Christine Barbe, Dreams of Rebellion
I remember our first encounter. Anne Kerner had suggested meeting at Christine Barbe’s exhibition, six years ago if I’m correct. Then more exhibitions followed, more encounters, sometimes unexpected ones, as if a magnetic connection had then held us back. Fleeting and evanescent images resurface from these memories which conjured up a great force of affirmation, and if I may say so, of opposition. There was in all of this something of a peculiar inner conduct, a path that has been followed by the artist for a long time but which reveals, step by step, only the traces she thinks she has to leave — always transiently. An exhibition is an encounter and, for any artist, the projection of what they offer of themselves through their artworks. The former can only be perceived and received under the right listening conditions required by the work. It doesn’t matter if we do not hear, if we do not see. However the traces remain. I think Christine Barbe knows this and integrated its consequences a long time ago. She works disappearance as much as she does appearance.
I first knew her as a photographer, then by way of her videos; yet to her all of these artworks could almost be defined as paintings, whether they be photographic, digital and in motion. Then came the revelation of the actual paintings (which once again, I came to know through photographs…), reminding us that in her journey, the most traditional meduim — at least as we see it — had retained its place. Ils se disent peintres, ils se disent photographes… was the title of a famous early eighties ARC exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, examining the then new practices of certain means of photographic reproduction used by artists who did not all identify as photographers. She is one of them. She was too young to be part of the exhibition but that reflection is continued through her work, it is a quest for images that will use all formats available and retreat before none. I will not write about one artwork in particular, I write about her works the way I perceive them within a continuum that goes on from exhibition to exhibition (translator’s note: the French for ‘exhibition’ is exposition which can also mean ‘exposure’ in the photographic meaning of the word) — a photograpy term (t/n: in French). The two meanings of the French word exposition are never linked together: the French language does not use exhibition to describe an artist showing their work (t/n: exhibition in French may be used as the English ‘exposure’ in a negative sense), but rather that they expose it — just as we would use the word to describe the sensitive surface of analog photographs when they are exposed to light. In French, “exhibition” (see above) has a completely different, immodest, meaning: the man or woman who exposes (t/n: exhibe themselves in French) themselves is someone who takes their clothes off. Yet, it seems to me that in all of Christine Barbe’s work, this intentional bareness, this exposure to light and to the gaze of the audience, of the viewer (t/n: in English in the French version of this text), leaves a deep mark in her approach. It makes for a certain excess that she accepts — when her face is showing, her hair brushed aside, stretched like snake-haired Medusa. Snake hair stetched like bolts of lightning. Light, again. Being light itself.
Being light or shadow, finding yourself near the bottom, floating near the surface. It is no longer Medusa but Ophelia, and yet, the being who floats like this is not less exposed to the gaze. This body which we may think of as lifeless only gets a disturbing feeling of strangeness out of our attention. Christine Barbe’s images seem familiar and disturb us just as much as they are obvious. The being on display in photographs, videos and paintings is a body that is both animated and more than a body — or less than a body. It is in the afterlife. Yet she strongly holds on to it. We don’t like to see corpses or ghosts; hers are only illusions created by the processes of art. I instantly think about the increasingly distant art of stained-glass. Isn’t there something of this ancient presence, obvious to the bourgeoisie who gather in Gothic cathedrals, to the peasants who converge into the city during fair days — and who come to see, astounded, the reality of what priests, mothers and grandmothers had been telling them since their childhood; sometimes also fathers? And they see. Do they believe? Do they believe in saints, bishops, kings and the Virgin Mary who fill the windows of their churches? This is how Christine Barbe introduces herself, in a framework that can be that of the digital screen or the retouched photograph under its glass, painted with the means that we modern people have access to. She identifies neither as a painter nor as a photographer, but she does state her dreams of rebellion — maybe she dreams of a shift in the situation: the absent presence becoming a real presence, by smashing the surface. Even though she takes this detour of frontal, vertical, often aloof expression, specific to the characters in stained-glass windows that she, and all of us, did see, it is certainly not to paint herself as a saint. This reversal of aesthetic values suddenly makes sense: yes, she is there, her own self, not as a ghost but as the photographic or pictorial trace of her being; yet it is the same thing because it shows us a picture (t/n: in English in the French version of this text), an image. And this being can scream even though they are calm and peaceful in their setting as a work of art; they can watch us even though they can’t see us; they can speak to us despite their being silent. They can tell their desire and their dream of revolt. Art is violence because it is destruction of matter, it replaces nothingness with otherness. And the artist becomes other.
The artist becomes landscape, faces have faded, the body disappears. It gets dissolved in order to reveal a brand new substance, places with no horizon but not obstructed, places that could be described as welcoming and inhabited — although there is no one there… The presence of the author pervades its trees, its clearings, its rivers that she now contemplates from slightly higher up, as if standing on the top of a hill. A new space has emerged — a mental yet very real space. Anne Kerner told me this morning that it came from contemplating the work of forest rangers. The shifting of huge masses of earth stuck in roots. Uprooted trees, levelling, the result of which lies in the calm of these paintings but also the presence of the mole, a new companion, like a being similar to the artist that is there, invisible, under the landscape, digging and transforming. Photography hasn’t been forgotten, it has a stake in these new paintings which Christine Barbe called Là-bas/Down there. Down there, there is someone, but this time, they look at us better than in the past. The artist has managed to free herself from herself, her body and her image, and has started to truly make, build and produce a specific space and substance detached from the self, a soilless yet habitable landscape, where we like to dwell.
François Michaud, 5 juillet 2018
Conservateur au Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris