Clarisse d’Arcimoles : Forgotten Tale / Reviewed by Paul Carey-Kent / 13.09.16
French photographer Clarisse d’Arcimoles demonstrated her commitment to the long-planned installation she has completed at The Photographer’s Gallery through a four year crowd-funding campaign to raise the funds needed to make it a reality. It takes her practice to another dimension.
D’Arcimoles, who trained in set design before turning to photography, has previously inhabited the past by recreating photographic backdrops and then stepping – suitably suited, coiffured by a period hairdresser, as male or female – into them herself. As a girl, d’Arcimoles persuaded herself that old black and white photographs showed that the world was not then in colour, feeding what proved an ongoing desire to enter the monochrome world as used to be. Victorian scenes feature at The Photographers’ Gallery through 14 cabinet cards from the ‘Forget Nostalgia’ series. She sources an original photograph, builds a set to replicate the background – painting it monochrome, but photographing in colour so that traces of the true process are left visible, rather as in Thomas Demand’s worlds of card. Any apparent old-style tinting is achieved by colour paint on the original set-up, not in post-production. It all fits with the conceit of taking literally the instinctive analogue assumption that photographs depict the world as it is. That may sound like an anachronism in the digital world, but on the one hand d’Arcimoles’s work is about reimagining the past, and that assumption is an aspect of it; and on the other hand her process can be seen as post-modern too, as the recreation of a photograph refutes the original’s claim for indexical veracity.
The photographs are not the main focus here, though, for d’Arcimoles has realised the grander goal of recreating the childishly assumed world itself. Her photographs represent a movement from 3D historic original to 2D photograph to 3D set to new 2D image, which leaves plenty of room for artifice at that third stage: we all know how unreal Hollywood backdrops look outside of the filming process. To show that third stage, then, so that we can step into it requires a far more ambitious scheme than setting up studio props. The photographer’s studio merges with a new reality. Forgotten Tale, then, replicates the location of a family of mother and children photographed in a common lodging house in Spitalfields in 1902. The inhabitants are not shown, (leaving visitors to play their roles) and the whole walk-in scene is meticulously painted in black and white.
In the 1902 photograph, mother and children are engaged in making hairbrushes. The backdrop is a wallpaper hand-printed by d’Arcimoles. The various pictures on the wall are not photographic re-enactments by d’Arcimoles, but matching originals which she – rather exhaustingly, I imagine – tracked down on e-bay. The reproduction furniture (credit to her carpenter) includes a table with just the right wonkiness of leg, Among the objects are used candles, candle holders, a toy model of a pig on the bed, and all the components of the tedious business of threading the brushes: piles of bristles, the backs of brushes ready to receive them, completed brushes, a chart of their specifications. We might hope that such piecework is itself a thing of the past, but it’s actually the one aspect of the photo which is still prevalent, if only illegally or abroad. It also suggests the work required to set up Forgotten Tale itself.
Two walls are visible in the original image, which is displayed alongside, so that d’Arcimoles’s attention to detail can be tracked and appreciated. The third wall of the installation is more speculative, d’Arcimoles having had to imagine what might have been there: she includes a photograph of the absent husband, shown as a soldier in the uniform of the Boer War, so setting up a possible narrative – or forgotten tale – which could explain his absence by his death in action. The whole display, then, combines several means of representing the world of 115 year ago: original photographs, d’Arcimoles’ apparent recreation of such photographs, her 3D reconstruction of the direct photographic evidence, and her imagined extension of that reconstruction.
Quite apart from drawing, the recreation of a ‘monochrome world’ is an established contemporary art move: one might point to Mary Reid Kelley, Stan Douglas, Hans Op de Beeck or David Claerbout. The artist who comes closest to d’Arcimoles’ approach is Martin Honert – but d’Arcimoles’ interest remains distinctive. Many of Honert’s sculptures are versions of photographs, but for him it’s all about a route to the Proustian recapture of the personal emotions he recalls from times past – sometimes in greyscale (see e.g. VSG Gruppe, 2015): the shifting means of representation and their implied ontologies are not foregrounded as they are by d’Arcimoles. She is returning – to unique effect – to a photographic experience from her childhood.
– text by Paul Carey-Kent
Clarisse d’Arcimoles: Forgotten Tale continues at Print Sales, The Photographer’s Gallery, London, until 24 September 2016
Print Sales at The Photographers' Gallery
16 - 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW