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Thibault Hazelzet, photograph the idea

 

Giving shape to absence

There is no man in the spaces created by Thibault Hazelzet, and yet the presence of man is everywhere, in left-behind traces, in neglected objects, in empty rooms inhabited by the burden of absence. Man is the core subject of these eerie photographic pieces, and yet he remains absent from the represented space. When a human figure appears in the picture – in the series Narcisse, for instance – it is merely symbolised by a technical form, a collapsing structure. Likewise, in the series Babel, the world is represented by a circle filled with a heap which is either sagging or under construction (no one can tell), but left to lie there, deserted after an apocalypse. These images are often « afterward visions », pictures of residue layed down to wait in silence. Which people was it that built these pure yet unaccomplished cities, these arches which carry nothing but their own weight, these openings which pierce no wall, these stairways leading nowhere? (series Ascension)

The titles are quite inspiring: Ascension, Descente de croix, Babel, Jugement dernier, Annonciation, Narcisse or Icare... These titles indicate Thibault Hazelzet’s explicit will to see his work integrate the tradition of Art History. In spite of their very connoted titles, in no way can these pieces be seen as religious, though they are undoubtedly metaphysical. They act as meditations on the human condition, which derive from a reinterpretation of mythological figures and themes.

The discrepancy between these very explicit titles and the pieces themselves, which appear at first to be merely aesthetic works, is what first strikes the observer. When looking at the pictures from the series Ascension, the religious connotation is not visible at first, because of the relative sobriety of the formal language used by the artist. Only a single unstable ladder hints at the title and meaning... Reading the title immediately implies a rereading of the image, and encourages us to search deeper within it. Thus the white openings (acting like doorways or passages) open up to another realm, exposing the absent figure, the unspoken hearafter. The explicit or symbolic call for transcendence remains invisible, and yet it is inevitable, due to the space which is represented: the space bears the call. Something, or someone, is no longer there – the ladder and furniture being barely discernible at first glance, and slowly coming forward from the grey background, as figures of the afterward...

Photographic pieces

In every image the space is bare, treated geometrically in a series of parallels. In the first series (Annonciation), this figuration of space was the main (and almost exclusive) means of expression. Later, with the ripening of the artist’s technique and intention, Thibault Hazelzet’s images would become more concrete and complexe, less formal, as they are today, gaining in depth and thickness. This is due to the process of their own creation.

All the elements which participate in the elaboration of these imaginary spaces are real and have been processed par Thibault Hazelzet in his studio, and were then photographed in a successive manner on the same negative. It is the superposition of the images of real objects on a same negative (in fact a color ektachrome – hence rather a « positive ») which generates the final image. This technique is far from the numerical composition of images, which can result in a certain coldness or flatness. Here, the textures of the objects and painted backgrounds appear, and leave us under the feeling unreal place or landscape, the consistence of which still feels like reality. There is a fundamental formal ambiguity in these images. This ambiguity in form and meaning is what makes Thibault Hazelzet’s work a rich, open, and evocative one.

His work is not that of a photographer in the traditionnal acceptance of the term. In fact, it comes closer to the art of the painter – which was Thibault Hazelzet first occupation. The idea is not to select and capture what he finds in the real world and to offer it for us to see, but rather to compose, elaborate an image, with his own hands, as a craftsman, in the studio and in the camera obscura.

Etymologically, the word photography means « light-writing ». This is often understood as if the light were at the origin of the writing; as if it were the only instigator of the « writing » process...Photography was originally conceived as the possibility to forge the image of a preexisting object, which remains independent from its very image.However, photography can also be understood as « writing with light » when it is no longer used to make an imprint of reality but rather as a means of producing a new reality. Here Thibault Hazelzet creates a composition which did not exist prior to the photograph, and in that his work is quite specific – he uses photography as more than a mere instrument to capture reality, as in his hands it becomes an instrument of creation, in accordance with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s desire to find in the art of photography new possibilities of action and creation. In doing so, Thibault Hazelzet aims at obtaining an all new representation on the negative, through the use of covering devices and over impressions within the view camera itself.

Thibault Hazelzet works with a traditional photographic camera ( with a large view camera of 4 x 5 inches) and he partly elaborates his pieces within the camera itself, by inserting covering devices (« caches ») and painted slates between the lens and the photosensitive surface. The image is no longer a reproduction of something which existed prior to it. It becomes the image of a place which does not exist, and which was shaped inside the photographic camera... All the visible elements exist only for a short period of time, as models, as were put together by a series of shootings on a same ekta (negative). Thibault Hazelzet’s work is the result of a succession of steps: in the studio, in the camera, and finally in the lab, where he processes a final and unique impression of every image.

Hence his image is not a copy for there is no original.

The image refers only to itself, to its own presence. It is pure presentation, rather than representation (as can be said of documentary photographs).This allows us to speak of « photographic pieces » in reference to this work, for the resulting pieces resemble manufactured objects. They are the consequences of an action, of a process of elaboration, also a process of exposure. The image produced cannot be seen as a photograph, nor can it be seen as a photographed piece (the simple picture of a manufactured object). It is to be considered as a photographic piece, that is a piece produced by a specific pictorial device: the photographic process. We shall then speak of « photographic pieces », just as we have always spoken of « pictorial works ».

Breaking free from the fascination for the image

Inside/Outside

Photography here becomes the instrument of the un-real and the imaginary, and yet in the fantasized places created by Thibault Hazelzet the work on substance and material is still visible. The image bears witness to the gesture. Light can overflow around the caches and the outlines of the frames are sometimes blurry. Traces of dust imprint the image, strange disproportions appear, and the duck tape and string used to hold the manufactured models together distinguish themselves against pure backgrounds. This ambiguous reality is intended by the artist, who seeks to «bring back materiality to photography », as the Impressionnists or Rembrandt had done for painting. Often quoted by him, these painters had let their brush strokes and splatters of paint appear in their images of reality. The painted image could then assert itself as a painted image, as the visible intervention of an artist, and was no longer restricted to pure illusion or reproduction of reality.Thibault Hazelzet incorporates this pictorial tradition: to see the artist at work within the piece itself. He wishes to « break free from the fascination for the image ».

This does not lead him to unaesthetic pieces. The fascination for beauty is quite present here, but instead of paralysing us, of leaving us in a passive state, the pieces require from us a closer interpretation. Indeed, our fascination is constantly challenged by abstract frames, or by the presence of black and white rectangles whick cover up parts of the image, only to remind us that it is no more than an image. These frames keep us outside the picture. To be fascinated is to be caught up in what lies before us. Here the observer is bound to alternate between inside and outside the image, in a neverending game of circulation.

Sometimes the frames act as a window (never centered) which, in the beginning, disturbs our perception. We expect a nice black frame to center and sacralize the image. I am refering to the Babel series : this world-sphere, in which lies, or rises, an unlikely construction, seems to be seen through a black window, and is never entirely visible. By this device we are kept in-between the inside and the outside, always reminded that we are the observer. Inside, we try to scan the image in its most blurry details. Outside, the frame is covering up the image : there are other things behind the black surface. The dark areas are not windows included in the image, as can be seen in Flemish paintings, in which windows open up on landscapes. They are masking, covering devices, bearing two functions: they both break up the image and give depth to the object by providing multiple planes (foreground/background - openings which lead us to believe in a space beyond the image, concealing devices reminding us of the space in front of the image).

The Jugement dernier series provides us with a hazy and apocalyptic seashore landscape. The landscape was built in the studio, with folded bedsheets for the most part, and was then photographed with that recurring superposition process. All resulted in a series of wonderful large format impressions. Beautiful images reminiscent of engravings polished by time, almost abstract. There are bones in the scenery, like after a flood... But the image is divided horizontally by a black stripe. Our sensitivity almost suffers from such a sacrilege being inflicted upon the image. And it is precisely for this reason that the artist has wanted it so. Once we get used to his process, we discover that there are in fact two pictures within one. What I would call the « engraving » (the background), and also an abstract picture generated by the various spaces divided by white or black. We can go from one picture to the other : inside/outside always applying.

The will to challenge the illusion sometimes goes even further.Thibault Hazelzet claims with increasing insistence that he is a producer of objects. The Narcisse series is a good illustration of this position. The image comprises a dismembered artificial structure representing man himself, placedin a geometrical space, by the water. Narcissus’s reflection is as black as a shadow,and spreads along with vegetable shapes, reminiscent of Monet’s Nympheas. Also in the image is a completely black square (obtained by exposing only parts of the negative to the action of light). Once the photograph is hung in place, the square acts as a mirror reflecting the observer’s own image. The photograph becomes both image and object. And our own reflection penetrates the piece.Thus works the fascination for the silent image of this dismembered Narcissus, of this humanity dislocating itself by the calm water. The tragic loneliness of Narcissus breaks out, while we ourselves are spectators of the image: we see in it our own reflection, our own condition.

 

Jean-François Jaudon
2008