Sunday, October 21, 2007

La Liste by Sophie Ristelhueber

A friend of mine was in Amsterdam recently and upon his return he presented me with a nice gift. Of course it was a book. The nice part is that it is a book that I didn’t know existed, AND it was from an artist that I hold in high regard. So needless to say I owe him one.

La Liste by Sophie Ristelhueber is an artist book that accompanied an exhibition of hers at the Hotel des Arts in Toulon, France in the spring of 2000.

Now I should say right off the bat that the book is an inventive approach to book making and has all the qualities that I love about design and craft and these qualities make this a great little book. The problem is…I haven’t a clue as to what the work is about. There are texts which may offer some light in my hour of need but they are in French and there are no translations. I have a few French friends but they now refuse to translate for me because of the current US foreign policy debacles. Bush is even encroaching on my ability to understand art. Thanks George you A-hole.

First what sets this work apart from much of Sophie’s past books is that it does not seem to be directly linked to war and the aftermath of conflict. Here she is working in beautiful landscapes that are particularly attentive to describing trees and what look like hotels. Almost all are made with no visible human presence with the exception of the architecture and roads that are either leading into or out of the area. In only one image, a man is seen far from the camera strolling in a public park.

The photos are a bit dry and besides a few, I find most of them somewhat dull compared to her other work. This is amplified by my not knowing the context of The List, which is the book’s title and a list of names of locations (towns?) on the last several pages.

This brings me to a curious aspect of looking at photographs. How much does the understanding of ‘what the artist is getting at’ alters our enjoyment or reading of the photographs? If I knew what this work ‘was about’ would I forgive the photos that I think are dull just because they have this bigger meaning sidling up behind them that I can associate as the reason they exist? Or, in the most extreme case, would I then say that I like them because I now ‘understand them.’ This particular book, although wonderful to look at, is befuddling.

The reason it is so wonderful to look at is mostly due to the presentation of the photos. The photos appear on different size pages and printed only on one side of the paper. Look closely at my composite photos and you may get a sense of what I am trying to describe. The result amplifies the presence of each photo individually and yet they remain as a group. One ‘page’ is actually a triptych that folds out vertically and requires the book to be turned 90 degrees to see it properly. It makes for an almost completely impractical book to flip through in a traditional sense. The paper stock is thin and the variance of page size makes them a bit more difficult to handle. The triptych is hard to nest back into its resting position without potentially causing damage. All this and I love it…I just wish I knew what it was about. I dislike my position of ‘I like the form but the content escapes me.’ There is more to this than meets the eye.

OK…it is now a day later and I am picking this up again from where I left off last night. I did some research and pulled my copy of Details of the World from the shelf and there is a section on La Liste and here is what it says about this project:

In the spring of 2000, the Hotel des Arts in Toulon invited Ristelhueber to create a work about the Var, the region in the south of France where this contemporary art venue is located. The result was La Liste, an installation of 26 color images accompanied by a recording and an artist’s book that also served as a catalogue. Mainly associated with tourism, the Var includes the glamorous Cote d’Azur and the celebrated lavender fields of Provence. The area is also widely known to be politically conservative, even corrupt: news stories have long suggested that local officials had unethical allegiances and dubious motives, put in the service of nationalism. Ristelhueber concentrated on the dangerous confusion between nationalistic pride on the one hand, and intolerance for those who are different on the other. In La Liste, she did not represent destruction through visual details, but instead considered the destruction of identity as embodied in a “list,” a roster of names, most typically associated with electoral lists. Her focus was a simple and organizational device with enormous significance, the assembly of names and the power each represents as a voter. To Ristelhueber, the result of generations convinced of their authority and unrelenting views has made of the Var, a “lost paradise.”

Using a list of over two thousand names taken from a longer official compilation identifying every mountain, river, town, and port of the Var, Ristelhueber suggests “that you can never say what a place is. But you can always name it.”

The images of La Liste also speak of the paradox of recognition and local tragedy. Ristelhueber considered the abundance and aggression of the architecture that has “cannibalized” this tourist haunt. Her photographs, however, are not the easy images of a cynical critique of nature overrun by commercialism and bad taste. Rather, she was fascinated by the difficulty of finding evidence of the centuries that preceded the present incarnation of this area. Although the images contain their share of new residences, glistening swimming pools, seashores bordered by roads and parking lots, and mountains and fields dotted by antennas, they are primarily views of nature, in which man-made details rarely dominate. Instead, the only consistency is the palette created by the “natural” landscape of blue, green, white, and brown bathed in sunlight. History and nature are highly controlled here.

OK…hmmm, now that my well has been poisoned and I look back over the book, it does make things a little more interesting but not from the stand point of the actual pictures. I think most of what the author is speaking of would be hard to divine from the photographs alone. Even metaphorically, which is what we are dealing with here, the sophisticated understanding along the lines of which the author lays out would be a stretch for most. I know that it is up to the viewer to take away what he or she sees in any work but in cases like this where the reference is so specific to history and politics of region, I would find it hard to believe that many would come away with the same conclusions. Does this make the art so specific to that region making it incomprehensible (without the aforementioned text) to the rest of the world? Curious work and a very curious little book.

For those of you who want a good introduction to Sophie’s work, Details of the World is one of two books that span her career. Published by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2001, it is very small format (4.5” X 7”) but is over 300 pages in length. An essay by Cheryl Brutvan is woven through the length of the entire book. The other book is by Ann Hindry and is called Sophie Ristelhueber, published by Hazan in 1999. It is larger in trim size but only just over 100 pages in length. Both are good books on Ristelhueber but I prefer Details because of its quirky size and paper stock.

For La Liste, I think it may be hard to find. I know that Dashwood Books in NYC has a copy or two and my copy was purchased from Shashin Books in Amsterdam.

Book Available Here (Details of the World)

Book Available Here (Sophie Ristelhueber)