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Klaus Honnef, Actes sud

KLAUS HONNEF

THE INCERTITUDE OF BEING
Book introduction, Editions Actes sud 2010.

Within the context of the artistic avant-garde, describing a work as "déjà-vu" was a devastating judgment. Innovation, that was the watchword of the day. Art, it too, submitted to the demands of perpetual renewal. Times have changed. Since the rage of modernity has worn itself out, recycling is the current artistic method. Complaints about presumed and real plagiarism accumulate, but they are also the symptoms of creative stagnation.
Lucie & Simon greet dread with derision by making "déjà-vu" their artistic principle. It is, however, necessary to come back for a second look to be able to grasp the complexity of their enterprise. The discreet irony that underlies their images doesn't flaunt itself in a garish way. This irony can also not be separated from the methods and motives of their creations. And, most particularly, it doesn't rise above what their images show to plunge this vision into an acid bath of doubt. No, this irony is instead an element that adds an additional tension to these images.
The medium of photography provides the technique of Lucie & Simon's images ; a technique that has forgotten the conflict between analog and digital processes, between life documented and life staged. Their photographic work is carried out in the form of cycles, "Scenes of Life", "Earth Vision", "Silent World". Multiple connexions exist between the different cycles. They are linked by certain thematic patterns, and a relationship of tension develops between the images making each set, thereby provoking questions.
What practically leaps out at you, in the first instance, is that these images bring to mind others that have already existed in comparable form, although never identical. They've been created by photography, less so by painting, but above all by film. It is not, however, the subjects chosen for these photographic images that awaken the particular memory of earlier images, but the manner in which we recollect them, the way they have been shaped, the kind of perception they transmit.

The "Scenes of Life" have all been taken from a bird's-eye perspective, sometimes even from vertically overhead. Alfred Hitchcock, the "master of suspense", employed this perspective when he wanted to underline the fact that a character captured in this way by the camera ran a physical and vital risk. David Lynch added a metaphysical component to this terrain of error. His epigones imitate his gaze and today, in most films, the bird's-eye perspective is merely a decorative accessory devoid of meaning.
With the images of a man in a bathtub, a child caught in the centrifugal movement of a staircase, a young girl in the frame of an open window, a baby and its bassinet in the middle of a gigantic meadow drenched in dark shadows, Lucie & Simon also seem to be invoking a climate insecurity – without necessarily indicating the main reason behind the possible negative effects.

With Hitchcock and Lynch, the cinematographic tale's context crystallizes the threatening mood. But in "Scenes of Life", we can't find the slightest narrative context, likewise the tiniest clue about the looming calamity. Apart from the deep shadows, perhaps, which have basically not yet engulfed the narrow strip where the baby's bassinet is stationed. The various images of the cycle form neither sequence nor series, no kind of whole whose elements relate one to the other – unless the link is their shared everyday nature. Each image has an autonomous existence. None recounts a story ; they are essentially variations of a still life. What is produced in the image retains an instant that preceded an event ; it fixes something that has already happened, and which is, in a sense, pushed back a second time towards the past via the photographic act that freezes it.
The risk here would consequently be to either obtain the product of a photographic pattern of the image set by convention (which associates the extreme vision from on high with danger), or the effect of the imagination of viewers familiar with the way this type of image is used in the films in question, or, even, the product of the very medium of photography, which stops everything in its tracks – if it were not these images' mise en scène that does its utmost to set up an atmosphere of rest and relaxation before the camera starts operating.

Many of the characters photographed seem to be sleeping; they're lying down, on a bed, on a couch, in the grass, dozing at the dinner table, they trust in water's buoyant force, or they're fishing. It's the past, the thing done. The moment that separates phases of action. On the other hand, the bird's-eye perspective was made to express a good dose of dread and danger; the steeper the angle, the more threatening it seems. In the present case, it literally compresses the space of the image into a surface, the gaze sticks like a suction pad; in the presentation of images on the cinema screen and the exhibition wall, which tips forty-five additional degrees, the tables, beds, meadow, swimming pool, everything that the image contains the characters and props towards the depths. Other small incongruities reinforce the intuition that things are not what they should be: a bottle of milk tipped over on a table, a car tire in the green water of a swimming pool, the make-up mirror titled upwards that reflects the face of the woman in a bathtub, the unfathomable depth beside the young girl in the window frame, or the crumpled red dress of the half-naked woman in the green grass, purely because the dress forms a red stain that stands out in the rest of the image and lies on the ground unrelated to all around it. Details, facts that leap out at you and seem insignificant, or that indeed have no importance. In any case, they fill the role of a "MacGuffin", this imaginary factor of tension set off, according to Hitchcock, when a man enters a train compartment with a briefcase that we suspect contains a bomb. The fruit of an observer's imagination, an observer that has seen too many movies ? 
The question is valid. The apparent or real incongruities, because fortuitous, of the scenes that Lucie & Simon present, are only revealed after a certain amount of time, after intensive observation. This prolonged gaze doesn't lose itself in an illusionary space but, thanks to the duo's structuring of surfaces, slowly studies the images like an investigator inspects the scene of a crime. Crime scenes: this is the name that German writer and critic Camille Recht, reprised by Walter Benjamin, gave to Eugene Atget's photographs. The fact remains that with photographic images, caution is called for. In Michelangelo Antonioni's film "Blow-up", a fashion photographer imagines the presence of a corpse in the black and white field of the shot.

In the group of photographs entitled "Earth Vision", the menacing atmosphere continues, but takes a relatively concrete turn, as though the MacGuffin proffered its identity. Nature and civilization equally provide the seemingly menacing forces – be it in the inhospitableness of cities or the forces of nature. But in reality, it is the light that makes these photographed settings pass into the unreal or surreal. Nature and civilization are also the sources of this light that is sometimes artificial, sometimes natural, and sometimes both at once; and the photographer's colour system contributes to this unsettling atmosphere. The fact that individuals well and truly lose themselves in these photographed settings, minute in the middle of the surroundings, reduced to the size of Tom Thumb, further increases the settings' unreal and threatening nature. What's more, it is a contrast between the form and the content. The individual delivered without protection to the forces of nature and civilization: a solitary woman on the winding road of a sparsely lit underground passage, a man on a riverbank, in a dark park upon which, in the foreground of the image, a bridge projects its shadows… Without the subcutaneous irony, the shot would be perfect. We are far from the reality of everyday life. We also find it difficult to understand what these characters are doing in these ravines of tunnels, the only truly inhospitable places in these images – apart from believing that the imaginations of the people who staged these photographs summoned the characters there. It is almost always night in these images: historic buildings, streetlamps, flashes of lightning, an industrial site's lights, and the dawn or dusk illuminate the scene of the action in a spectral way. The images' characters, barely visible, pose as though they are waiting for an imminent accident, without taking any precaution whatsoever to protect themselves, as though the accident were inevitable. The camera captures them in long shot, most often at eye height, but rarely however from overhead, as in the "Scenes of life" series. We increasingly suspect that these images refer back, in the first instance, to other images; but with the ironic rift, they also refer to significant social syndromes.

The night, a team appreciated by photographers since the 1930's, is the domain of the "Earth vision" cycle. Early morning, the brief interval between night and day, before the activities of the city have gotten underway, dominate the group of works making up "Silent world". Stores, bars, stock exchanges and cinemas are still closed, the streets and squares deserted, the cars in garages or suburban parking areas doused in light – only one or two passersby, a child, a woman and child, two children as small as beetles, and all the more defenceless and with no escape from their environment, wander in these lands like will-o'-the-wisps. Gullivers in the land of giants. Often they move and walk with big footsteps in the district of Wall Street or the Place de la Concorde, sometimes they stay in the same spot. Why? When one of the children sits on the Madeleine's steps, the building's pillar and canopy offer no protection, but show, on the contrary, that the child is clearly lost. Even the dark and gigantic vault of the Eglise Saint Sulpice reveals rather monstrous features, and although the light pouring in from two windows to the right illuminates the little girl in a red dress, it nevertheless seems to excommunicate her. To this extent, the images of the "Silent world" series respond to those of "Scenes of life". The danger doesn't stem from possible unpredictable reasons. It is tangible and results from the gigantic dimensions of places and clusters of streets in which avalanches of sheet-metal won't be long in coming. The observer feels a breeze of agoraphobia float his way.

The silence of the world, like a quotation, is suddenly endowed with an oppressive eloquence. Small intrusions are the true sparks here, because their disconcerting presence disrupts the majestic calm of the streets and squares. Are the latter guilty or victims? The fate that governs these shots in a tangible way is not the result of decisions taken by metaphysical powers, but stems uniquely from the imagination of the two creators of these photos, Lucie & Simon.
Although they consciously and intelligently stage the principle of the "déjà-vu", they nevertheless brilliantly include observers in their game and transform them into co-creators of their images. They undermine the idea that the photographic image is a duplicate of the visible world or a "language without code" (Roland Barhtes), an image that is at least « natural » at the moment of its creation. They endow their photographs with an abundance of unsettling codes, of the most diverse persuasions and origins, particularly those arising from other images. However, these codes don't focus the images. They serve instead to incite observers to fill them with language of their own experience and their own imagination.
The image's references also remain perfectly open. It is not even possible to establish a link between Lucie & Simon's images and the gernes and methods common to photography. Are they snapshots for which chance has at least partially assured the mise en scène, the outcome of patient waiting, set-ups carefully prepared according to a precise concept, or improvised within the limits of a flexible conceptual framework ? Precise knowledge of the situation would'nt provide much more insight. The artists supremely combine genres and methods, they quote and blend, and discover MacGuffins in pointless details, in other terms : the levers capable of smashing the common assurance and certitude of existence.

Klaus Honnef.