Readings – Christian Liboiron

[Winter 1994-1995]

William A. Ewing, The body: Photographs of the human form,
San Fransisco, Chronicle Books, 1994,
reproductions in black-and-white and colour, $ 39.95

Comprising photographs of diverging nature and purpose, this florilegium of photography of the 19th and 20th centuries shows the representation of the body as a dominating motif. Ewing proposes an archeology of the photographic representation of the human body in an album that conveys the varied interests proper to this specific medium. The theoretical implications of this significant body of work are suggested and compiled rather than historically analyzed. However, although succinct, the texts presenting each of the twelve sections manage to put into perspective the selected photographs: they comment on the historical context of their purpose and production, on their inherent ideologies and their estehtic, etc. With an iconographie selection of over 350 photographs, this anthology is able to sustain our interest and rouse our curiosity. Unfortunately, however, certain major omissions, such as Diane Arbus and Duane Michaels, Nan Goldin and Geneviève Cadieux, or Peter Hujar and Evergon, leave us in want.

Le Sommeil de la surface, Andres Serrano,
Edited by Jean-Louis Shefer, Arles, Actes Sud, 1994,
95 pp., colour reproductions, $ 23.75

This small book comprises the proceedings of a colloquium on Serrano’s photography. Jean-Louis Shefer, director of the event, invited four other essayists to reflect upon the artist’s work in relation to the colloquium’s title: Le Sommeil de la surface (The Dormant Surface). Some worked strictly within the limits of the proposed formula, hardly enlightening our understanding of the artist’s work: Shefer, himself, offers a convoluted exegesis, estranged from the portfolio in question; J.-M. Rey proposes a thoroughly documented and well-constructed philological reflection on the notion of surface, relating, however, more to the title of the colloquium than to the subject matter. Whereas others responded with modest, but erudite, essays that take into account the actual weight of Serrano’s work (particularly The Morgue series), while referring to the project’s title merely as a guideline. Arasse discusses painting’s motif of the body at rest, which he associates with Serrano’s cadavers. He comments the artist’s work by putting forth the concept of “painting’s sleep,” that posits inert painting as a representation of both life (detail) and death (matter). P. Blon reviews photography’s principle of subtraction in an attempt to seize the essence of The Morgue, while S. Bann makes use of the mythological principle of metamorphosis.

Daniel Arasse, Andres Serrano: The morgue,
Reims, Palais du Tau, 1993, 83pp., colour reproductions, bilingual, $ 49.95

This exhibition catalogue features Serrano’s series of 36 large-scale colour photographs of cadavers shot directly in a morgue. Introducing the portfolio, Daniel Arasse’s text takes the form of a letter addressed to the Parisian gallery owner Yvon Lambert. His reflection goes beyond the simple manifestation of a feeling of embarrassment or uneasiness, and attempts, albeit subjectively, to determine the specific characteristics of such images, while situating them within the greater context of macabre photography. Referring to notions proper to the history of painting and to classical literature, Arasse associates Serrano’s driving ambition with the esthetic ideals of some of art history’s master colourists.
Translated by Jennifer Couëlle