Contemporary art publications — Visual artists in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France

Pascal POULAIN

update February 21 2018

Excerpts from texts by Marie-Cécile Burnichon, 2009, and Anne Giffon-Selle, 2007-2009

Translated by John Doherty, 2014

 

Pascal Poulain's work incorporates different forms of image and installation. But the ubiquity of photography, and, more generally, the various types of manual, mechanical and digital printing, probe the revelatory role attributed to representations of reality. The simulacra and incongruous juxtapositions that Poulain's images find within, or remove from, our everyday urban lives, and his reactivation of political slogans, are less indicative of poetics than the emptying of reality, its smoothed-out illustrations, and the modelling of our modes of life.  [...]

The photographic work takes place in cities such as Dubai, Shanghai, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Istanbul, Singapore, Berlin and Bangkok. But Poulain's work never hits us head-on: there is a subtle dialectic between the seduction of appearance and a distantiation of perception, immediate comprehensibility and visual destabilisation, the asserted presence of gestures or bodies and the non-materiality of processes. His photographs and installations invite us to reflect on the standardisation that is taking place in the visual environment of our societies.  [...]

Pascal Poulain's photographs seek out points of friction with reality, crossovers between culture and consumption, fissures in the simulacrum, hesitations in the discourse. But it would appear, contrary to expectations, that by an effect of contrast the body constitutes a central subject of his work, in that it heightens a certain distancing effect, an expression of engagement and participation in the political debate that is opened up by its representation. [...]

 

 


Smoke and mirrors...
Writen by Garance Chabert, translated by John Doherty, 2009
In Going Back to Cali / Sao Paulo, édition Centre d'Arts Plastiques de Saint-Fons, 2009

In 1843, Ludwig Feuerbach noted that the period in which he was living "prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to being". (1) This diagnosis was confirmed over the course of the 20th century, and it inspired Jean Baudrillard, at the start of the 1980s, with the idea that reality had definitively given itself up to simulacra, and the virtuality of the image. (2) The invention of photography, which was contemporaneous with Feuerbach's reflections, implied a desire for illusion; but it did so insidiously, in that its indicial character preserved a belief in the possibility of authentic access to reality. The image, as Susan Sontag explained, (3) consumes and impoverishes reality, while also becoming our paramount way of experiencing the world, which in turn has adapted itself to this new paradigm, producing looped iconic situations. This oscillation between image and reality, whose mutual contamination makes them difficult to tell apart, has for some years been at the centre of Pascal Poulain's work. Rather than seeking, behind the smooth surface of the photographic image, the historical complexity of a real situation – which is a common documentary approach – what interests him in his photographic images and in situ is the opposite process, whereby the image demonstrates the vacuity of reality.

This superficiality can be seen, in particular, in the multitude of signs that saturate our urban and media environments. And it is on this terrain that the artist uses various distancing processes to unmask the fact that certain phenomena conceal nothing other than their pure presence as consumable images. In the installation Yes, 2002, on a gallery wall covered with white Forex panels, a vectorial drawing of zippers cuts into the plastic to form a large YES. Beneath the shiny surface there is no mystery or enigma to be deciphered, only the literality of the sign and a joyful formulation of declamatory self-evidence, with neither object nor subject. If the choice of a linguistic sign can be seen to act almost as a conceptual example, Poulain shows us that the world is full of signs which, though more detailed than this, are just as devoid of content.

In a set of photographs produced in 2007, Poulain made stencils of the main slogans used by candidates in the French presidential elections under the 5th Republic. He then photographed different individuals trying to hold the stencils in such a way that the sun would project the slogans onto the ground. Despite their efforts to position themselves and the stencils in an optimal way, they clearly had difficulty in making the phrases appear clearly. The letters were fuzzy, and not very legible. The individuals' physical engagement contrasted with the fleeting and immaterial nature of the slogans, which, besides their evanescence, were interchangeable ("France on the march", "France united", "We'll go farther together"), and totally disconnected from what might normally be associated with political action and commitment. For his 2007 solo exhibition Red Room, at the Carmelite chapel in Chalon-sur-Saône, Poulain placed the resulting images opposite a large wall covered in red tracing paper, on which the motif of a house was embossed in an anarchic proliferation : Côte Atlantique ("Atlantic coast"). As an accompaniment to the photographs, this representation of mushrooming urbanisation, based on a single structure (which was later to be objectified, "false to life", in the construction sites of Dubai), mocked the homogenisation of those town-planning policies that have given rise to standard housing models, cut off from the historical and local realities of territorial locations.

With Le parking ("The car park"), the viewers were also invited to replicate the technical operation on a sheet of paper that they could take away. These two initiatives showed that the image, provided it is produced rather than consumed – whether through manual techniques of reproduction, directly applied by the viewer, or, in the case of the political slogans, by a straightforward identification with the people holding the stencils – has a potential for reflexivity, and for resistance to the kinds of sign that are imposed on us. With these visual structures, the artist was carrying out a specular regression as a way of revealing the platitude that characterises a certain category of images and signs.

Another of Poulain's strategies consists of picking out and photographing places that particularly accentuate the confusion between reality and image, with, for example, two photographs taken during the Cinéscénie show at Le Puy-du-Fou, during the crucial phase of the attack on the dungeon : Le Nouveau Final 1 & 2 ("The new final 1 & 2"). Here, he adopted frontal and low-angle views, in the kind of position conventionally occupied by a spectator – in other words, close enough to be immersed in the spectacle, and far enough away not to be physically taking part in it. The "cardboard" look of the building, and the levitation of the fireballs in the foreground, floating in the air, give the scene the appearance of a Photoshop slipup, though in fact the images were taken with a large-format camera, using no special effects. This fantasy of medieval France also corresponds in a number of ways to what Michel Foucault called a "chronic heterotopy", (4) in other words an isolated place where the staging is wholly aimed at abolishing time, so that "people find themselves in a sort of absolute breach with their traditional experience of time". (5) In these two images it is nonetheless difficult to identify or pin down "this space that is other", since it has lost its reality due to the effect of its own representation. Leaving the demarcated area, or moving the viewpoint a few degrees to one side and enlarging it to embrace the entirety of the site, the other photographs taken at Le Puy-du-Fou, Le grand parc ("The large park"), make it possible, progressively, to identify this spectacle-space. Each image questions the positioning of the photographer, who zooms in, moves backward or changes position in relation to the scene (and in particular the effects of fire and smoke in the photographs), sometimes to the point of being almost completely removed from the scene. (6) Pushed back by screens of vegetation, the components of the setting (the terracing, the amphitheatre, the medieval village, etc.) become details of the background. But it turns out that a more distant viewpoint reveals, as much as it diminishes, the "spectacular" functioning of the park, so that Poulain, with this alternation between different views, is essentially giving a faculty of active vision back to the viewer, who normally maintains a passive attitude towards this type of representation. And as to the exclusion of any human presence from these photographs (despite the fact that Cinéscénie sells out three times a day) – might it not be seen as an index of a refusal to portray the cramped position in which the spectators find themselves ?

How, on the other hand, is the necessary distance to be gauged when the spectacle is not defined by the specific boundaries of a stage ? Baudrillard developed the idea that the world has become a gigantic virtual theme park, along the lines of the Disneyland model. At the start, according to him, this had been limited to the park itself, but "the grand initiator of the imaginary as virtual reality is now in the process of capturing the entire real world and integrating it into a synthetic universe, in the form of a huge 'reality show' that turns the real into a theme park." (7) Historically constructed as enclaves isolated from their environs by a single entrance and exit, and with the different attractions comprising thematic journeys, such parks are actually, in some cases, becoming urbanistic, architectural projects. And this point is given another twist in Poulain's most recent set of photographs, taken in Dubai.

In Le Puy-du-Fou, the distinction between the theme park and its surroundings is still perceptible. It is harder to identify, however, when the phenomenon involves a complete terrain, and in particular the spectators, because they are then part of it ; because they have become its primary players. Immersed in a process of pharaonic urban development, Dubai's ambition is to be a paradise of tourism and upmarket consumerism – a concrete capitalist utopia.

As a sort of supercharged version of Le Puy-du-Fou, the towers of Dubai seem just as unreal – more akin to the idealised computer-generated images of architectural software than to amateur special effects. And the city is covered with advertising panels that vaunt the merits of its urban programmes, forming a palisade that blocks out the horizon and hides the construction of Palm Deira – one of the islands in the shape of a palm tree – behind a persuasive architectural message: a photograph of the island as seen from the sky, with the slogan "When Vision Inspires Humanity", and the developer's logo. The brand-new buildings with gleaming surfaces, the asphalt and the perfect system of road signs all exemplify and illustrate the sheiks' promises: the city still has the virtual appearance of its blueprints. Before the completion of its metamorphosis into the colossal theme park it epitomises and is striving to become, Poulain photographed the construction zones of this grand illusion. The interest of these images lies in the ambiguity of what the photographer is showing us: at this transitional stage there is still an overlapping of the construction site's persistent reality (with the sand that has to be removed, the earth, the temporary hoardings) and the profile (in the general architectural outlines, heights, proportions and materials) of the emerging cityscape. Unlike the orientation of the eye towards the sky that these towers, the world's tallest, are promoting, Poulain's camera is trained on the ground, and on the few objects that conflict with the smooth perspectives (stones, traffic cones, cranes, etc.). His images are a sort of memento mori prior to the definitive liquidation of the territory's original topography, and his eye appears to be irresistibly drawn downward to where there are still some fragments of another reality – the everyday reality (as though the point needed to be emphasised) of the wage slaves who are building this little paradise for the rich. The rare images taken from high up are partly masked by a sort of fog. And here we find something similar to the spectacle veiled by smoke in Le Puy-du-Fou. But when the towers of Dubai are swathed in vapours that rise up from the sea, this is not a programmed effect; it is a live, "natural" spectacle. And as the kind of simulacrum "in which things are duplicated by their own scenario", (8) these photographs recall the images of the Twin Towers, that iconic model and precedent for the apocalyptic fantasy of every utopian town, i.e. its collapse.

In one of his most recent works, La Carte, 2009, it is as though Poulain were responding to these hyperbolic images, as transferred into the real world, with an attempt to represent territory symbolically, in its most basic state: on a map of Europe 26 metres long, stretched out in the exhibition space, the name of each town is given at its actual latitude. The typeface and size of the letters are identical for each name, so that the demographic, economic and political hierarchies are flattened out; and the crossing of borders is perceptible only in the progressive changes of language. The map as a highly symbolic territory (9) – and in fact the first example Baudrillard gave of a simulacrum-world was a text by Borges in which a map gradually covered and replaced a real territory – is in this case a possible place for a fictive withdrawal from the images that inundate the real world.

Foucault's concept of "poetic heterotopology" could be applied to Poulain's work, as "the type of systematic description whose object is the study, analysis, description and 'reading' of these different spaces, these other places; a sort of mythical and real contestation of the places we live in." (10) The places he chooses satisfy the characteristic criteria of heterotopy, as defined by Foucault. Isolated but penetrable, they can be found more or less everywhere, and in every culture. They are also profoundly linked to the imaginary life of our age, often being paradoxical if apprehended at different scales, but synchronous insofar as they juxtapose eras or hallucinate real time.

Whatever his subject, Poulain seeks to adopt the proper distance with regard to the visual messages that characterise consumerist contemporaneity. Creating a sort of multilayered version of the world on its surface level, he challenges the viewer to accept the image for the sake of the perceptual liberty it offers against the superficial images that alienate us. The voids he represents – from which all effective human presence is deliberately excluded – function as projection spaces for new ways of looking, and new physical positionings. Jean-Luc Godard, in a short documentary film, (11) said that every agreed-on contract with visibilities opened up like a collaboration with the enemy. And Pascal Poulain, in the same register, confronts the enemy-image with its double, which for once reflects and unmasks it, quite simply.

 

1. In The essence of Christianity, preface to the second edtion
2. In Simulacre et simulation, 1980
3. In On photography, 1977
4. In Des espaces autres, in Dits et écrits IV, Paris, NRF/Gallimard, 1994

5. Ibid.
6. In the regard, see Marie-Cécile Burnichon's article Les hors champs éloquents de Pascal Poulain, in ZéroQuatre, spring 2009
7. Disneyworld Company, in Libération, 4 mars 1996
8. Jean-Baudrillard, Simulacre et simulation
9. Ibid.
10. Op. cit. For present puposes, "systematic" could be replaced by "poetic"
11. Changer d'images, 1982, 10 min.

 



Intrusive images
By Pascal Beausse, 2003
Translated by Charles Penwarden
Catalogue of the exhibition Pale Fire, National Center of Photography, Paris, 2003

The invasive image. Omnipresent, overhanging, mesmerising. Intruding into the most private part of our lives. Incrusted in the fabric of our imaginations and our dreams, the image casts its veil over the real. This enveloping generates the paradox of a real virtuality, in which the fictiveimage has a concrete effect on lived reality. Hence the multiplication of psychopathologies partaking of the confusion of imaginary worlds with the real. The time for reviving the old opposition of iconoclasm and iconodulia is hopelessly in the past. But the iconocrash produced by the endless repetition, constantly rotated since the inconceivable impact, of the smashing of the two aeroplanes into the two towers on 11 September, hasmerely confirmed in an extreme way the power of media impact experienced in the real, global time of contemporary iconophilia. This radical iconocrash, provoking the destruction of emblems, is only the salient part of an image-making principle which lies at the heart of the functioning of super-modernity. In the face of this profusion generated by media flux, in the face of this global communication whose process is founded on the interaction between transmitter and receiver, art appears lightweight. But while it is true that art lost its iconographic primacy long ago, it has nevertheless retained its power to ask questions about everyday images. An iconoclash, that is to say, a confrontation between regimes of representation that are, a priori, incompatible, and yet that have never stopped influencing each other since the irruption of modernity, and have switched to high speed and permanent exchange since the advent of Pop Art. This is the strategy of critiquing the image by means of the image,consisting in actuating the ordinary image in order to deconstruct the process of symbolisation, by developing a visual device in the physical space of the exhibition.

This is what Pascal Poulain is engaged in doing, through both his installations and his photographs. For his installations, which take into account several of the dimensions in which they are deployed, he draws on a repertoire of images that seems to have been taken from childhood. Thus, he entitled one of his exhibitions "My concrete mixer, your aeroplane, his coach". Here, means of transport were the medium for artistic reflection. A smaller common denominator, therefore, to give a concrete image of the concept of a habitable image, which has been explored in recent years in the fields of architecture (1) and psychoanalysis (2) as well as the new technologies. Philippe Quéau has defined this concept thus : "The notion of the habitable image is an extension of the concept of the virtual image. More precisely, this notion covers the idea of a new stage in the civilisation of the image. After images that we look at (television, cinema) and images that we "read" (computer screens, consoles of all kinds), we are now seeing images that we "inhabit"." (3) Developed in the field of the new technologies, this notion tends to define the true status of the virtual image, an image that authorises an action on and in reality - an augmented reality in which the image is superimposed over the real.
Using simple means, Poulain produces images that are read as signs, or even as signage. While they are designed using computers, their presence in real space is quite concrete and they are made of ordinary material, i.e., coloured or reflective adhesive. Poulain uses the image to create tension in the exhibition space. The vectorial images that he invents model vehicles, reproducing the profiled forms of an airline plane, a truck and a family car. When they are designed on the computer, as in a simulation, these images are designed like models, referring both to the world of toys and to industrial engineering. Enlarged and cut out as stickers, they take the form of logos on the same scale as their model. Like plans articulating the silhouette of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional support. In its compulsive mimetic reference to its object, the image calls into question the space for which, nevertheless, it is intended. As if somehow inappropriate, it has to be contorted in order to fit. Folded to squeeze into the corners of the walls, sometimes stretching all the way to the ceiling and/or the floor, cut or truncated by the corners of the walls, it seeks precision in a site that does not match its suddenly gigantic scale.Poulain uses a visual strategy of hypertrophy. It is like applying to an object Borges? idea of a map on a scale of 1 to 1, which therefore entirely covers its subject. The viewer is contained within a space of an image that is measured on his own physical scale. The sign bursts spectacularly into a space from which it seems to be trying to break free by overflowing it. By trying to break out into the real.

In the society of over-consumption design is with us everywhere and at all times. The alliance of advertising and graphic design has led to a real infiltration of all visual spaces by the economy. The proliferation of desirable consumer images and objects corresponds to the proliferation of technologies of persuasion. Poulain reveals the ambiguity of contemporary visual culture. Rather than letting itself be its passive accomplice, art today must point out what is certainly one of the sources of discontent in our civilisation.

 

1. Cf. the exhibition catalogue L'image habitable, Genève : Centre pour l'image contemporaine, 2002
2. Cf. Serge Tisseron, Le bonheur dans l'image, Le Plessis-Robinson : Institut pour le progrès de la connaissance, 1996, pp. 75-78
3. Philippe Quéau, Image habitable & société de l'information, www.neteconomie.com, 2000