Decoration and Document - Jacinto Lageira


The proliferation of natural, semi-natural and completely artificial urban and landscape signs in images and diverse structures in this period of globalization has reached such a saturation point that we could compare it to that triumph of ornament that Adolph Loos considered a crime. This flood of images, forms, logos, signs and architectural excrescences of every kind, miserable shacks, shelters as transitory as their occupants is the realization of the perfect crime that consists in adorning existence by debasing it with the unsightly, degrading it with bad taste, levelling everything to the lowest common denominator. Kitsch is the standard that governs both the megalopolises of developing and advanced countries, and our peaceful country villages. No object, building, park or waterway escapes decay to such an extent that it is now the inhabitants who have become the living ornaments of places considered capable of raising the quality of life, whereas they accommodate criminals whose passion for destruction has become second nature. If we take a closer look we are horrified by all the everyday, permanent, design eyesores we live among. Here a sign, there a pedestrian walkway, a restored old building, urban furniture, enormous pipes in the open countryside, all this is certainly functional, it keeps the cost of labour and materials down, but we don’t understand why it has to be so ugly, repulsive, hideous. Profit and speed, efficiency and immediate consumption are the buzz words that govern the occupation of areas in Lagos, Aleppo, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Damascus or Rome, whether the poor are in contact with the rich or not, they invade the territory, precisely because they are poor, they creep into the cracks of the outlying suburbs like human weeds. Many of Claire Chevrier’s photographs speak about this, rather than show it, represent it or reveal it. It was not enough for her to pick a spot by chance to discover incongruous, unexpected or grim aspects. Though her images are not over-constructed, her frames and compositions are evidently planned and it shows, which accentuates the effect of an eye concentrated on things and people, evidencing the the presence of person who took the photo. But reality is not something amorphous waiting to be captured in an image.

This is what is intriguing about these photographs, which are as pleasing and surprising as they are disturbing. They gradually make us feel uneasy, and what aroused our incredulous curiosity – the vast stretch of green in the foreground with part of the city of Cairo in the distance or the strangely shaped little huts in Lagos – creates a feeling of anxiety. We don’t want to live in those places, even if they are quiet neighbourhoods, or decent buildings – at least as far as we can tell from the photographs – such ordinary places that we don’t notice the physical and visual violence they create. Many of Claire Chevrier’s photographs present us with that “dark side of the city” that the architect Christian de Portzamparc talks about and which is fascinating precisely for that reason. We are attracted by the sight of these derelict things and objects because we keep them at a distance, we are not part of them, we are only briefly involved in passing. We admire the brand new constructions that have emerged from the earth as if they were already ruins, because we observe them from a time and place that seem to us more solid. Doubtless because we feel physically and psychologically protected we manage to discern a certain quality in the decay, the dilapidation, the squalor.

The “vertical building” in an area of Mumbai, as photographed by Claire Chevrier, appears to us alternately as a stage set, a painting, an abstraction, an architectural sketch or a sad image of poverty. In strange resonance with the “real sets” of Cinecittà, this Indian building – like some other places photographed – tends to take on the characteristics of a fictitious place, not so much because of what the photographer has done, but because the world of the people who live there is conceived as being artificial, rigged, like the set of a staged life. We have the impression that, like the protagonist of The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) who has lived ever since birth in a huge stage set entirely designed for him, though he doesn’t know it, those people live in a film set on a human scale, or rather on an inhuman scale. Not that it matters because they don’t count, they are simply there to decorate the progression of the system. Moreover, the “encampments” near Rome are seen precisely as a sort of stage set by the tourists since they are so authentic they seem simulated.

The title of one of the series of photographs, Representation Space, underlines the ambivalent interaction between the space represented by the photograph and the representation space recomposed in the image, the former being only accessible to the viewer through this configuration. There is a very hazy dividing line between the buildings, spaces, cities and landscapes organized as images, already arranged like socio-political, economic, and religious representationss, and their plastic rendering (without aestheticizing) by Claire Chevrier, who, despite the difficulty of the task, has succeeded in capturing the moment of transition from represented to its representation. The places chosen by the photographer tend towards the theatrical, towards a dramatization of reality, and they draw their persuasive power from their great capacity of self-representation. That capacity which was so magnificently exploited by Rome and Siena during the Renaissance, and which contemporary megalopolises have transformed into an actual art of the masses, in the sense that cities such as Mumbai, Hong Kong and Los Angeles psychophysically shape the masses as though they were clay – the dream of all dictatorships has finally come true – almost mechanically by urban structuring.

The excess of images, forms, networks and circulations, destined to disappear regularly in blocks in order to continue to survive and grow, is only matched by the entropy inherent in it. The banal fact of urban violence – one of the most ambiguous concepts but nonetheless a psychophysical reality – structured by the architecture and what it imposes on our sight and bodily movements is to be found in these photos by Claire Chevrier, which are both unreal and revealing. Though they are less true to life than one might think, since any photograph’s degree of realism must be judged with caution, given that what we see is nothing but a photograph, an image, the result of a formal operation, and not a direct rendering of the subject represented. The relative beauty or at least the plastic quality of the photographs preserves the trace of the concrete experiences one has had or can have in those places, the slice of time and place that they give us often coincides with the actual experience of their theatricality. And this is only logical, given the quasi reality of the representation, the different “behind the scenes” that Claire Chevrier shows us are still always stage sets they extend the unreality through an over abundance of detail, of elements that are too true to be false. In the final analysis we don’t know which is the truest, the most convincing or the most theatrical the magnificent flooring of a cathedral or an immense stone cliff. What these places certainly have in common is the fact that they have been created, recomposed and shaped by man’s work, but by placing them in the same representation spaces Claire Chevrier establishes, so to speak, the plastic quality of what is represented, as if we could move from one image to another as image. It is not that the image is false or is presented as an illusion. It is shown simply for what it is: something created, composed, organized. In this respect the image may reflect a sliver of reality. Whether it is represented space or representation space it is always the result of an organization of reality, of our actions in the world, of practical intentions that make us exist, for better or worse, in reality.

Jacinto Lageira

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