Between Centre and Absence

Photos and texts: © Christine Buci-Glucksmann / Translation: Gila Walker

  • "Image is thought, it is the visible description of an invisible thought". These were the terms that Magritte used to set forth the paradox of thought in art, which is first of all the paradox of the image. How can one figure that which seems to wholly elude visual grasp, especially when it comes to producing portraits of well-known artists, writers, composers, choreographers and so forth? In choosing to couple faces and places, portrait and architecture in diptychs whose framing, square format and mat printing verge on the painting-plane, Jacqueline Salmon makes this paradox into the very object of her work. Through a curious effect of displacement and conversion, the gaze passes from fixity to motion, as though by moving from a portrait to the emptied, purged and quasi-abstract architecture of a place, one was exploring the meditative and inventive power of the mind's eye. To the extent that the betweenness that results from the diptych device creates an interval that compells thought by placing the spectator before and within an asymmetrical double portrait. Caught, and virtually captivated, by these real-size photographs, the eye of the beholder always remains at the same distance from the images, regardless of whether the faces are tighly framed or remote. The portrait advances toward you like a film close-up cut just as you are entering the place that limits or hypes up its effects. The over-presence of bodies and faces with highly interiorized gazes — be they attentive, reflective, searching or dreamy — is firmly fixed here in a two-dimensional space that puts us in direct contact with the mind. But this "affective framing" of which Deleuze spoke in reference to Dreyer, seems to come unframed, suddenly sucked up by the void of the architectural place that creates a singular resistance to the image. Presence and absence, figures and the unfigurability of thought coincide in intensive portraits that sometimes rediscover the face-to-face Byzantine frontality, albeit breaking the religious prohibitions. Each of these portraits — of Gerhard Richter, Bill Viola, Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Luciano Berio, Arvö Part, Jonas Mekas or Naguib Mahfouz — reiterates a single question, that of thought's place, of its "dwelling as a poet". But the repetition is so varied that photography becomes, in Jacqueline Salmon's terms, "an instrument of philosophic reflection".
  • From image to thought, this is the first movement that struck me right away, because it remains eminently enigmatic. It is not a matter of doubling the portrait with an architecture that has an illustrative, metaphoric or rhetorical aim. The point is simply to let the thought of the chosen artists and writers — be they dead or alive — take place, to such an extent that by their insistent presence they end up "inhabiting" these by and large uninhabitable architectures. These places — an abandoned church, an abbey-prison, a grave or a door opening onto nothing — are all non-places, sorts of sheer architectural frames haunted by memory, non-completion or emptiness. The architectures delimit inner places that bring to mind what was called desert in the 17th century. Everything that engenders "turning Being into desert", everything that sparks "a view from afar" and "an invisible depth", as Louis Marin wrote concerning Philippe de Champaigne (1) : the places and architectures of these portraits radiate with a "desert effect" obtained by the work on luminous abstraction and emptiness. These are nothing but landscaped places of the absolute, sorts of melancholic architectural vanitas that call thought forth and into question. That of the viewer and of the portrayed.
  • We can understand then that the portraits themselves "harbor absence and presence", as Pascal said. Even when the faces are in side view or in three-quarters profile, even when the body is included in the frame, these portraits are looking at us in the iconic face-to-face of their frontal being : a strange situation wherein semblance flees resemblance so as to better capture the presence and the pensive functioning of art and artist. Witness the portrait of Bill Viola, his bent head sunk in his hands, communing with himself like Beckett's sunken head.
  • But it was as if he were duplicated by an open room of images in the form of an architecture-landscape split in two by its reflection. It is an image of thought verging as near as can be on the work of Bill Viola, described by the artist himself in the following terms : "The rooms of my installations are black because that is the color of the inside of your head. The actual site of all my installations is the mind and not really the setting." (2) In a literal sense, Jacqueline Salmon penetrates into this mental place and finds thought's "color", its time hovering between appearance and disappearance. She thereby uses photography as a new plane of projection, which metamorphoses the starting point and sets mental and figural space face to face and side by side. By their chiasmus and there reciprocal amplification, she creates a sort of "transmutation" and even "transubstantiation" in Duchamp's sense of the term. Architecture penetrates figure to the point of taking its place in an image of absence, as in John Cage's portrait.
  • This is why the path that goes from image to thought always turns back onto itself. As if thought ineluctably finds its own sensorial "transmutation" in architecture. Against a black ground, Robert Wilson stares at us opposite the Mies Van Der Rohe pavilion with its accentuated geometry of angles, planes and shadows, while Gerhard Richter, with a steady gesture of the hand, discloses the true-false monochromes bleached in light at the building site of the O. Gehry's American Center in Paris. In these two portraits, as in many others, the photographs produce a real leveling-off of place through an architecture that firmly fixes affects. Thought floats there, always seized in the present-absent works of the artists, to such an extent that the musicians — Berio, Arvö Part or Ligeti — seem to "compose" their intervals and rhythms in the spacings, the hollows and solids, the descents and traverses of the architecture.
  • If these diptychs eschew an illustrative or rhetorical treatment of their object in favor of a literal relationship of "transmutation", it is because they urge us to a veritable becoming-architecture of the portrait. Indeed, throughout its history, architecture has never ceased to serve as a support and a matrix for figuring knowledge, its "foundations" (Descartes), its "architectonics" (Kant) or its thought machines (Leibniz). To cite but one example, close to Jacqueline Salmon's work, in the 16th century Guilio Camillo's theater functioned precisely as an art of "memory" with symbolic and even allegorical places corresponding to Ideas, figures and planets. A whole mental architecture was to find its most powerful models in labyrinths, "passages", or ruins. Jacqueline Salmon's architectures are more like inverted architectures, doubled, unfinished or abandoned. Ever abstract and bare, they suggest the paths, the errings or the combinatory nature of thought. They are a "de-architecturing", to use an expression coined by Robert Smithson. Whence their strength in "mentalizing" portraits and the sense of timelesness that inhabits them. Purified, deserted, smooth and cold, open to an absent center, they call to mind the risk of thought, its solitude, its silent outside, its inventive power and its "lack of power". So much so that this new "Atlas" of portraits subtly turns into an archives of Thought. As though each portrait in its utter singularity bore everlasting testimony to the same strange question — namely, "Where are we when we think?". Between place and non-place, no doubt, in a "meta-portrait" of Thought. "Solitude that radiates, void of the sky, death deferred, disaster", wrote Maurice Blanchot.
  • Notes :
    (1) Louis Marin, Philippe de Champaigne ou la Présence cachée, Hazan 1995, p. 43.
    (2) Quoted by Raymond Bellour, "La Chambre", Trafic n°9 1994, p. 55.