In conversation with Valérie Belin
Please tell us a little about yourself – your childhood, siblings, where you grew up, what you liked as a child, strange thoughts as a child/now, unique attributes, where you live now, etc.?
I was born in the suburbs of Paris in 1964. I now live in central Paris. I often travel to New York, which is a perpetual source of inspiration and a great machine for producing images. I consider myself more an artist than a photographer. I have never worked on the documentary side of photography. I have always viewed my work in the same way a painter would consider painting. I take in the world and make images from it. I never thought about what my future would be. From secondary school onwards, I was significantly captivated by lessons connected to creation, literature and the history of art in particular, but I had no specific talent for drawing, I therefore joined the beaux arts (fine arts) with a great lack of awareness! The freedom that I found in this institution very rapidly enabled me to consider photography as a prime tool, which allowed me to formalize a relationship with the world. I benefited from an education based mainly on knowledge of the main trends of American art in the 60s and 70s, notably minimalism. I was therefore very marked by the formal reductionism of a Robert Morris as well as by the physical experience of artwork by someone like Richard Serra. After graduating in 1987, I went to university to study the philosophy of art where I tried to analyze the relationships between American minimalism and the changes in the urban fabric. I concluded at the time that minimalist artists offered us a particularly physical experience of peri-urban regions and their alienating effect.
What does your art/photography mean to you?
For me photography constitutes a means of reflection; it enables me to respond to a desire for objectification and the ability to keep alive memories of “things”. My work develops through series of images based on a game of repetitions and variations, which draws on an interest for a form of abstraction in photography. The absolute frontal viewpoint, the radical bidimensionality, the absence of context and the monumentality of the formats exclude narration. This in effect transforms my models into icons. My subjects evoke the vanity or fragility of our existence. They raise the questions – “what is life today?” and “how is life cultivated by metamorphosis and forces of destruction?”
What tools do you use for the creation of your work and how did you create your personal art/photography style?
Based on a very precise protocol, my exclusively photographic work can be read as an obsessive attempt to appropriate the realm in which the ‘body’, in the broadest sense of the term, plays a decisive role. Even when the body is not present in an image, the allusive quality of a figure underscores the idea of its dematerialisation or absence. When the body is explicitly represented, its condition is purely decorative, or it appears as singularly absent. This particular treatment of beings and objects is striking for its simultaneously spectacular and stark quality, which precludes any kind of narrative or documentary development. My work is articulated in series of images based on a subtle play of repetitions and variations that explore a form of photographic abstraction. The absolute frontality of the viewpoint, the radical two-dimensionality, the absence of context, and the monumentality of the formats bestow an iconic value on these subjects chosen for their powerful evocation of the uncertainties and paradoxes of “life.” My work transcends issues of identity and probes a more existential realm.
For example, my portraits of Black Women (2001) seems to shift the subject to a purely abstract and cultural field where the photogenic character of the face produces an effect superior to one produced “naturally,” as if the photograph really consisted of both the somber and luminous skin - this contrast between black and white creates flat and perfect symmetry. Like photographic sculptures, these “object-faces” are also served by fantasy: they participate in a certain existential ambiguity through the mask concept.
The Crowned Heads Series (2006) also deals with the idea of physical perfection and is reminiscent of the “Miss” competitions where physical superiority is rewarded, with dreams of representing the perfect image. I chose to create these portraits following the 3D modeling technique. They are obtained by overprinting several photographs of the same model. These girls fade in reality because this composition creates a sfumato (toned down) effect, which dissolves the texture of the skin. More precisely, these photographs constitute a purely artificial and extremely realistic virtual representation of the face.
The Black Eyed Susan Series (2010) is an extension of my investigations into the hybrid nature of photography. I have produced two distinct images to constitute a third that evokes a particularly sophisticated form of superimposition. Faces of women are visible, blending intimately with bouquets of flowers. An elegant woman styled in a code belonging uniquely to the 1950s has been chosen for this series. It is defined in terms of rigid, artificially “mounted” forms that recall certain conventional icons of the period. I have added a particular style to the model focused on the hairstyle and pearl necklace. This formal assembly of the character is made necessary because of the superimposition. The addition of round shapes (necklace) and the billowing expansion of the character’s outline (hairstyle) ensure a link between the face and the flowers.
In the Brides Series (2012), I revisit ceremony and rituals already tackled through the photographs of ‘Moroccan brides’ (2000) and ‘Bodybuilders’ (1999), where I focused on portraying the metamorphoses of the body, when it fluctuates from one state to another. This series extends my use of superimposition that has developed a ‘surreal’ style through the profusion of detail in my work. Here, portraits of brides are superimposed in their traditional robes (white dress and holding a bouquet) and urban landscapes composed of fast food, sex shop windows and other fixtures in a direct and vulgar style. Two opposing entities therefore appear to clash.
Your pictures play with reality, illusion, abstract and surrealism – is this a conscious decision and what are you trying to invoke in the viewer?
The choice of my subjects is always the fruit of a necessity to portray an autobiographical character. My work may be regarded as an obsessive attempt at appropriating the tangible where empathy with my models plays a major role. I have a marked preference for permanent metamorphosis that objects and people are subjected to by their social environment. In this respect, my subjects become artifacts, provisional displays, fiction; many metaphors of the ‘artificial paradise’ incurred by the globalization and media coverage of living beings. This can go as far as a form of hybridization between living matter and inert matter. See picture from the Mask Series (2004) below.
What is the worst critique you have ever received about your work? What is the best compliment that you have received about your work?
The worst critique was when someone could not feel my purpose and involvement in one of my series. The best compliment was when someone said looking at my works made life easier.
What moment in your art/photography career was the most pivotal?
The Mannequins Series from 2003 was a pivotal series and was purchased by the MoMA in New York. The appeal was the hyper realistic appearance of these mannequins, which are cast on real bodies and can already (even before they were photographed) be considered as photographs (three- dimensional) of real mannequin women. The photographs indeed highlight this question of reality and illusion; it’s a question of photographs of mannequins, but which mannequins, women or objects? See three images from the The Mannequins Series (2003) below.
Which artist/s do you look up to the most?
Walker Evans and August Sander stand out to me because of the radical nature of their approach, their success and their virtuosity. Later, when I moved on to portraits, I became very interested in Avedon, for the proximity his models in his work, the light on the faces, the monumentality of his portraits, and his lack of fear. By contrast, the expressive side of his subjects is foreign to me; mine are completely inert, without any expression. Today, I have great admiration for Wolfgang Tillmans who develops work beyond the classic borders of photography whilst being a virtuoso in the medium. See picture from the Moroccan Brides (2000) Series below.
What is your personal life philosophy?
I wish I had one!
Article courtesy of Kwesi Adjin at StyleNoChaser.