Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness, Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art

(Prefix Photo 25, May 2012)

Pascal Grandmaison, “Half of the Darkness,” 2010
360 color ink jet prints (10 x 8″ each), 4 pedestals
Installation view, Casino du Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain, 2011

“Contrary to photography’s naturalization as utterly congruent with the world, photography’s real is an encounter with the otherness of rupture, internment, and disinterment…. In this way, photography’s real is deeply other to that set of desires for the medium that we allow ourselves to make manifest to consciousness, that we can bear to make manifest to consciousness.”Eric Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over, If You Want It”

 

Pascal Grandmaison, “Half of the Darkness,” 2010
360 color ink jet prints (10 x 8″ each), 4 pedestals
Installation view, Casino du Luxembourg Forum d’Art Contemporain, 2011

Pascal Grandmaison’s photographic practice attempts to discover the shape of the under-illuminated and not-exposed. Through strategies of reversal, doubling, turning and inversion, he endows otherwise familiar objects and situations with a peculiar air of strangeness: rocks turn into mythic landscapes, plastic tubing into hieroglyphics, and crumpled paper into “involuntary sculptures.” Take, for example, his series of frontal portraits entitled Ouverture (2006). The camera’s eye is blinded by the light coming from behind the subjects, rendering their faces as amorphous black objects with stray hairs and ears. Or consider Fake Imagery of a World Upside Down (2010), a negative photographic print in which a figure tumbles through an inverted landscape into a black, bottomless sky.

Freud and Lacan meet in their insistence that the unconscious and the “real” must be approached through strategies of indirection; they must be viewed awry, through, for example, screens or dreams.[1] In Grandmaison’s series Verre (2003–06), immediate access to the object of desire is precluded: a pane of glass separates the “I” of camera from the “seen” object, a person whose eyes are cast downward. Even though the glass is as transparent as the camera’s lens (rhetorically speaking), the light reflected off its surface is sufficient to capture the photographer in the space. Thus, the photographer or “seer,” rather than being positioned at the diagrammatic apex of modern optics, is implicated in the perceptual field. In Verre, both seer and seen are objects of vision, ensnared in the intersecting and reversible lines of sight that Jacques Lacan calls the “gaze.” Teasingly, however, the pane stands slightly to the side, fostering the wish to access the beloved, to approach the real.

In her essay “What is a Photograph?” Margaret Iverson demonstrates Lacan’s influence on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Specifically, she argues that Barthes’ punctum—“that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”[2]shares with Freud’s trauma and Lacan’s real an uncoded, unassimilable quality.[3] Just as traumatic experiences cannot be understood through language, the punctum cannot be subsumed dialectically into the studium; that is, it cannot be confined to the photograph’s established interpretation or, in Barthes’ words, “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment.”[4]  Rather, the punctum bursts out of the frame and “pierces” the viewer,[5] thus disturbing the photograph’s coherence and (re)activating a trauma.  All three unclaimed experiences—trauma, real, punctum—are unsymbolizable. As Iverson writes, “There is, then, a blind spot in the orthodox perceptual field that Lacan calls the stain (la tache), defined … as ‘that which always escapes from the grasp of that form of vision that is satisfied with itself in imagining itself as consciousness.’”[6] Barthes takes up this concept when he describes the punctum as a “speck” (petite tache).[7] In contrast to the transparency normally associated with vision—and by extension, with photography—this “staining” stresses the opacity and negativity of the gaze.

If Verre suggests this negativity by setting a pane of glass in the middle of the visual field, like an obstacle to be overcome, Grandmaison’s No Black Light (2007) renders the pane literally absent. In this sequence of images, a pane of glass rotates in space or, perhaps, the camera rotates around it. Rather than being transparent, however, it appears in the photographs as a variable black rectangle. To make these images, Grandmaison painted the glass green and then photographed it using a chroma-key or green-screen process, which allowed the glass to be keyed out. Traces of this operation can be discerned in the ghostly contours of the profile of the glass, where the colour was not totally eliminated.[8] These “holes” in the image—black voids—can be thought of as photography’s blind spot, which, following Lacan, allows the real to seep into the image. Or, to extend the Lacanian reading, the holes can be thought of as the objet petit a, “the hollowed out bits of one’s being”[9] not (full)filled by language.

For all its strangeness, there is no pretence of surrealism or expressionism in Grandmaison’s work. It is with incomparable conceptual rigour and technical acuity that Grandmaison makes strange. Consider the diptych Hoping the Light Will Save Us (2007), in which an outstretched hand holding a heavy rock is doubled and inverted, seeming to defy gravity and playfully evoking the unsettling confusion between past, present and future that is inherent to photography. The green tinge, the result of the use of coloured gels, has the effect of fictionalizing the documented event, suggesting that it required extra-human, “Hulkian” effort. Or consider The Inverted Ghost (2009), which perhaps belongs more to the genre of horror than that of science fiction.  The black, viscous form, which shines under the studio light, bears a deep hole. One cannot help but read the images, presented in diptych form, as a face, an eerie incarnation of an unimaginable entity—a ghost, a mind without a body.

Barthes writes that the photograph is “a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time … a mad image, chafed by reality.”[10] He associates this madness with an absolute realism beyond “the civilized codes of perfect illusions.”[11] Taking a quick account of Grandmaison’s themes so far—ghosts and black holes, glass and unformed masses, eyes without bodies and heads without faces, blind spots and “hope that the light will save us”—it is possible to infer a certain disillusionment with the “perfect” illusions created by photographic technology. Despite its dispassionate, clean aesthetic, the work is far from dry. Rather, it is melancholic, repeatedly trying to imagine and present something that is inherently evasive, invisible and unthinkable without subjecting that “thing” to the tyranny of “tame” conventions. It is precisely the “chafing” that Grandmaison depicts.

This quest is, of course, doomed from the outset: not only is the camera limited to a single-point perspective that is at odds with phenomenological perception, but also, by definition, the real is “intractable” (to use Barthes’ word) and impossible to codify. Iverson writes, “Only when the position of illusory mastery is vacated does the gaze come into full view. The two positions are mutually exclusive: the world of representation is given only if the immediacy of the real is sacrificed, and conversely, the real is glimpsed only when the vanity of the world conceived as my representation is renounced.”[12] Grandmaison, through technological savvy and strategies of indirection, allows the real to be intuited, but he fails, of course, to capture it.

More precisely, he succeeds in failing. This is most apparent in his photographic series Void View (2010). Comprising twenty-eight photographs of ashes—the powdery residue of images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which Grandmaison burned—this work attempts to reclaim the unimaginable, the infinity of the universe, by way of a rhetorical non-image. Speaking of this work, Grandmaison stated that he “wanted to … point out the fact that we try to deny the incomprehensible by destroying it[, and, more] generally … that human thought cannot really plan and envision without producing a sort of visualization ‘error.’”[13] The iconoclastic gesture in Void View is an attempt to claim the failures of imaging technologies as a positive and necessary cultural force, for without these “errors,” the transformation of the world into image would be complete.

Not all of Grandmaison’s work shares this goal. Sometimes “failure” is the subject of the work, instead. Take, for example, the video Soleil Differe (2010), which features Montréal’s Isle Sainte-Hélène and Isle Notre-Dame, the fabricated site of Expo ’67. Shot in documentary style with a (seemingly) indifferent eye, Grandmaison here offers a non-narrative sequence of stunning video extracts: a leaf caught in mid-air by a spider’s thread; birds chirping on their woodland perches; waves coursing around a boulder in opposing directions; Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome shrouded in fog; crumbling concrete ensnared in a tangle of cobwebs; leaves fluttering against stone; water trickling over walls; and a black-clad surfer riding the giant waves, caused by the man-made islands, that crest in the canal.  Overall, the video presents the forces of nature at their most elemental—the collision of water, rock and air—and the vegetal- and animal-kingdoms’ ability to thrive despite human intrusion. Soleil Differe points to the failure of the modernist dream to realize an era of technological ease and leisure. Rather than showcasing human action and progress, this man-made stage is now eroded and overgrown.

And, rather than serving as a reliable witness to the unfolding narrative of Enlightenment humanism, the camera can only archive the incoherence of our contemporary dystopia. Modernism has passed into history, taking hyper-rationalism and positivism with it.

 

Nowhere are the biases, limits and strangeness of photography—“the ultimate art form of modernity”[14]—better exposed than in Grandmaison’s monumental Half of the Darkness (2010). More than two hundred and fifty negative photographic prints are laid out across four large plinths: images of craters and canyons, technological inventions and Arctic expeditions, fungal spores, prisms and dinosaurs, enormous robotic hands, rockets and chimpanzees, to name just a few, are featured. The photographs are variously candid or posed, aerial or close up, but in every case, “man” is depicted at his best, conquering the world with his footprints, flags and a variety of optic instruments. Astronauts and spaceships, as well as an old steam engine, lie alongside a bearded woman and a man covered in butterflies. Together with a defunct Ferris wheel, these disparate photographs speak of an age passed by. Half of the Darkness functions like a memorial to the discredited dream of modernity.

In his essay “Photography Is Over, If You Want It,” Eric Rosenberg declares that “Our mistake, as well as our necessity, has been to account for photography as part of modernism’s taxonomy, its evidence.”[15] Photography was put to two impossible tasks, which continue as its burden today: on the one hand, it is the “primary instrument of self-knowledge and representation.”[16] Take, for example, the photograph, in Half of the Darkness, of the fisherman who proudly holds aloft his catch of the day, or that of the young family looking at a giant waterfall, or the photographs of various athletes at the height of their leaps or at the summit of a mountain. In each case, what is depicted is a wished-for identification between the subject and their representation. On the other hand, as a technology that promises a “mechanical form of objectivity,”[17] photography advances a positivist approach to the world.[18] The numerous close-up photographs of various scientific specimens illustrate this well; their mysteries are exposed, turned into objects of knowledge.

Because of this “double indexicality,”[19] photography was heralded as a means of knowing the world and as a means of understanding the self. But more than drawing a parallel between self and world, the modernist investment in photography renewed the eighteenth-century promise of uniting inner and outer realities in a process of self-realization.[20] This alleged congruence is connoted by many of the images in Half of the Darkness. Consider, for example, the photographs of men (and they are exclusively men) wielding various optical devices designed to extend the parameters of their vision. In one image, a man in a lab coat peers through a microscope: he is positioned as a unitary “I,” the sovereign subject of sight (as opposed to an object of the gaze), and through the lens he discovers a reflection of his powers of cognition. This thoroughly Kantian congruence serves as the cornerstone of Western thought.

Julia Kristeva argued that “the rationalist attempt to transform the world into its own image is only one more interpretation which cannot see that it embraces a void.”[21] As Grandmaison so vividly exposed in Void View, photography, as well, embraces a void; it assumes that the presence of the world is visible and available to its aperture when, in fact, its perception is partial and finite. Photography materializes a painful disjunction between the world and self, which Rosenberg describes as violent. He writes, “By violence, I mean that photography itself … is a phenomenon always at a disjunctive, perpendicular counterpoint to our actual experience, to our being.”[22] Precisely because it can record only half of the darkness, photography cannot go to the heart of darkness.  “Photography allows us to enter a realm of pure fantasy based solely on connection with utter reality and yet [it is] a reality of ease, of dormancy, of sleep”[23]—a reality that (for Joseph Conrad as well as Barthes) is a “kind of education” in “civility.”[24]

In Half of the Darkness, photography’s promises and corollaries are depicted as absences rather than presences. What takes on a presence here are the unilluminated aspects of the image that the camera did not capture. By exposing the “negatives,” Grandmaison interrupts habitual ways of viewing images and slows down their consumption. Snow appears black and pupils white, and the whole world looks inside out. In a conversation about this work, Grandmaison said: “I like [the] idea that truth can reveal itself more fully in darkness. The title Half of the Darkness seems to direct us to only half of the truth. But, in revealing that which is hidden, dark, real, aren’t we bringing a certain subjectivity, or classification, to bear after all? Doesn’t claiming to reveal the truth in fact upend it, subjecting it to opinion? One half of the truth—the other half lost in illustrating it—a little like infinity.”[25] Half of the Darkness puts into question the authority of visual information by calling attention to the “visualization ‘error’”[26] of the photographic (and modernist) viewpoint.

In Grandmaison’s selection of images, which parade a variety of human achievements, the dream of human liberty through technological progress takes on a nostalgic tone.  These spectres of modernist ideology find an appropriate burial ground in the modern institution of the museum. Grandmaison’s staging of Half of the Darkness is oddly reminiscent of Edward Steichen’s infamous Family of Man exhibition in 1955, which promoted a universal humanist agenda. In a scathing review, Barthes described The Family of Man as follows: “Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behavior where historical alienation introduces some “differences” which we shall here quite simply call “injustices.”[27] This exclusion of differences, of the other, reaches its logical conclusion in the practice of genocide, a connection that Grandmaison makes blatant: the museological stagecraft of Half of the Darkness is similar to that found in Holocaust museums—row after row of black-and-white photographs, documents of the lives destroyed by the Nazi regime.

Barthes described his experience of photography as “a fascinating and funereal enigma.”[28] By means of the uncanny white shadows and horizontal display, Half of the Darkness invokes the inverse of the studium, the other side of civilization’s “polite interest.”[29] What are “enlightened” here are the camera’s blind spots: blacks too deep to be penetrated by the mind and eye alike.  Visual constructions of historical “truth” come to look like so many permutable memories. “Memory is photography’s ultimate archive,” writes Rosenberg, “but it is a chimerical one, for memory in the end will always go its own way, refusing to contain an object outside of itself, a technology other to its own formation.”[30] Rather than being sequentially arranged as a directly transmittable historical narrative, the abundant images of Half of the Darkness constitute a non-hierarchical, non-linear and nearly nonsensical archive of ghostly impressions.  It is as if Grandmaison had opened the shadows to allow the viewers’ subjectivity to flow in, thereby reclaiming what had been lost in the process of objectification and supplementing the photograph’s partiality—its mask of meaning—with the spectre of otherness.

  

Let us return to the Ouverture series with which this essay began.  Pascal Grandmaison’s practice is cumulative, so now, after considering several subsequent works as well as his stunning Half of the Darkness, the impact of Ouverture is easier to articulate: in the contours of these portraits, we fail to recognize their identity. Grandmaison thus points to our inability to know ourselves in the face of the photograph. Regarding these portraits is like confronting the obstinacy of a mute, enigmatic child, or trying to respond to the impossible question “What are you thinking?”[31] The studium cannot encode the other that lies at the heart of the self—the half that is necessarily lost in illustrating it.

The more we look at Grandmaison’s work, the more it becomes clear that the challenge he poses is deeply philosophical—the task of reclaiming what is lost, what falls by the wayside in the process of signification, and uncovering the value of all sorts of voids. His photographs and videos are neither elaborate conceptual puzzles nor demonstrations of discursive virtuosity; they are not meant to be decoded, to provide the ephemeral satisfaction of a completed crossword puzzle. Rather, Grandmaison counters hyper-rationalism and positivism with a certain kind of romanticism, a romanticism that seeks pre-binary plenitude. We could, perhaps, designate this romanticism an “updated realism.” The reality that Grandmaison confronts has nothing to do with empiricism; rather, it has to do with the Lacanian real, without which we would be perpetually limited to the “civilized code of perfect illusions.”[32]


[1] Margaret Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?” in Photography Degree Zero, ed. Geoffrey Batchen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009): 66.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, tr. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981): 27.

[3] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 63.

[4] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 65.

[7] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 27. See also Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 65.

[8]  I rely here on Diana Nemiroff’s description of this work in “The Big Day.” See Sara Knelman and Diana Nemiroff, Pascal Grandmaison: Double Take (Hamilton, ON: Art Gallery of Hamilton, in collaboration with Carleton University Art Gallery, 2009): 34.

[9] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 66.

[10] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 115.

[11] Ibid.: 119.

[12] Iverson, “What Is a Photograph?”: 65.

[13] Pascal Grandmaison, in conversation with Béatrice Josse, in “Before Beginning and Beyond the End,” in Kevin Muhlen, Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness (Luxembourg: Casino Luxembourg, 2011): 295.

[14] Eric Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over, If You Want It,” in The Meaning of Photography, ed. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008): 191.

[15] Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over”: 190.

[16] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997): 6.

[17] Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, “Photography’s Double Index,” in The Meaning of Photography, ed. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008): xii.

[18] Urs Stahel, Well, What Is Photography? (Zurich: Scalo, 2003): 8.

[19] Kelsey and Stimson, “Photography’s Double Index”: xi.

[20] Ibid.: xvi.

[21] Julia Kristeva, cited in Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, Introducing Postmodernism (Thriplow, UK: Icon Books, 2004): 104.

[22] Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over”: 191.

[23] Ibid.: 192.

[24] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 28.

[25] Grandmaison, Pascal Grandmaison: Half of the Darkness: 295.

[26] Ibid.: 295.

[27] Roland Barthes, cited in Geoffrey Batchen, “Palinode: An Introduction,” in Photography Degree Zero, ed. Geoffrey Batchen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009): 5.

[28] Ibid.: 9.

[29] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 27.

[30] Rosenberg, “Photography Is Over”: 191.

[31] See Stahel, Well, What Is Photography?: 7.

[32] Barthes, Camera Lucida: 119.

 

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