The image disputes the presence of the thing. In the image, the thing is not content simply to be; the image shows that the thing is and how it is … The thing presents itself.
– Jean-Luc Nancy, Image and Violence, 2005
When I sat down with Sylvie Bélanger to discuss her current piece firstname.lastname@example.org at Birch Contemporary, she began by recounting a 2002 visit to the Roland Barthes Exhibition at Centre de Pompidou. Accompanying the exhibition was a publication of collected essays in which one author recounts Barthes’s nightly excursions to the cafes, bars, and nightclubs of an energetically modernist and sexually emerging Paris in the 1970s. Bélanger, wanting to weave herself into the social fabric of this time, revisited and recorded each of the (now drastically-altered) locations listed. The resulting bio-psychogeographic representation of Barthes’s “itinerary of the night” forms the first half of a project by Bélanger that addresses the more personal and poetic side of the thinker. The project, explains Bélanger, aims to put “Barthes in images.”
Upon first glance, email@example.com is a mostly empty gallery space, with its white walls appearing blank, save for a few sparse details of visual noise. The work fits neatly and immediately into the category of minimalism, so minimal, in fact, that many viewers have reportedly gone no further than to glance once and move on. The blank areas are mildly disorientating, but despite the empty room, I found that something physical was keeping me there.
In firstname.lastname@example.org the initial not-knowing is key. An empty room displayed as art – although it has most certainly been done before (Yves Klein, Art & Language, Robert Irvin, and Martin Creed all come to mind) – is still capable, it turns out, of challenging contemporary approaches to representation and the production of truth. In this case, the gallery was host to a series of subtle, seemingly banal interferences. I scanned the walls for more information, and noticed a slightly toothed texture and the presence of consecutive, floor-to-ceiling seams. What initially appeared as a series of photos on a wall turned out to be an entire photo-wallpaper, produced through extensive and exact photo-documentation of the gallery’s surfaces, edited for detail, and printed to scale, in order to be installed as a second skin.
I am working to find the right words. The gallery press release refers to email@example.com as a “site-specific, photographic installation,” but I find myself inventing more tailored terms, like “uncanny realism,” where an artwork that, while accurately mimicking its subject, leaks just enough artifice that its very “realness” becomes a source of doubt. Alternatively, it could be labeled “double-take realism,” a realism that rewards the conscientious viewer with a rare and satisfying “ah-ha” moment of discovery. It’s certainly conceptual, a representation of the gallery as art, designed to draw attention to its architecture and behavior so as to de-neutralize the space by imbuing it with an inherent sense of criticality. Bélanger described her primary intention as wanting to exhibit the space in such a way that viewers would see a thing that was normally invisible. Our mimetic processes allow us to break the world down into manageable portions; images have always played a significant role in how we make sense of things.
And yet, we know images to be expressive. Mirror-like as they may appear, we have long accepted that photography represents a subjective reality; it’s no document of truth. firstname.lastname@example.org is not merely a photograph of walls on walls. The piece includes details that were actually present on the day of documentation (screws, holes, scuff marks, fingerprints) – hence the title’s date and time, marking the moment of regard and imprinting – things that were included by Bélanger to look as though they belonged in the space (a tiny black spider clinging to one wall, and a blank rectangular “canvas” floating on another), and things that were there, but fleeting (shadows cast by sun shining through the gallery’s skylights). Each of these interventions provides a moment of focus; a referent for the sign that breaks the plane.
From a phenomenological perspective, the shadows are the true reveal that something is amiss. No matter what weather conditions are present outside, these particular mid-summer, mid-morning shadows on the gallery walls stay the piece. Our direct experience of the space is mediated through this impossibility; we are here, but what exactly is here?
The question of whether or not this installation can be termed a photograph remains. All the indications and elements of its medium are present: the work is made up of captured light and form, edited, printed, and installed. The image contains data and visual information about its referent, though if a photograph is a frozen moment in time, then email@example.com can be read as pure photography. The piece is, literally, a to-scale photograph, applied to cover up its own subject, then documented again. It’s also time-based, and in that sense, narrative; the camera was employed to record light as it moved across the room, and, as the shadows grew longer, the space slowly darkened. Another time-based factor of the work is the inevitable accumulation of new scuff marks and fingerprints, causing each return visit to yield potentially new results.
So firstname.lastname@example.org is undoubtedly medium-specific: the gesture cannot be made in any other way. And yet, despite its very specific physical make-up, the work isn’t defined by its medium. (And anyway, photography, a frequent tenet of interdisciplinary practices like Bélanger’s, has arguably evolved to a post-medium state.) Instead, the choice of medium in this case reflects the nature of the artist’s proposition: Bélanger set out to interfere with the position of neutrality that we afford the gallery space. In an astute act of visual reflexivity, she counted on our habitual art-viewing behavior to ensure that, when presented with a representation of what we already knew was there, we would actually take the time to see it.
Coming back to Barthes, the concept of the photograph’s index comes into play. email@example.com bears such a strong physical relationship to the thing it signifies, it’s almost hyper-indexical. Though our culture is multi-generationally literate in Barthes, it’s worth remembering that some photographs survive as truth-tellers today. Those that do are sustained by what Barthes referred to as their punctum: that hard-to-pinpoint aspect of an image that holds the individual’s attention due to its indescribable essence. The punctum need not contain practical information or beauty. Its status can shift as the viewer’s perspective shifts, or as he or she becomes more familiar with the image at hand. In fact, the punctum is often identified only after the photo is out of the viewer’s immediate eyesight. The punctum is the photograph’s nature, its energy. It cannot be directly explained because it represents a subjective experience of perception.
In the final years of his life, Barthes went in search of a true photographic likeness of his mother. He eventually found her in an image that was taken when she was just five years old. It was the uniquely childlike and slightly awkward way that she held one finger that Barthes identified as the punctum of his mother’s “unique being.” After a long career of breaking the image down into scientifically-defined semiotic fragments, Barthes turned to the subjective, the inexplicable. Enter Bélanger, who will complete the work she began in 2002 by staging and reconstructing the impacting image of Barthes’s mother. Her attention to detail will be vital, but her understanding of ineffable affect will be what truly determines the work’s success.
I didn’t like the spider at first. It seemed arbitrary and cute, almost decorative, and out of place with the stark, architectural elements of the other walls. It was also the most unbelievable inclusion, reading simply as a frozen image of something that may or may not have once existed in the space. Like so much good work, though, the thing I initially underestimated was ultimately rewarding.
When describing her process, Bélanger recounted the numerous hours she’d spent quietly observing the space. She would sit in the room and stare at the walls, considering her body in relation to the architecture and her personal presence and perception of the space. On one such occasion, there appeared in her peripheral vision a tiny black dot moving across the wall. It was the first sign of life that she had observed beyond her own, and it occurred to her in an instant that the spider occupied a position of belonging in the space that had nothing to do with its status as a gallery. The spider became a metaphor for Bélanger’s awakening to the true nature of the space, her window into an altered perception, and her motivation to provide others with a similar experience. The spider is the artist’s own punctum of the piece. It’s there to teach us that what we are standing in is not a white cube, not a gallery, not even a space. “In order to see a photograph well,” wrote Barthes, “it is best to look away or close your eyes … .” firstname.lastname@example.org teaches us to look away. In order to lose our assumptions and tap into a sensibility that is fresh, we must turn to the peripheral; for it is here where image and truth combine.