Modesty not being the least of my faults, I want to make it clear, right at the start of this essay on photography as I conceive it and practise it, that I do not come forward as a specialist. Especially not, one might say, of photography and photography theory. I recall the old story of the multi-legged caterpillar, who had no trouble moving about till the day he asked himself what leg to start off with. So, what I’m presenting here is not a professional, far less a professorial paper on photography or art. All I want to do is open up a few tracks which, I hope, will be a useful contribution to the question that some of us here have been raising concerning the idea, the nature of an art specifically geopoetic.
But, first of all, is photography an art? This a big and long-standing subject of debate, even within the world of photography. As I read somewhere, in a very serious reviews of photography, it’s all about « delimitation and identity ». This « quest of identity » is everywhere in our society and on all sides barriers are raised. When, we are told, photography « drifts away from its traditional frontiers » and lets itself be seduced by « the sirens of art », the result is « borrowing », « compromise », « mixed practices ». Since this debate doesn’t interest me much, I’ll leave it to those who love debating, and try to speak of something else.
I’ll begin by quoting a few words from Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his book Tristes Tropiques (« The Sad Tropics »): « Like Benvenuto Cellini, to whom I feel more attracted than to the masters of the quattrocento, I like to wander along a shore abandoned by the tide, following an itinerary imposed by the contours of some abrupt coast, and gather in the jetsam there to be found: pebbles with holes in them, shells whose geometry has been reshaped by wear and tear, the fantastical forms of seaweed roots. All those fragments constitute to my mind a kind of museum, every bit as significant, at least for a moment, as those in which masterpieces are stored. It seems to me even that real human masterpieces are the result of a kind of working – in the mind, certainly, and not in the outer world – that is not fundamentally different from the workings of nature. »
These are the tracks I want to follow: along a shore, eyes attentive to natural forms, bringing nature and art together, seeing a connivence between man and world.
The title I gave this essay, « Natural Art or Artefact », was, of course, intended to be a little provocative. A double paradox: art-nature and photography-artefact. And, with that, two readings of this question. The one, theoretical: is the photography I practise pure and simple recording of reality, or artistic creation? The other, practical: do I, as I’m often asked, intervene in one way or another in the process, either before the shot, by « arranging » things, by staging a set, during the shot, by using filters, or after the shot by some manipulation or other in the laboratory?
I’ll begin with the practical question, since it will provide immediate acquaintance with my way of working.
One day, at one of my exhibitions, somebody told me he’d gone round the show three times, each time with a different way of looking. The first time, he’d come to the conclusion that the photos were « worked over » at the time of development. The second time, his idea was that I’d skilfully prepared the sand and then made an adroit use of coloured filters. At this point, he came up to me, congratulating me on my talents as a « sand-artist » and, subsequently, photographer. I then explained to him I’d done nothing, absolutely nothing, determined never to intervene in any even the slightest way: what I did was frame the subject, often very quickly, because I often photograph the lines left by waves at their ebbing, and press the shutter. Very surprised, he went round the exhibition a third time, and came back to say that this new vision of things surpassed all the others. He was enthusiastic.
Now let’s come back to more theoretical questions.
To speak of « natural art » is of course a contradiction in terms. Roger Caillois, whom we know as a great lover of the things of this world, pushed it to the limit: « My claim is that the lines and colours on the wings of butterflies are their painting », he declares in Méduse et Cie (« Medusa & Company ») . He’s well aware that such a declaration contains « a flagrant abuse of language », because on butterfly wings « there is delineation without design ». But he comes back on the question a little later, asking: « Can one speak of art? In the human sense of the term, certainly not. » But, in a larger sense… yes. Elsewhere, speaking of stones, he has this: « I prefer their patterns to the paintings of painters, their forms to the sculptures of sculptors. What we have there is the work of an artist who no doubt has less “merit” than human artists but who is more infallible than they are. » With regard to contemporary painters, he says they have « ventured out on a way where they’re bound sooner or later to come up against their greatest rival: nature ». Here one could also quote Bossuet: « There is so much art in nature that all art can do is try to tone into it. » And the list of statements pointing in this direction could be prolonged. Here, more cautiously, is Yves Le Fur, in the catalogue of an exhibition at the musée Dapper : « Work of art, work of nature, it is tempting to go from there to the notion of an “art in nature”, but, he adds, it would be difficult to maintain this position without having recourse to metaphysics. In the prevailing mental context (where, for example, there is no such thing as natural beauty, only cultural attitudes to nature), one can easily imagine, indeed one meets up with frequently, all the criticism, indeed all the anathemas, that have been levelled at this position. Our civilisation has put Man at the centre of the world, above the rest of « creation », and intends to keep him there. Following on from Lalo and some others, Alain Roger declares that « in spite of its exuberance, nature is dead (sic), dumb and anesthetized » and for there to be anything like an aesthetic sensation of nature, it has to be « artialised » (since it is art and art alone that forms our vision and fosters aesthetic judgement). Roger is particularly critical of Caillois, denouncing his naturalism (a naturalism « that can only be accompanied by the sarcasms of common sense ») and does manage to make some thrusts at Caillois that are pertinent and convincing, especially when the latter too often for my taste, makes specific reference to art in his descriptions of stones.
But, like all fertile minds, Caillois follows no single track, and continues to enlarge his field. If it is undeniable, he says, that nature came before man, what man does is « prolong » it, and the significant moment is that of convergence: « The same structures provide, on the one hand, the spectacle, on the other, the ability to appreciate it. » Man doesn’t imitate nature, he « accomplishes the same task in a different way ».
As for the aesthetic sensation of nature, Roger quotes Lalo on « the anaesthetic beauty of nature », and comments: « This sensation of well-being we can feel in nature has nothing specifically aesthetic. » He also brings in Cassirer: « I can walk over a landscape and be sensitive to its charms. I can enjoy the clemency of the air, the freshness of the fields, the diversity and gaiety of the colours and the perfumes of flowers. But all of a sudden my mind can take another turn. I see the landscape with the eye of an artist. I begin to make a picture of it. » At this point, one can begin to ask the question: is aesthetics, at least that aesthetics, so necessary? Furthermore, it will come as no surprise to anyone to learn, from the pen of A. Dauzat, again quoted by Roger, that: « Those associations of ideas (the evocation of a painting in the presence of this or that landscape), those backlashes of civilization on nature and the sensations it offers us, can only increase with the intensity of urban living. »
Let’s come back to Caillois: « I’m close to thinking that the term “beauty” is superfluous: what counts is signs of intelligence between beings of the same group… ». He speaks in fact less and less of beauty in his last books. I may be wrong, but I don’t think I saw the word even once in his posthumous book Le Champ des signes : Récurrences dérobées (« The Field of Signs : Hidden Recurrences): Hidden Recurrences ») in which he develops his theory of connivence. And, unlike the urbanized minds I’ve just evoked, I see in Caillois a man who, on the contrary, in childhood, must have had an intimate communication with nature. Ultimately, it’s this intimate relationship to the world that offers the best refutal of Roger’s thesis.
Here’s Henry Moore reflecting on the enrichment that comes from a contact with reality: « For years on end I’d visit the same beach. But each year a new form of pebble would attract my attention, a form I’d hardly noticed before although it was present in hundreds of examples. Among the million pebbles I come across as I walk on the beach, my eyes choose to see only those that correspond to my formal interests at that moment. Something entirely different takes place if I sit down and examine a handful of pebbles one by one. From that point on, I can extend my formal experience by giving my mind time to become sensitive to another form. » Here, it’s not mind that imposes its forms on nature, but the contrary, and it would be simple to adduce similar examples. »
But rather than continuing to oppose the two theses, might it not be possible to see in them the two poles of a dialectics, and consider that the mind can, in turn, be influenced, configured, by the forms of nature and the forms of art. And might it not be possible to go still further? To go looking for that deeper, more moving convergence between mind and nature, art and nature, that intrigued Caillois and which he was the first, I think, to designate as a connivence between man and nature (here, our rationalist critics no longer take the trouble to criticize, they just shrug their shoulders). It is this relationship that has been my concern for a long time now, and which constitutes the very basis of my photographic research.
I’ve already said that my practice of photography consists in recording purely and simply what I find. I mean by that the absence of artifice other than the necessary mediation of a lens (most often, the one said to be closest to human vision, the 50 mm) and the minimal chemistry required for the developing and printing of the film. But the essential question remains. Do I do nothing more than reproduce the forms (the « works » of nature), or is something else going on? Am I engaged only in the reflection of a part of nature, or is an artefact taking place, a human work of art?
The attraction to natural objects is a constant in human culture. We can see it in prehistoric excavations, and it is interesting to note that the sensitive appreciation of forms in themselves (ammonites, crystals, strange growths) preceded the collection of more figurative objects. My feeling is that when, on a beach, we pick up a pebble, or a piece of driftwood, or a bit of root, our interest is quickened by some unusual, remarkable form that stands out from its surroundings, different by its harmony, its perfection, even by its grotesqueness. The very fact of picking it up, an act of deviation and appropriation, is already perhaps an aesthetic, creative act.
Man, says Caillois, « has often felt that any object could become a work of art simply because he declared it so, having chosen it, isolated it, framed it, sometimes signed it ». Among other objects, he was thinking of « dream stones » (Caillois says « visions of nature »), those pieces of marble that the Chinese cut out of the earth, polished, framed and signed, sometimes adding short poems, and that they considered veritable works of art, as much as human paintings. Already there, we’ve gone further than the simple collection accompanied by valorisation evoked above. There is selection, work (cutting, polishing) and integration into a coherent cultural context.
Now, however different a stone may be from a photograph, those « dream stones » are the nearest analogy I’ve found in what I do in photography. I’ll come back to that.
This is where Duchamp comes in.
I remember, one day, on the island of Dominica, in the West Indies, when Serge Goudin-Thébia, an inveterate beachcomber, brought back from the beach two magnificent pieces of rock, and, placing them one atop the other, said: « Look. What could be better than that? That’s art. We’ll need to rethink Duchamp. »
This is a line that, quite independently, Georges Amar followed in a very fine article , with reference to Cézanne’s desire to « do Poussin in nature », that is, enlarge Duchamp’s conception, « consider the whole world as a ready-made ». Placing side by side human creativity and the notion of ready-made, Amar distinguishes two main types of operation: « Those that consist in applying a force, and those that consist in a modification of context. The first lead to a creation of form, the second to a creation of meaning. The first produce transformation, the second apparitions. Since one sees things truly only when, while remaining themselves, they take on new meaning. » In all this development, I can’t help seeing an apology for photography. For what other technique creates no material form, operates no transformation, lets things remain themselves, in their own place, without interference while finding there its material and accomplishing a « modification of context ». The only operative act comes from the eye that chooses, isolates, gives meaning, produces « the apparition ». And when, a little further on in the same text, Amar proposes « less to create than to learn to read the tropes and the syntax of a physical language immediately present in the appearance of things », I seem to read an exact description of what I do when I walk the shores, on the watch – with this nuance of a difference: I’d say the language that interests me isn’t only physical, it’s a common language, a language with two voices, the world supplying the words, and me, the syntax.
This is also what I find in the « dream stones ».
Whence and why this fascination for natural objects which give us the illusion of being made by the hand of man? I’d say that it’s because precisely there we see the point of convergence between human being and matter, between the human and the non-human.
For the Chinese, the fact that those « dream-stones » weren’t created by human hand was of no importance whatsoever. For centuries, they painted landscapes, made representations of the world. Representations? Not exactly. Because in this conception of things man is an integral part of the universe, and his deepest effort, via meditation, but also by the art of painting, is to remain in close contact with it. Through painting, he re-creates the world. « The activity of the painter does not consist in imitating the diverse data of Creation, but in reproducing the very act by which Nature creates. Painterly creation is a process identical with the creation of the Universe », says Ryckmans . The painted landscape represents the cosmos. To produce a real painting, in which the vital breath will circulate, the painter must see into internal lines, tune into the general energy of the landscape, but, as an eighteenth-century author quoted by Ryckmans puts it: « He must never express them entirely, he must let the mind of the onlooker participate in the formation, he must leave certain elements unsaid, open. » This explains the elliptic fragmentary, suggestive, virtual character of Chinese painting, the artist cultivating, as François Cheng puts it, « the art of not showing everything, so as to keep the vital breath alive and leave the mystery intact . » « Let everything find prolongation in the mind », said Pu Yen-t’u, this applying both to the visual lines and to the sensation of void in the composition.
In those plaques of marble, to which they often gave the form of a disk, as symbol of the universe, the Chinese saw telluric forces at work, forces that composed landscapes that were perfectly equivalent to their art. The dream stones presented a lot more than some vague, naïve resemblance, they bore the lines of force of landscapes such as they themselves tried to present, pushing, of course, things to the limit: design, ellipse, void, allusion. The Ming and Qing artists, who inherited from the Yuan painters, says Ryckmans, « deliberately maintained a kind of aristocratic distance and detachment so as to give full scope to the accidental and unforeseeable that, in its free divagations, provides the mind with its rarest delights. It is easy to see why the dream stones were also sometimes called « travel stones ».
One fine day, in the sand, I saw a Chinese painting. And my impulse was to photograph it. Caught in the act of « artialisation » (as Roger would say)? Perhaps. But I’d say this type of « artialisation » doesn’t cut me off from the world. In time, maybe with the idea of the dream stones in my head, I moved on to more and more simplified and abstract forms. I think of Klee wanting to « move up beyond the model to the matrix ».
In an interesting little book that synthesizes a symposium bringing together artists and scientists organized by the Institut de pathologie cellulaire and under the direction of Jacques-Louis Binet, Jacques Mandelbrojt, painter and physicist, or maybe I should rather say, physicist and painter, says that abstract art is « the expression of the painter’s inner structure […] an inner self-portrait ». And a little farther on, Jean-Claude Pecker, painter and astronomer, or the reverse, says that the question for a painter is « to reduce reality to its essential structures », abstraction concentrating on « structures perhaps more permanent ». Abstract art: the expression of the mental structures of the artist, or an exploration of the structures of reality? There again, no doubt both. That’s exactly René Huyghe’s way of thinking, whose book, Formes et Forces was the basic reference of the symposium in question. Huyghe speaks of « a sort of connivence between forms conceived by the mind and those that underly the organisation of nature », and of « a fundamental accordance between the forms required by thought and the forms offered by reality. »
In search, if I may say so, of essential forms, I feel for my part that I find exactly what I desire in the forms I come across in nature. It’s nature that gives me the forms I need. Collaboration, co-elaboration? All of this is natural, Caillois would say: « Such encounters are no illusion. They are witness to the fact that the texture of the universe is continuous. »
It’s this « texture of the universe » that, in my view, is the real context of geopoetic art.