris and London, artists and poets were alert to scientific developments because they offered the potential to expand the mind. As historian John Tresch explains in his recent book The Romantic Machine, in the first decades of the nineteenth century technology was generally regarded as a fantastical extension of human capability that was consistent with, not in opposition to, the development of the Earth itself. The laws of progress worked to shape ‘not only organisms but geologic formations, governments, and ideas’, and were something that:
humans could contribute to … by remaking the landscape and altering nature’s material order; by framing and arranging phenomena and concepts; and through the activity of perception, conceptualization and imagination. At each of these levels, the modification of nature was aided by machines, eroding the dichotomy between nature and the artificial.
Among the highest qualities that anything could possess, then – regardless of whether it was natural or man-made – was the potential to induce transcendence or transformation: to reshape thought, remodel labour and, through these, reorganize society. The need for new instruments and machines to reach as wide a public as possible made theatre, in this respect, as significant a forum as academies and salons. In the auditorium, the mass spectacle – with its offer of phantasmagoric, multisensory experiences conjured by new technologies – held new and special significance.
As theories of perception played out in the scientific and theatrical spheres, the painter and stage decorator Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre became a prominent figure across both disciplines. During the 1820s, he earned his reputation as one of the inventors of the diorama. In this mechanically sophisticated version of the panorama, audiences around three hundred strong would file into a specially designed theatre to experience a 360-degree landscape painting animated with motion and lighting effects. Just as the public marvelled at the illusion, scientists marvelled at what the diorama told them about optics and perception, while later writers analyzed what this dance between the technological and the fantastic represented for the newly modern society. Looking back on this period from the vantage point of the early twentieth century, the literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote:
Announcing an upheaval in the relation of art to technology, panoramas are at the same time an expression of a new attitude toward life … In panoramas, the city opens out, becoming landscape – as it will do later, in subtler fashion, for the flâneurs.
In 1839, when the mathematician and politician François Arago presented the daguerreotype – the first widely available photographic process – to the Académie des Sciences in Paris on behalf of his friend Daguerre, he employed his characteristically awe-inspired, awe-inspiring tenor. Certainly, the daguerreotype had utilitarian uses, he conceded, from mapping territories to providing reference material for painters. But Arago also explained the daguerreotype as an artificial eye of sorts, which could make even atmospheric matter and celestial bodies visible. He had long been fascinated by optics, once describing the moment when an object registers on the eye’s retina as something akin to transcendence. Thus, in his rhetoric, the importance of the daguerreotype lay not only in what it reproduced, but also in what it was capable of producing in the viewer’s mind.
In 2017, when Goudal began the research that would result in her bodies of work ‘Telluris’ (2017), ‘Soulèvements’ (2018) and ‘Démantèlements’ (2018), she had recently completed, in fairly quick succession, three series informed by early philosophical and mathematical systems for understanding the sky: ‘Observatoires’ (2015), ‘Towers’ (2015) and ‘Southern Light Stations’ (2015–17). In her new work, she wanted to turn her gaze in the opposite direction, to theories regarding the history of the Earth.
It seems significant – revealing, even – that this research, which began with Burnet, would lead Goudal, via Élie de Beaumont, to the period in the mid-nineteenth century when developments in the field of optics were advancing in such close proximity, in both intellectual and cultural arenas, to theories of the Earth. Anyone who has seen Goudal’s exhibitions over the past seven years will recognize affinities between the potential of the diorama and daguerreotype and the use of geometry, perspective, scale and perception that is central to her practice. This link applies not only to her stand-alone installations and her photographs of constructions, but also to her designs for the exhibitions themselves.
In many ways, Goudal’s technical enquiries can be traced back to 2012, when she included in her exhibition Haven Her Body Was a number of stereoscopes that she had taught herself to make. This device through which near-identical images are viewed side-by-side to read as one three-dimensional scene exploded in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, and among the subjects that held the strongest appeal to this early audience of armchair travellers were mountains – incidentally, the very same subject that Goudal chose to depict. Shortly after her first stereoscopes, she created an architectural trompe l’oeil, ‘In Search of the First Line’ (2015), consisting of four photographs of Gothic architecture, each around two metres high and wide, that she exhibited in cavernous industrial spaces. For Study on Perspective I (2014), she created a metal frame two metres across modelled on a diorama card, within which she suspended fragments of a photograph at different depths, so that they cohered only from a frontal view.
In Goudal’s photographs, too, the construct is equally important, as shown in the photographic prints exhibited in Haven Her Body Was. Some of these featured her own photographs of lush landscapes hanging in abandoned buildings, each image printed on individual pieces of A3 paper before being taped together. Others are photographs of sites that appear to have been constructed by Goudal, but weren’t (Combat  is a World War One bunker; Well  is an abandoned shipping container); or photographed objects that look real but aren’t (Iceberg  is a block of polystyrene). For ‘Observatoires’ and ‘Towers’, Goudal looked to astronomical observatories, including the collection of nineteenth century instruments at the Jantar Matar site in Jaipur. For these, she photographed buildings, or fragments of buildings, and reproduced them across multiple sheets as backdrops around two metres high before setting them up and shooting them in coastal locations. Finally, in ‘Southern Light Stations’, she floated giant, moon-like, paper orbs into overcast skies above oceans or mountain ravines.
Importantly, in these two-dimensional photographs Goudal almost always includes a visual clue that signals to the viewer that what they’re looking at is a construction – folds in the paper, say, or ropes tethering the ‘moon’ to the ground. These clues are gestures extended from artist to viewer, inviting us to look again, look closer, to spend time in the landscapes and indulge in the oddly compelling pleasure of knowing that our brain is reading the image as something we also know it is not.
In French just as in English, the word soulèvement has a double meaning. It denotes the circular movement of one thing around another, for instance the Earth revolving on its axis, but also signifies an overthrowing, as in uprising or insurgency, or a gradual change that continues until everything that once was is transformed.
In a practice that explores both historical systems of understanding the elements and the ways in which we look and what we see, could there be a more apt subject for Goudal than the mountain? Few natural forms reflect the philosophical, scientific and political belief systems of any age so well. The nature writer Robert MacFarlane suggests that our responses to these landforms are no more than cultural constructs: ‘What we call a mountain,’ he writes, ‘in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.’ MacFarlane explains that, in the three centuries since Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra, a ‘tremendous revolution of perception occurred in the West concerning mountains’. As science advanced, so the ‘steepness, desolation, perilousness’ for which mountains were once feared came to be among their most attractive qualities. (And it is worth remembering, too, that one of the most significant of these shifts in attitudes took place in the 1830s, when mountaineering became popular and Alpine tourism emerged as a fledgling industry – and when Coleridge, Daguerre and Élie de Beaumont were all active.)
The wooden cubic frames in Goudal’s ‘Telluris’ series represent the different imaginations that have shaped understandings of the Earth’s history over time. She chose this shape because the square has often been used as a traditional symbol for the Earth, and because it brought to mind the English idiom of putting something (or someone) ‘in a box’ – applying order, classifying and ultimately simplifying, so as to make a subject easier to understand. Looking at Goudal’s towering arrangements of cubes stacked one atop the other, I am also reminded of how the geologist William Glassley describes the place of the scientist contributing to the field as ‘a building block in an ongoing refinement of the story of how a landscape evolved.’
If Burnet was central to Goudal’s concept, so too was the revolution that followed Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory, published in 1543, that placed the Sun, not the Earth, at the centre of the universe. But her research also took her much further back, encompassing such sources as the historian Xanthus of Lydia who, in the fifth century BC, concluded that the presence of shell-shaped stones far inland indicated that an area had once been the sea, or early Chinese legends that explained fossils found on mountain tops with the idea of ‘stony swallows’ that took flight during thunderstorms. It must have been tempting to focus on the romance of these early ideas, yet there is little room for whimsy even in the towering frameworks of ‘Telluris’. Shot in the California desert, where the searing light renders the images as precise as etchings, their careful arrangements seem to suggest logic, lucidity and a certain clarity of thought.
Of all the attempts to structure knowledge of the Earth that Goudal has explored in her recent work, by far the most eccentric is that of the nineteenth-century architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. An advocate of the Gothic Revival, he is best known for his restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris. He was also a keen mountaineer and, finding Paris claustrophobic, sought the solace of high altitude at every opportunity. In 1868, Viollet-le-Duc embarked upon a sytematic mapping of the Mont Blanc Massif, ‘its geodesical and geological constitution; its transformations; and the ancient and recent state of its glaciers’, following the geometrical network proposed by Élie de Beaumont. He made elaborate panoramas of the terrain, drew up plans and elevations, and – eight years and at least one near-fatal descent later – completed a 280-page study in which he revealed the crystalline structure that regulated the mountain’s entire formation. Discovering this structure was like finding the key. According to Viollet-le-Duc’s logic, if an underlying order could be identified in a ruin, it follows that it could be restored – and the same method could apply to mountains as to architecture, just on a grander scale. This endeavour was not without practical application – the crystalline structure became a characteristic of his buildings – but nor was it without folly, even hubris. It was a fellow advocate of Gothic architecture, John Ruskin, who grounded things somewhat when he said: ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la géologie.’
If, then, the structures in ‘Telluris’ represent humanity’s attempts to determine order and regularity within nature’s apparent chaos, those in ‘Soulèvements’ suggest the inherent absurdity of that endeavour. A first glance at these photographs and we see mountainous rock formations. A second and it becomes clear, from the fine grids of light that shine through the formations like crevasses, and from their often wildly irregular edges, that the rocks were never in fact there at all. To create this illusion, Goudal fixed a stack of around twenty mirrors around each rock at different angles, then photographed this ‘edifice’ so that we see in the resulting image the many reflections of the rock’s surfaces as one. Her constructions symbolise the great uplifts that create mountain ranges, but they also suggest the intellectual revolutions that can shatter the status quo and change a field of knowledge beyond recognition. Slippery to behold, they are a reminder that everything we believe to be true can be turned on its head in a minute.
This sense of, if not motion exactly, then at least the movement associated with change is evident, too, in ‘Démantèlements’, where the image of the mountain dissolving (a result of the hydrosoluble paper on which it is printed) could also represent the dismantling of ideas or attitudes over time. As the title suggests, this gradual taking apart – this disassembly –itself implies the act of putting back together in an improved form. It can seem paradoxical to speak about mountains in the same breath as movement, yet in Goudal’s photographs – so unerringly still and quiet, the structures they depict so resolutely ‘there’ – there is the reminder that in photography as in mountains, layers of movement and indeed time are present if you know what to look for. In a photograph, this might not be the deep time of the mountains – years counted in the millions or billions – but it can be dizzying to think of all the same.
In ‘Telluris’, ‘Soulèvements’ and ‘Démantèlements’, then, we have not only elegant abstractions of the mountain’s physical form, but also visual responses to of the ways in which mountains have been understood, or misunderstood, over time. Reading these photographs through the context of Goudal’s research, and of the various moments in history at which she has alighted, draws attention to a paradox in the prevailing attitudes to mountain ranges that appear to have set in over the past two hundred years. On the one hand, the mountain is a promise of escape and transcendence, whose energizing, mind-bending effects our ancestors sought to replicate with optical illusion, and to domesticate in the form of the photograph. On the other, the mountain is an entity so complex to fathom, so mammoth to comprehend, so precarious to traverse, that we are foolhardy to even try. ‘Nous sommes si petits’, wrote Viollet-le-Duc, in his introduction to Le Massif du Mont Blanc – ‘we are so very small’.
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 Photographersâ€™ 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).
How do you make dreams look real and reality unreal both at the same time? French visual artist Noémie Goudal perfectly brings off this balancing act through realistic art of illusion that overturns the fundamental laws of nature and architecture alike. At first glance, her art appears to combine Böcklin’s eerie aesthetics of death, Boullée’s surrealist architectures and Bernd & Hilla Becher’s industrial brutalism. However, her photographs of buildings, temples and post-apocalyptic natural landscapes differ from the works of these artists in that they are extremely airy, romantic and anachronistic, and impossible to pin down in time and location as they contain no temporal or geographical markers. Some of the structures look like the remains of a godforsaken sect, others like spacecraft sent to Earth from a remote galaxy.
This geomorphic architecture that does not abolish the distinction between nature and culture, instead demonstrating their lasting love-hate relationship, reminds us of the bunker mentality of times of war, and of games with dimensions and perspective played by mad scientists. Goudal’s major sources of inspiration are the visual tricks of the Renaissance and Baroque, with their multiple perspectives inviting the observer to contemplate the painting using their eyes and the power of their imagination. If there is a key to Goudal’s artistry, it would be Antonello da Messina’s mystical painting of Saint Jerome.
Goudal’s images are not, however, created using some simple montage technique; they are the result of endless journeys and expeditions to all four corners of the globe. The architectural pictorial montages in, Towers (2015) or Observatoires (2014), for example, are constructed as theatrical sets, transported by the artist out into a natural landscape, by the sea, in the desert or in the jungle, where the construction of the picture acts as a link between earth and sky or between what is in front and behind the image, sometimes deepened further using mirrors. The strength of the works lies in Goudal’s ability to sometimes expose and sometimes hide the way the picture was constructed.
Since the dawn of time, humans have been producing their imaginative takes on the universe, sometimes more successfully than others. Goudal’s art encompasses knowledge of the cosmos and humankind’s place within it. Her work has always fluctuated between the boundaries of science and fiction, reduced to individual chapters in an ongoing narrative. The Medieval period saw the heavens as an enclosed sphere created by God for mankind, while the Renaissance discovered the eternally expanding cosmos. Goudal’s photographs succeed in the difficult art of combining these diametrically opposed views of the world. it is as if she wanted to say “why pick just one when you could be human and God at the same time?”
In Southern Light Stations, Goudal offers a series of images reflecting on the importance of the observatory to our human capacity to grasp the universe. Her geometric constructions, circular mirrors and optical instruments such as stereoscopes, remind us that an image is always a construction. However, an image can also be the perfect arena for transcendental meditation, and our eyes are not merely directed outwards and upwards, but also inwards and downwards, like a modern twist on Jules Verne’s journeys from the earth to the moon, twenty thousand leagues under the sea or to the centre of the earth.
If Caspar David Friedrich alternated between the Übermensch aesthetic of the lonely wanderer and the little monk’s humility in the face of God’s creation as he stands looking out over the sea, Goudal, like the philosophical masters of the Renaissance with their analogies between the cosmos and earthly laws, almost magically succeeds in finding a balance between heaven and earth, all-knowing and unknowing, yes, even knowledge and faith.
Goudal is part of the romantic tradition of art and literature that killed God to set mankind in His place, but she also succeeds in killing the classic, romantic artist’s subject that used to pop up in nineteenth-century natural landscapes, via a kind of myse en abyme of mirrored mazes reflecting the world in which the work of art appears and the mental abstractions of the viewer. As Goudal says in a statement that can be taken both literally and figuratively: “A picture is a space you can live in”.
“Integration alone is not enough. Disintegration is essential too. That’s what life is. And philosophy. That’s science, progress, civilisation.”I Eugène Ionesco
Beneath the different layers of artifice from which Goudal’s images are made, the artist firstly questions the very notion of landscape, which always remains a construct per se. As the French geographer, Orientalist and philosopher Augustin Berque noted, the term “landscape” is a relatively recent one, arriving in Europe in the Renaissance. It first appeared in China, where it was used by hydraulic engineers in the context of controlling natural water courses and protecting houses against flooding. The term literally meant “water from the mountains”. It had no aesthetic connotations until around the year 300 BC, when the Chinese poet Zuo Si wrote some lines that exalt an emotion relating to this word: “The waters from the mountain have a pure sound.”II
In Goudal’s images this still surviving notion of the purity and beneficence of the natural landscape shifts slightly so that it reveals some of the fragility in the relationship between the natural and the artificial, the organic and the inorganic, amnesia and memory.
It is here that another fundamental element in Goudal’s work emerges: namely its theatrical nature, like a stage set. In her work, nature generally presents itself as a large stage occupied by a set that is in fact its own representation (in Tectonique, 2014, for example, or Stereoscope, 2012) or the representation of the constructed (Observatoires, 2013-14; Satellite, 2013). As in the theatre of The Absurd it could be said that here nature is represented in order to be vacated, like a stage ultimately intended to be inhabited by other sets, which are in turn nothing other than masks of something that might have been or might have taken place in another time, past or future, or another place, near-at-hand or far off.
In Goudal’s work, nature, the landscape and monumental constructions imbued with a seemingly magical mysticism become archetypal characters from an enigmatic world in which the unity of time, place and action (the theoretical bases of classical theatre) have been totally abandoned so that viewers can arrive at their own conclusions. As in Ionesco’s plays, themes such as the conscious or the unconscious, the absurd and the logical, the comprehensible and the incomprehensible, run through Goudal’s works. This is a deconstruction of the landscape and its forms with the aim of rethinking them in another way and through a different gaze.
This, then, is how Noémie Goudal’s photography empties the landscape, breaking it down and reconstructing it with the intention of looking at life’s experiences from a range of different viewpoints and without excuses of any kind. As one of Samuel Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot states: “Here’s a man for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.”III
Translated from Spanish to English by Laura Suffield.
I. IONESCO, Eugène, The Lesson. English translation accessed at http://www.drama21c.kr/writers/ionesco/lessontxt-e.htm, chapter 192.
II. See, BERQUE, Agustin et al, Cinq propositions pour une théorie du paysage. Editions Champ Valon, Paris, 1994.
III. Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot. See: http://samuel- beckett.net/Waiting_for_Godot_Part1.html, Act 1. Last accessed 1/05/2014.
‘Every cloud, even those only languidly carried away by the wind, gradually disappeared at the far right of his field of vision [. . .]. He wished he could have kept them in place, motionless, forever anchored in the sky, pinned to some fixed point in the ether.’ (Jacques Roubaud, Ciel et terre et ciel et terre, et ciel)
How can we really take in the sky from the earth? What access do we have to this mysterious and changing canopy? Aesthetics and science are inextricably linked when we ponder questions like these, since they speak to our relationship with what lies above, attesting to our constant fascination with the sky and what it says about us. With her ‘stations’, Noémie Goudal reveals a disconcerting sky. Not the one we thought we knew, but the one seen by others: a sky inhabited by symbols, loaded with messages. Celestial temple, cupola, the heavens, fixed stars set in an incorruptible firmament, Cartesian tourbillons or vortices – images of the sky are always already cosmologies, theories of the cosmos. Observing the sky, admiring its strangest, most curious or frightening aspects, losing oneself in the contemplation of phenomena: this fascination for celestial objects has a long history, because the sky has been, since antiquity and through to the modern era, a canvas for fantasies. Peopled with mythical figures, featured in many passages of the Bible, in the sky we see the powerful, popes and rulers, we trace the outlines of mysterious and magical beasts, we read the fate of the world. Sailors peering up at the sky with dread, astrologists and soothsayers looking to the heavens for signs, the sky made divine or sacred, the sky of poets and scholars.
Two geometric figures – the circle and the line – structure and wend their way through the diverse set of images brought together in Southern Light Stations, variations on the theme of sky observation. Stations, thus brief stops, but also milestones, observation posts, viewpoints. Photography captures an instant’s balance, a celestial object hanging in the sky, thereby registering a momentary, fragile, ephemeral observation. Cosmos, orb, star, geometric figure, sphere, disc, mirror, optical lens or passage to another world – the circle asserts itself as a nucleus of creativity. Paper discs, seemingly tacked to an earthly, terrestrial landscape, remind us of the manufactured nature of any representation.
Following the principle of spatial montage, the astronomical diagram occupies the place of the celestial object being observed. The image is thus a construction, liberated from the perspectivist illusion that has dominated Western painting since the Renaissance.
A murky space opens out before us, born of the tension created by this duality of viewpoints, allowing an interior topography to emerge. In this series, which combines perspective and plan views, thus recalling El Greco’s vertiginous View and Plan of Toledo painted around 1608, the flat image represented by the sheet of paper, positioned over the landscape, adds a second level of abstraction. For Goudal, the headland from where we are observing the scene itself takes on a dual nature: it is this place suspended between sky and earth that allows us to contemplate both of them. It is an observation point that gives the viewer the feeling of being positioned at the interspace of the horizon line, a line that runs through the entire series and becomes its axis. The horizon, whether formed by a mountain ridge, the tops of trees or the ocean’s surface, is the boundary where earth and sky meet. A central, existential axis, marking the divide between earth and sky that calls to mind the Renaissance concept of analogy implying a hierarchical separation between earth and heaven, prior to the rediscovery of linear perspective, which unified multiple viewpoints into a single one.
A historian of science contemplating these images would be tempted to interpret them as a brief history of astronomy. In some of Goudal’s stations, the star, situated precisely at the point where the base lines converge, forms a barrier. It sets a limit for our visual perception, evoking the sphere of fixed stars in the Ptolemaic system, which posited a finite cosmos. Elsewhere, the circle seems instead to break through the landscape, providing an opening for our gaze. We thus discover the story, told through images, of a central moment in the history of astronomy and of humanity: the turning point of the Copernican revolution, moving from the closed world to an infinite universe. In the first theories of the cosmos, those of Aristotle and Ptolemy, the universe is a sphere consisting of two separate and distinct regions. The sublunar region, where all substances are mixtures of four elements (earth, water, air and fire), includes the smaller sphere of the earth at its centre and extends as far as the moon’s orbit. The superlunar region begins at the moon’s orbit and extends out through nine concentric spheres encircling the earth: seven planetary orbs, then the sphere of stars and finally the crystal firmament. Whereas the sublunar region – the realm of humans – is imperfect, corruptible and changeable, the superlunar region is perfect, eternal and divine. In this world view with its solid orbs and fixed stars, the cosmos is finite and the boundary between the sublunar and the superlunar cannot be crossed. It was by observing the comet of 1577 and calculating its trajectory that the astronomer Tycho Brahe definitively shattered this binary cosmology: if an errant celestial object can pass through the planetary orbs from the superlunar to the sublunar region, the divide conceived by Aristotle cannot exist. Already five years earlier, Tycho had observed a brilliant point of light in the constellation Cassiopeia. Failing to detect a diurnal parallax, he realised that it was much farther away than the moon and had to be a new element in the superlunar world, thought by Aristotle to be free from change. He called it a stella nova, or new star. With Tycho’s observations, the relationship between earth and sky was radically transformed. The eternal and divine world was no longer understood as immutable. Worse still, it was mortal. Today, we know that the point of light observed by Tycho in Cassiopeia was a supernova, thus not a star being born but a dying one, increasing massively in brightness as it explodes, an idea explored in some of Goudal’s stations, where the star gradually disappears before our eyes.
As early as 1543, Copernicus had proposed an entirely different concept of the cosmos in his famous work De Revolutionibus, placing the sun and not the earth at the centre of the universe. By the turn of the 17th century, Aristotle’s physics and Ptolemy’s cosmology could no longer continue intact: the closed world had opened. Several, more complex concepts of the universe began to emerge, the perfect Ptolemaic-Aristotelian harmony was losing its balance, while wonders and miracles made clear the impossibility of reconstructing a harmonious cosmos founded merely on a network of relationships and analogies. Eclipses, fireballs, errant stars, hairy stars and other comets have been perceived since antiquity as warning signs, portending revolutions or natural disasters, or as divine signs, foretelling the success of a venture or the birth of a great leader. The astonishment they inspire is either one of admiration for their demonstration of a power infinitely exceeding that of mankind or of terror when confronted with phenomena whose violent strangeness seems to foretell the fate of humanity, also suggesting that human actions are perhaps behind their occurrence. Some of Goudal’s stations put us in the position of observers stupefied before these unexplained celestial phenomena. How can such wonders be recreated? To answer this question, Goudal carried out a range of experiments for most of her stations. A landscape, even a celestial one, remains a human construction conceived in a scientific laboratory or an artist’s studio. It is for this reason that her work is closely tied to the gestures through which a horizon is determined, to the point of articulation between movement and gaze, perception and action, the understanding of space and the subject’s openness to the world. This space is built up through actions and movements, through experiments with materials and views, constructing a viewer for whom mobility and spatiality are first and foremost existential conditions.
But Southern Light Stations is as much about the earth as the sky. The sky images in the series are anchored to terra firma. This is their force: the earth is the vantage point from which these celestial landscapes are observed, recalling the existential situation of human beings looking up at the stars. Hence the sense of disquiet prompted by these photographic works combining a traditional landscape with a view of the sky that seems to break through the landscape, providing an opening for our gaze. Goudal’s stations make the most of these two frames. By overlapping a celestial image and a terrestrial one, they combine two viewpoints, the first relating to the contingent circumstances of mankind on earth, the second on the contrary to the scholarly viewpoint of cosmology; the perspective view of the landscape and the plan view of the geometric diagram. By concentrating our gaze, Goudal’s Southern Light Stations invite observation and join up the vocabulary of aesthetic contemplation with that of scientific investigation. From one station to the next, there is a passage from the visible to the representable. The sky, initially the mirror of the earth, a canvas for projection where we find evidence and signs, becomes a physical space that we can roam through, map and measure. The ‘views’ offered by the stations evoke the first astronomical observations, those made possible by the telescope, giving access for the first time to images of the moon’s surface. In his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, Galileo managed to depict the mountains and craters he had discovered on the moon’s surface thanks to his training in chiaroscuro.
A different optical and pictorial technique is used to capture the sky’s transformations: a circular mirror reflecting the clouds, hanging above the ocean horizon, offers the infinity of a limitless gaze. These swirls of clouds are reminiscent of the illusionism of Correggio’s trompe l’œil cupola frescoes. These vertiginous glimpses toward the endless skies reveal, as Wölfflin explains, ‘a completely new conception of space directed towards infinity: form is dissolved in favour of . . . the effects of light: the unfathomableness of a dark depth, the magic of light streaming down from the invisible height of a dome, the transition from dark to light and lighter still.’ Whether capturing the gleam of the splendori celesti [celestial splendours] or the profundity of the night sky, Wölfflin reminds us of the strength of these painterly effects, ‘through which our eyes and minds are lost in immeasurable space’.
Two questions are central to Goudal’s work in this series: how the sky is constructed and how we are constructed by it. Fully assuming their role as artefacts, her Southern Light Stations place us in the position of observing the observer or, better yet, the observation. We observe the gesture, the apparatus put in place, the observation site, but the latter is left empty, like a lookout point inviting a traveller to stop for a moment. The notion of observation connects up with knowledge and artistic practices, but also with layers of the human adventure in a yearning for elsewhere. Seeing further, seeing with precision, seeing through, seeing what lies above, seeing a reflection – through this series of stations we encounter different ways of looking at things and varying anamorphoses of the sky. These images, all of them dual in nature, play with the tension between the desire to enter into a landscape and the need to stop before it. Astronomical observation is a scopic tension reaching toward the sky, toward the stars – ad astra.
1 Heinrich Wölfflin, Renaissance and Baroque, trans. Kathrin Simon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), quoted by Hubert Damisch in A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. Janet Lloyd.
French photographer Noémie Goudal (1984) is known for her installation-based landscape photography. With constructs of images glued on cardboard, she misleads the viewer’s sense of perception and suggests buildings or landscapes within other landscapes. Her images are shot on location, using analogue techniques. Goudal spoke with us about the venture of making an installation and the value of a photograph that captures more than just a moment.
Your installations appear deceptively real, yet when you take a closer look, you can see folds in the cardboard or pieces of rope that hold the installation in place. Why do you leave these details in the photos?
I hope that they challenge the viewer to look for where the reality is: where it stops and where the construct starts. I find it interesting that our brains are so used to seeing perspective, that every time you offer a brain the possibility of seeing it, he takes it and it fills in the rest of the image. However, when you see the fold of the paper or the thin ropes, hopefully your brain can navigate better and you feel a bit more inclined to really go into the image. I think that if you understand the construct of the photo, you can project yourself better into it and spend more time with it.
What was the first photo that you took in this way?
That was Promenade, in the series Les Amants, which I made during my studies at the Royal College of Art in London. I wanted to do a project on an island, with photographic installations, so I went to Orkney Island in Scotland. But it was so windy there, I couldn’t even stand straight. It turned out to be too complicated to do my installations there, so I had to find another solution. What I did was, I photographed the island and then printed that on paper and made installations in a less windy place. So the paper helped me bring the island elsewhere. Later on I repeated this process: using prints of places in different locations.
Every now and then you add an image without an installation in it, however. What role do you intend for these images to play?
If you show such an image next to another one that is constructed, the viewer will still look for the construction where there isn’t one. You will start to question and maybe look better at the image. I did that especially in the next series I did, Haven Her Body Was, where there are a few images that had no installation in them. The photos Well and Combat are done without constructs.
Combat looks quite unreal, is this not an installation?
No, it’s totally real. I found it in France in Normandy on the beach. It’s a bunker from World War II. The bunkers were supposed to be destroyed, but that was so expensive that they just left them there. It’s funny, because many people thought that this building was fake, especially since many of my photos contain paper backdrops. Taking the photograph of Combat made me research geomorphic architecture, which is architecture that has a direct link to nature in order to imitate or draw our attention to it. That is how I came to research the architecture of observatories and then build my own for my series Observatoires.
Tell us more about The Observatoires.
For that series I collected a lot of images, by travelling and photographing fragments of many different buildings. Sometimes I found buildings on the internet, sometimes I just passed by something I found interesting. Then afterwards I put the different fragments together on my computer and print them on paper. It’s a fun process: the research before, and the constructing of the buildings and then photographing them on the beach. What I like is that it’s not clear anymore what the function of these new buildings is. I see them as a sculpture, they become a different thing.
What was the most difficult installation you ever built?
The Observatoires were relatively easy to make, because it’s just something on paper and then I mounted it on cardboard, that isn’t too complicated to make. My newest series Southern Light Stations was probably the most difficult I’ve ever done, because the installation was so large that we had to use scaffolding. We had scaffolding seven metres high built on the beach. There were five people working on it, the whole day and most of the night. It was also complicated because we had to build a sphere, and had to build a box at the back of the sphere, with smoke in it. And then the smoke had to evaporate all around as a circle. Sometimes we only have an hour when the weather is right. Especially when we work on the beach and there’s a tide, we have to be careful because we can suddenly be surrounded by the sea.
Prior to studying photography, you studied graphic design. What did you learn during those studies that you still use in your photography?
The most important thing I learnt was working together and seeing the options that collaborations can give. Saint Martins, where I studied, was a very vibrant, dynamic school, with lots of people doing film and animations. Of course I developed a passion for design there, but mostly it taught me how to do things with people.
Yet there are no people in the photos.
No, because I came to realise at some point that having an image offers the viewer a space to be. If you put a person in it, then the viewer has less space to invent and reinterpret the image. It’s almost as if there’s too much information for him to still imagine himself inside it. I hope that my photos offer a space with which we can talk about the landscape and about the relationship between the land and the manmade. In my early series Les Amants, this became my central topic.
Les Amants is now being performed as a dance too, by the Icelandic dancer Bára Sigfúsdóttir. How do dance and photography interact in the piece?
In several ways. In her dancing, Bára morphs her body in ways that look like the installations in Les Amants. It’s quite beautiful to see this. Also, there’s a moment that a photo falls – and that makes a sound which becomes part of the music. What I like about this performance is that sound, dance and photos all become events.
How does a photo become an event?
When Bára asked me to collaborate on this, she wanted me to make a photo that would change in the course of one hour. So then I had an idea of doing a disappearing image. I looked for paper that falls apart when it gets wet, and I decided to print on it with a laser printer because that way, the paper would go, but the ink is so strong that the image stays. The image is of a 19th century water reservoir made of concrete with arcades, so it’s a very strange architecture. I thought it was interesting that it was meant to be filled with water, but when you put actual water on the photo, it disappears. Then, behind that first image, on plastic canvas, an island near a coast becomes visible. It looks like the water has eaten the land, with just a crumble of land left. What I like is that the photograph leaves, it disappears, so it’s an action, in contrast to a still image on the wall.
For most people photography is about a moment, why should we see it instead as a period?
I’m interested in how a picture is composed of different layers. When I was writing my dissertation at the Royal College of Art, I researched how images are composed, and how you’e supposed to tell a story in an image. So in my Study Of Perspective, a physical installation, I created different layers in the image, which allowed more moments inside the same image. For me that felt like I elongated the image. The same is happening in the images in which I use paper backdrops, there are several layers within one photo, too. Because, for me, making an image means that I create a stage where several moments come together. It’s not like the ‘decisive moment’ of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I look at it differently: for me an image is a place that you can visit and revisit. It isn’t a place that you capture for a second, it’s a place you can live in.
In Search of the First Line IV
Noémie Goudal’s work brings real and theoretical geographies into coexistence, creating a space between physical reality and its mental representation. Goudal’s photographs document staged interventions that induce scepticism and complicity in equal measure, announcing themselves as fictitious yet compelling a suspension of disbelief.
Goudal’s oeuvre explores our instinctive need to explicate our surroundings in a unifying theory, and her inquiry resides in the distance between observation and interpretation. Goudal’s recent work reimagines moments of historical scientific discovery relating to our search for a sense of place: her last series, Stations, fixated on the sky as a space into which prevailing philosophical thought was projected until the Copernican Revolution. For Telluris, Goudal’s third exhibition at Edel Assanti, the artist progresses her investigation from the sky to the earth itself.
A site-specific architectural installation houses works from two new photographic series. The scenography consists of a wooden frame, inspired by the skeletal structures underpinning fake manmade landscapes; a mathematical construct of vertical and horizontal lines forming cubes of equal dimensions. The installation’s forms are echoed in black and white photographs that depict fake monumental mountainscapes in the desert, each comprised of twenty-five stacked wooden cubes.
Drawing on historical theories dating back to ancient thinkers, this gesture reduces the landscape to the geometrical frameworks that were used to theorise how it came to exist. The crisp black and white images possess an intentionally timeless quality, harking back to the age of analogue scientific discovery. The landscape is represented as an embodiment of the effort to conceive of the natural world within a mathematical order – the square employed as an instrument of precise measurement.
Several works from the parallel photographic series Soulèvement are also housed within the installation. These images show fragmented views of large, jagged rock formations. Closer inspection reveals that these too are products of deliberate staging: an installation of mirrors positioned at different distances from the object itself has transformed a turbulent landscape into a series of reflections, presenting as a comprehensive geometrical formation. The series evokes the reality of the landscape as an entity in constant flux, beyond the limitations of our senses.
The lower ground floor gallery houses a sculptural work that develops Goudal’s previous investigations into the stereoscope as an early means of presenting photography. A vertical isosceles triangle stands in the centre of the gallery, covered in mirrored panels. Two slide projectors throw what appear to be a series of identical images on to two screens either side of the mirrored triangle. When standing directly in front of the pillar, the two screens are independently reflected into the viewer’s eyes by the two sides of the mirror, allowing the viewer to see a stereoscopic, seemingly three-dimensional image. However, whilst stereoscopic cameras mimic the dual perception of
the eyes through capturing two separate images, Goudal’s slides are in fact digital emulations of this effect: on facing the mirror, the viewer realises that each slide presents completely different features of the landscape as protruding. The stereoscope thus reverses the dynamic of Goudal’s other photographs: whereas the staged images transform elaborate fictions into plausible reality through a material trompe l’oeil, her stereoscopes turn reality, or its representation, into a false construct through optical manipulation.
Noémie Goudal’s recent solo institutional exhibitions include Cinquième Corps at Abbaye de Jumièges (Normandy, France), 2017, and Le Bal (Paris, France), 2016; Southern Light Stations at The Photographer’s Gallery (London, UK), 2016; The Geometrical Determination of the Sunrise at FOAM Museum (Amsterdam, Holland), 2015, and New Art Gallery Walsall (UK), 2014. Forthcoming institutional solo exhibitions include Finnish Museum of Photography (Helsinki, Finland), 2018; Fotografiska Museet (Stockholm, Sweden), 2018; Musée des Beaux-Arts Le Locle (Switzerland), 2019. Goudal’s work is held in international public collections including FOAM Museum, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Musée de la Roche-Sur-Yon. Goudal has received numerous awards including the ‘Royal College of Art Sustain Award’ (2010) and the HSBC Photography Prize in 2013. Goudal currently lives and works in Paris, France.
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 ».
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.
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.
Jantar Mantar is a park-sized collection of astronomical instruments dating back to the 18th century. Built by the Rajput kings, its structures are capable of producing a wide variety of calculations: the azimuth of the sun, the declinations of the stars and the elliptical coordinates of the planets. But the largest object in the entire observatory is the Vrihat Samrat Yantra or, “great king of instruments.” This is the world’s largest sundial, capable of measuring time to an interval of 2 seconds.
As impressive as the structure is, it is also, in 2016, faintly ridiculous. A towering building, nearly 100 feet tall, capable of nothing more than the banal task of telling us the time. Accurate down to two seconds, yes—which makes it about half as precise as your plastic wristwatch. Much ado about nothing, right?
From such a point of view, it is a dubious honor to be the world’s largest sundial. It’s like laying claim to the world’s longest aqueduct or owning the castle with the thickest walls—the last and greatest example in a line of thinking that has long since been cast aside.
Yet today, we revere our surviving aqueducts, the towering pyramids, the mysteries of places like Stonehenge and Carnac. But what if Stonehenge is just an obsolete calendar, so many useless tons of futilely positioned stone? Is its obsolescence fair cause for dismissal? In our age, we take for granted the daily pilgrimage to gleaming office buildings and enormous venues for sport—but perhaps, some day, these structures’ limited functions will seem as meaningless as the ruins that they lord over now.
But ruins aren’t meaningless. There are reasons that we visit them in droves, that they continue to exert some sort of magnetic attraction on us. To be sure, this attraction can be different for different people: historical, spiritual, social. All of which points to the fact that a place like Stonehenge—whatever its long-forgotten function—has since transformed into something else. Indeed, all magnetically attractive ruins force us to confront a question: what is the lasting function of the structures that we build? Are buildings able to only serve one, discreet purpose?
Returning to Jantar Mantar, today we are not struck by its uselessness. Far from it, we are moved by its simplicity, strangeness and beauty. The sundial is no more a giant pocket watch than the Lascaux cave paintings an outdated kitchen calendar. Part of our attraction to these places is their ability to thrust us into the midst of other worlds. They are portals to another place and time; they allow us to be travelers into both the past and the future. The past, because if we close our eyes, we can imagine what kind of people expended so much effort to understand the infinitely distant movements of nigh invisible celestial bodies. And the future, because we can only muse over what the fathomless generations to come will make of our proudest contemporary accomplishments, our ruins-in-waiting.
All of which brings us squarely into the world of photographer Noémie Goudal. Her impressive body of work uses photography (while drawing on sculpture, architecture, optics and a host of other disciplines) to seamlessly blend the built environment and our imaginations, creating a rich space filled with questions about function and purpose. Implicitly, even the medium of photography is implicated in this question: besides showing us something out in the world, what else is photography capable of?
Take, for example, her “Observatoires” series (the first part of her work which led me to recall Jantar Mantar). These seemingly concrete structures are, in fact, nothing more than paper backdrops. Solid-seeming materials made out of cut-up photographs of “real” buildings. First constructed in the studio—and then, re-staged and shot in humble, natural locations: an empty beach, a grassy hill.
But to reveal the “reality,” behind these images does them no justice. Even seeing them on a screen, digitally flattened to the depth of a pixel, requires some imagination. But to see them in person is to stand in front of the stage of a magician. A two-dimensional surface—the picture plane—and a simple wooden frame are transformed into a portal, capable of drawing us into another world. On a much smaller scale, but with no great reduction in transportative power, her “Observatoires” (and much of her other work) hold the same potential as our most evocative ancient sites. In short, to spend time with Goudal’s work is to open ourselves up to new possibilities and new ways of relating to the space around us. After all, the camera can frame anything—but where that frame can take us is limitless.
This blurring of reality and imagination began as a (productive) constraint during Goudal’s student days in London. While bound to the studio as an art student, she loved to travel and photograph, to see as much as she could of the wide world around her.
This constraint made her think about the relationship between the real and the invented. What was out there, what was in here—and what was the difference? So, obligated to return to the walls of her creative space, she began to create structures in the studio which would allow her vision to extend back out to the world.
Ultimately, she reasoned, her brain thinks in two-dimensions, and her retinas are just flat, tiny portholes from her mind onto the world. These facts were the same, no matter where she was. But the camera, and the photographs it produced, were windows. She could create whatever she wanted in front of that window and if it was enticing enough, the viewer, through looking at her work, would be able to enter into her built environments and be transported from where they stood. Essentially, she was asking, where does the world of the image end and our world begin?
Goudal captured this blurring neatly in her work “A Study on Perspective.” A seemingly straightforward structure—from one perspective—is quickly revealed to be a clever construct: a 3-D image, really.
This duality is present throughout Goudal’s art. Usually, when we talk about photography, we speak of a “vision.” This vision may be capable of eliciting stories and emotions and memories but ultimately, it is flat. Meanwhile, in architecture, we talk about space. How does a structure create a space that we can move through and relate with? But Goudal’s photography seems to ask us: what if this distinction were arbitrary? What if (flat) photographs could create space and massive structures were reduced to paper-thin ephemerality? This is the inside-out world where Goudal thrives.
From a distance, some of our most iconic buildings really do look pretty flat. Imagine the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Any picture of a structure that large will inevitably render the subject two-dimensional, almost unbelievably so. Photographically, the 500,000 tons of real, massive material become nothing but wafer-thin layers—concrete, glass, light and volume, reduced to the depth of the picture plane. In fact, almost all photographs can feel this way: a bit of sky, some paper, and the plane of a camera. A vision, yes, but a flat one.
Yet in a catching photograph, in one that has the power to draw us in—the imagination of the viewer is given the space to enter, to explore. These are the spaces that Goudal will push into even further at her upcoming exhibition at Le Bal, Le Cinquieme Corps.
Take, for example, her fascination with stereoscopes. Typically thought of as a 19th century oddity, these machines are the embodiment of Goudal’s fusion between representation and life. Stereoscopes are built around taking two slightly different images and, by presenting them to the left-eye and right-eye at the same time, are able to conjure up the appearance of a three-dimensional world.
Picture, then, what happens when you produce a stereoscopic image of a landscape. First, you begin with a real landscape, out in the world. You make two pictures of it, slightly different. These become two-dimensional representations. Then you put those pictures into a carefully calibrated machine and voilà—it is recreated in three dimensions. But only, note, in the eyes of the viewer standing at a certain point. And so: the world is reduced to flatness and then brought into rich, voluminous existence again—all in the space of our own minds.
Indeed, the entire science of optics hinges on harnessing light to shape our vision of the surrounding world. In other words, light—a massless stream of invisible waves/particles—has the power of creation, or at least, the rendering visible of things around us. Optics, then, appears as a third leg (next to photography and architecture) in Goudal’s drive to discover how space and light interact in the mystical process of creation.
For example, in this exhibition, Goudal is working with a team of masters-level opticians to construct a very large stereoscope within the walls of Le Bal. The size of the device will give Goudal the power, through a complex and fine-tuned manipulation of mirrors, to shrink down two large images and produce a much smaller three-dimensional world. Thus, a smaller final image in dimension, but one that the viewer’s eyes and mind will be capable of venturing into and inhabiting as a fully embodied space.
Goudal’s work is often compared to theater—each of her photographs a stage, a place for play. But there is a key distinction between the two that Goudal insists upon: theater is temporal while Goudal’s work is personal. Personal because it asks the viewer to build a world for themselves, in whatever timeframe they see fit. Thus, while theater necessarily exists in time, Goudal’s work aims to open up a timeless moment, a frame onto another world where the viewer is capable of making their own time and their own space.
Yet unlike theater, nothing forces you to stand and look at Goudal’s work. There are no curtains, no stage lights, no intermission, no applause. This means you are free to walk away at any time. But there is a beauty in this quality because it means there is also nothing stopping you from becoming infinitely lost. An image has no ending in where it can take you.
And so, we return to architecture. But with a new understanding: architecture whose main function is a haven. Because whether a building—and a space—was designed at one specific moment as a sundial or a stadium or a place of worship, it is in its function as a haven that any structure can persist as a meaningful place far long after its initial function has faded from view. In the same way a photograph can invite you into a timeless world and provide a haven away from the stream of daily life, so can a well-situated building, as an eternal sanctuary.
Similarly, in constructing her exhibition at Le Bal, Goudal faced the challenge of building a space that would evoke all the thinking that exists in her work. Of course, the images have already been made, since this is largely a retrospective exhibition, so Goudal called upon architecture (and optics) to create a haven for her art. In other words, a place that will fully express her ideas while also leaving enough open space for interpretation; a place where the viewer will be free to wander, explore and get lost—in the gallery and in their imaginations.
COLLECTIONS & ACQUISITIONS
– Centre Pompidou, National Museum of Modern Art, Paris, France
– FOAM Photography Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
– The New Art Gallery Walsall, UK
– Kiran Nadar Museum, New Delhi, India
– Villa Lena Foundation, Palaia, Italy
– The Brook Collection Limited, UK
– Musée de la Roche-sur-Yon, France
– Collection Hiscox France
– Domaine de Chamarande, France
– Saatchi Gallery, London, UK
– David Roberts Art Foundation, London, UK
– Artwise Curators, London, UK
– Winterthur Fotomuseum, Germany
– Conran Foundation, London, UK
– Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum, Warwickshire, UK
– Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, UK
– University of Hertfordshire Art Collection, UK
– The ING Collection, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
AWARDS AND RESIDENCY
– Residency at the Manufacture de Sèvres 2017-2020, Paris
– Exposure Award 2019, Photofairs Shanghai, China
– Mention of Honor for the SIPEP 2018, The Israel Museum, Jérusalem
– Research residency, 2018, Neutra VDL House, Los Angeles, USA
– HSBC Prize 2013, Paris, France
– Pix Sea Award 2013, Knokke Heist, Belgique
IN SITU INSTALLATIONS
– Permanent installation in Blanc Mesnil Station, Commission work for Société du Grand Paris, FR
– Blocs, Permanent installation in Marfa,Texas,USA
– In Search of the First Line, Meininger Staatstheater, Meiningen, DE
– Blocs, Rush Festival commissioned work for Frac Normandy Rouen, France
– Southern Light Stations, Temporary installation Hayward gallery, London, UK
From the novel to the everyday anecdote, narratives are omnipresent in our modes of expression and communication. Universal, they grow in every culture, every place, every society and every age. When we first think about narrative and story telling, we think about something we all engage with. In his essay Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, Roland Barthes pinpoints that ‘Narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: is simply there like life itself ‘*(*Barthes, Roland, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’ in Image, Music, Text, ed. Stephen Heath, New York: Publisher Hill and Wang, 1978, p.79) From time immemorial, humans have cultivated the same passion, or impulse, to narrate, to share collective experiences based on common realities.
Able to be carried by articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances: narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting, stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news items, conversation.
Stories are the general concern of mankind, rather than being ‘culture-specific’. They are translatable from one culture to another without fundamental changes, unlike the lyric or philosophical discourse. Barthes argues that the nature of narrative corresponds to the nature of culture and possibly to the nature of humanity itself. Indeed, even if narrative is considered to be a form of art, however modest, it does engage with artists as much as with non-artists. Complementing my photographic practice is the construction of a research analysis on the relation between a narrative and a unique image. After reading about narrative theories, or what Tzevetan Torodov coined, narratology, the study of narrative, I realised that very little has been studied specifically on visual narratives, as the most common tool used for narration is writing. I am however intending to work on the following problematic issue: what stories are told in images and how are they depicted?
In the first chapter of the essay, I will discuss the relationship between an image and its reference to stories that are already part of our collective memory, such as historical events, myths, legends and religious episodes. I have chosen the painting St Jerome in His Study by Antonello da Messina (1479) as a reference to support my argument. This peculiar piece refers to the moment where St Jerome hides in the desert for several years with the aim of translating the Bible. Since his death in 380AC, Jerome’ s life has been told and depicted by numerous artists and has become an eminent and recurrent theme of representation. After analysing the composition of the story in this painting and the work ‘behind’ its construction, I intended to look at it from the viewer’s point of view. What does this painting tell me? What narrative do I build in my mind while looking at the image? By blending my own interpretation to the researches I have made on St Jerome’s life, I will experiment with the exercise of ‘narrating’ the tableau.
Secondly, I will expand the research on visual narratives within the contemporary art practice which have been an important issue in the artistic discourse. New forms of narratives, specially in photography, grew and evolved in the past decades and it is interesting to identify their limits and expansions. By the blend of imagined elements within a realistic framework, photographers invite the viewer into a wider narration that offers altered possibilities of interpretation and reapropriation.
Indeed, the mise en scene photograph, or what has been recently named the Photographic Tableau, is a constructed image which often blends reality with fictional elements and transports the viewer into a parallel realm which plays with the viewer’s imagination. Indeed, theorists such as Christian Mertz mention that the strength of photography stands within its lack of narrative structure, which gives place to the spectator to create his own story. Additionally, through the process of the story, the viewer composes his own mental images, recreating a separate sphere constructed in between a shared reality and an imaginary world.
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. […]