27 January 2022 The artist creates illusions of the natural world: what happens when what is concealed beneath the artifice is eventually revealed?
A common-sense definition of photography would state that it is used to freeze or capture a moment in time and space. To create a durable, lasting image. In a world that can seem constantly to be passing us by. In Noémie Goudal’s work the medium is deployed to achieve precisely the opposite. To create images that are unstable, unenduring and fundamentally unmoored. To challenge common sense.
Take Below the Deep South (2021), a video (just over 11 minutes) she showed at last year’s Frieze London art fair. The camera is trained on what looks like a lushly verdant tropical jungle. At a certain point, some of the plants begin to burn. Only, in the process of combustion, to reveal that they were in fact merely photographs printed on paper. As the video evolves, and bits of blackened photographic paper flutter through the air, successive layers of plants catch fire, one after the other, as if a pyromaniac had developed a clock, to reveal the same. After each conflagration the jungle takes on a new shape. And as each of its new forms is revealed, we begin to anticipate the final blaze, at which point, presumably, the true nature of this landscape will be revealed. It’s a natural response. We can only truly appreciate the quality – the artifice – of an illusion or misdirection by knowing the reality or direction that it conceals. Otherwise we’re just left feeling stupid, unable to recognise what’s in front of us. And no one wants to feel like that.
So you’ll be relieved to hear that Below the Deep South does have a conclusion. By the end – spoiler alert – we realise we’ve been looking at a pure illusion, a stage set. Perhaps, even, it was never a representation of a single landscape, but rather a collage of stock imagery drawn from various elements captured in various parts of the world. In short, we’ve been looking at an idea of a jungle, rather than its reality. And there’s nothing really there.
But that’s not to say that the French artist’s work is engineered to be a massive downer, or indeed to make you feel stupid. As the French thinker Gilles Deleuze used to say about philosophy: ‘Where to begin… has always – rightly – been regarded as a very delicate problem, but beginning means eliminating all presuppositions’.
Below the Deep South begins in Goudal’s research into deep time (which is to say time measured in terms of the lifetime of our planet rather than in terms of the relatively brief life of humankind). More specifically it alludes to the discovery in a West Antarctic sediment core-sample (drilled in 2017) of evidence that the frozen wasteland had once (around 90 million years ago – or not that long ago in terms of the life of our planet) been home to a temperate tropical rainforest. In human time we think of the Antarctic as a static frigid space (despite our best efforts to melt it). In the time of the planet, it’s a moving, evolving, transforming environment. To which humans are merely a recent menace. Although not as recent as human recognition of things like continental drift (first proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912) and global warming and the forces (us) driving the current climate crisis. Her work, Goudal asserts, is an invitation to reconsider our position within the world (as opposed to apart from it), and through that to reconsider our future.
There is a long art-history of landscape construction, which reached a zenith in the rococo paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau of well-to-do people frolicking in bucolic landscapes or gardens, sometimes borrowed from other paintings (just as Goudal borrows imagery from her own archives of greenhouse plants and forests), often including an overgrown classical sculpture or ruins, dressed up in the latest fashions or theatrical costume (‘semi-fancy dress’, as some have put it). The idea behind it all was to locate his subjects in an elevated classical past, to portray them as people of leisure (and therefore wealth) and to present the artist as the inheritor of a noble tradition. And in this last sense the misdirection in which the artist clothed his sitters was designed to provide a sense of direction for the artist. Of his work, the eighteenth-century art-historian Jacques Élie Faure (to whom Deleuze often referred) said: ‘He imbued with the utmost transitoriness those things which our gaze encounters as the most enduring, namely space and forests’. You might almost think Élie Faure was writing about the work of Goudal. Were it not for the fact that the two artists deal with radically different themes.
While the construction of Watteau’s work was inherently theatrical (and Goudal has described her own work as an exercise in ‘setting a scene’), the contemporary artist’s presentations, which span photography, moving image and installation, draw as much from the world of science as they do from the performing arts. (And, after all, no human actors are present in her works.) Stratigraphy (applied to core samples) is a dating system commonly used by archaeologists to locate an object in time and space. It’s relative, using the layered strata of materials that have built up on the earth (according to climate, habitation and weather conditions) to allow the observer to deduce from the materials surrounding an object that it is older than something found among materials deposited above it. It’s a process suggested by Below the Deep South and by works such as the photographs that make up Goudal’s Tropiques series (2020), in which photographic constructions that appear to show equatorial forests are hung within the context of an actual forest (and aligned so as to merge), such that you can just about see that one image overlays another, often around the edges or because of the presence of bulldog clips or the framework that holds the photographic image in place. In more recent works, such as Phoenix VII (2021), the photographic image is constructed out of strips, between which the background is visible, offering a more striated, vertiginous and kaleidoscopic encounter. The equivalent of everything at once, if you like.
“Everything is a little like weaving,” Goudal says of the construction of her recent works. At their heart lie questions concerning the nature of representation and perception. As well, of course, as issues concerning the nature of nature and our relationship to it. Moreover, these move beyond the standard interrogations of photography as a medium: the where was it? when was it? and who took it? Because Goudal’s images suggest answers that might be phrased in terms of ‘both nowhere and somewhere’, ‘many times’ and ‘what does it matter – it is clearly constructed and I’m not trying to hide that’. Rather, her work might best be understood as exploring questions of how to represent reality in its contingent and everchanging form. Or an idea of deep time that, measured in billions of years, is so abstract, in terms of human measurement, that it is almost beyond comprehension. And how to relate our constructions of the world around us – our approximations of it – with the world as it really is. A reality that may be, to human understanding, no more than an idea. ‘Something in the world forces us to think,’ Deleuze wrote when further worrying about how thought begins without the influence of things like preconception and common sense. ‘This something is not an object of recognition but of a fundamental encounter.’ It’s such events that Goudal seeks to stage.