THE OTHER SIDE OF THE OTHER SIDE - Jean-Louis Poitevin
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At the edge of the line, just before the wall falls… (Reverdy)
Like a stage set
Bert Danckaert’s photographs show us a world that is at once exceptionally familiar and singularly strange. This is doubtless the object of the exercise – to produce in us a sense of strangeness.
However at first sight Danckaert's photographs show us things so familiar that we would scarcely notice them if we saw them while walking down the street. What makes his work so striking is that it seems to show what we take to be a pure and simple reality as a stage-set. The invariable absence of living creatures – human or animal – only serves to confirm this. What we see could be one of those film sets that you can walk through once the actors have left. It is, though, not a set that could be taken down after the filming has finished. Just the opposite, the things in the pictures are integral to the world in which we live our lives. In this sense they belong to the stages on which our lives unfold without the ontological status of a stage or film set. This is because they are blessed with a more weighty sort of reality, more permanence, and a more complementary relationship to the life of people than any stage set could possibly have.
It is exactly because the things in these photographs look like props that the scenes appear so strange, even foreign. Bert Danckaert's work is less about taking photographs than about tracking down something in front of us, something or other that is, at the same time, not there. What comes to mind when we look at these pictures is precisely what is not there. It's not that there is something that the photographs lack but rather something lacking from them: people, the physical presence of living creatures, bodies, in other words, the active, noisy life of our contemporary cities. Streets are empty, porches are abandoned, shop windows are covered, building sites are devoid of construction workers, cars are carefully parked without drivers to start them up. Our first reaction is to make an effort to imagine these places filled with the individuals that usually inhabit them. Had these photographs been taken at night, the absence of people would have been much more believable.
But we must look at the evidence – even though we are absent from these images, we are everywhere present. This is because we are the ones who constructed what we are looking at, who live in the houses, who make the cars and drive them. Human beings create these things, these walls, these fences, these parking lots, these sidewalks, human beings decide to dig holes, to build shops, to put up signs, to make streets. We are responsible for having reduced nature, in this unlikely landscape, to no more than an utterly obscene presence.
Puny trees lodged between fences, hedges skirting a wall, fir trees appearing to play hide and seek with an absent visitor – all these display such a loneliness and nakedness that they seem abandoned. This is why they appear here less like nature than like anxious witnesses to an inescapable future that will carry them away in the turmoil. Witnesses of absence, they become, in these pictures, creatures that can see: voyeurs compelled to stay where they are, incapable of leaving the spectacle being performed in front of them. The point is that there is not much else here to see apart from trees, bushes, hedges. The spectator becomes part of the spectacle because the rest of what is there to be seen is insignificant, banal, so ordinary that it doesn't merit a look anyhow.
This vegetation plays a double role: as spectator and as our representative within the picture itself. It is almost as if our absence is partly compensated by its presence, except however this absence is heightened by yet another kind of strangeness.
In the gap
The evocative power of Bert Danckaert's photographs comes from the fact that while everything they show is familiar, there is a sense of an invisible, yet tangible gap, between recognition and doubt, one that upsets our perceptions. We come to realize that it is in this gap that the images are embedded, or perhaps, where they spring from. One might say they open up a gap like a scalpel cuts into the skin to liberate the meat or organs inside.
It is not however what is hidden that is the true object of the gaze of the camera, but the tremor of doubt that accompanies the recognition, that indecipherable tremor of the strange and alien in the familiar. If this is right, it follows that this gap, more than being the source of these images, constitutes its real subject.
Those who say that what appears, once the cut has been made, is the opposite of reality would have a point if what appeared was different from what could be seen at first sight. But what is revealed here is not something hidden from view. On the contrary, Bert Danckaert's photographs present only things which are already known to us, things or situations that can be seen every day around us, indeed nothing but elements of urban life anyone can discover while walking along the street. It is this interval that is the subject of these pictures and needs to be isolated.
We have noted the fences, the closed doors and windows of the houses and buildings, the construction sites where no one is working, the closed shops, the cars without drivers. We have acknowledged the absence of humans beings, an absence contradicted by a feeling of omniscient human presence. All we see are works people have made with their own hands. But that is not all.
We have to return to the body of work and notice that a pattern emerges – at least that relationships between the photographs become apparent. They seem classifiable into various groups, even though they remain more or less heterogeneous. There are the photographs with doors, photographs with doors and windows, photographs of the building sites, photographs of urban settings with trees or plant life and photographs where a tree or a plant fills the whole space, leaving no room for the rest of the scene. There are also photographs of walls and fences without objects nearby, photographs of suburban houses, floors, empty walls, walls with safety curtains, and finally car pictures – these could be placed in other categories.
Once we have settled on a classification, we believe for a moment that we have begun to grasp what unifies these pictures, but this sense of unity soon evaporates. What such an exercise in classification leads to is this conclusion: there is in these images, in these photographs, a struggle between the wall, the vertical surface, and the ground, the horizontal surface. In other words there is a battle going on between these two planes.
What these photographs are about, then, are walls, a wall being a surface that marks the boundary between two spaces. Whether they are vertical or horizontal, create a plane, or form a foreground or background, these surfaces always function to separate inside from outside. The walls that Bert Danckaert gets us to see, walls that we see all the time when out walking, are present as though they defined a closed interior space. Not an outdoor but an indoor space. One could say the look and the whole body of work, which concern the outside, are in fact imprisoned within this interior space.
The spaces we encounter in these pictures are, therefore, not merely walls we can get round and past by taking a few extra steps. They are the embodiment of a sort of limit more illusory than real, a limit between the perceived and the perceivable, between constructed reality and the programme that was used to construct it.
We now understand why we took these walls for a set. It is because they are presented as interior walls even though they are in fact exterior walls. However since we recognize them as exterior walls even though the space marked off in the photographs is an interior space, we find ourselves in an impossible perceptual predicament. We must accept that behind these walls, there is no longer the inside of a house or shop but an anonymous outside, an emptiness disturbing because it is unknown, a world without quality, one that escapes normal perception, one that we had not imagined.
Constructed to separate inside from outside, private from public, intimate from the everyday, profane from sacred, the wall has a different function. What these walls show is their structure – not their physical structure but their structure as walls, or more precisely the fact that they no more render a boundary but a sort of programme. In effect these exterior walls, which are shown as interior walls, reveal to us something that doesn't exist, the reverse of the reverse, or if one prefers, the other side of the other side of the set. And this reverse is neither a wall nor a set but the manifestation of what is at work in the general act of building, especially the act of building walls, a desire to play around. This urge to construct is neither human nor divine, but somehow independent and anonymous. It reveals itself as a sort of pure power comprising space, as if these spaces were not fabricated by human hands but shaped by the application of a programme.
We understand then that these walls speak to us about our existential situation at a moment in history, a moment when history has quit the scene to make room for an altogether different sort of surface, one inhabited by games that play other games ad infinitum. We find ourselves in this endless game as an insignificant quantity, no more important, in any case, than any other element necessary to keep it going.
The absence of people in Bert Danckaert's photographs is not an aesthetic tick but rather a statement about this new state of affairs where walls are built without our having to build them. We are however left with some room to manoeuvre, which is as essential as it is unbearable – and which kicks in when we see these walls as being on the other side of masks that nobody has created. These masks structure reality as a result of the application of a programme created by us, something we are not conscious of. We might believe that nobody wears such a mask, and it is true that they seem to be waiting, there outside, to be put on. It is at this limit, in this gap, that Bert Danckaert places his camera.
This is the moment when we begin to understand that these surfaces distance individuals from themselves without bringing themselves in the process closer to anyone else. This is the way in which these masks or, if one prefers, these programmes generate an uneasiness as real as it is indefinable regarding our existence, our existence in front of these walls, behind these walls.