Philippe Durand

Chris Sharp, Far from the Maddening Individual (EN)


In a way, a poem seems to be the most appropriate response to Philippe Durand’s broad and complex photographic mediation on La Vallée des Merveilles. But what would that poem be? How would it written? What would it contain? Perhaps this last question is the easiest to answer: it would contain the truth of the things seen in the famed Vallée des Merveiles– a truth as wild and incontrovertible and as inscrutable as the thousands upon thousands of petroglyphs that teem among its rocks and craggy surfaces. The curious thing about this poem is not so much that the bulk of it would have been written some odd four thousand years ago (for in some cases, it is still being written)– but rather that it would not have a single author. Its authors would be legion and unidentifiable. Anonymously assembling over great stretches of time in the valley, as if it were a piece of virgin vellum, they would inscribe their contributions into the collective text while all but simultaneously (as far as we, history, are concerned) disappearing into the void from whence they came (if what I just wrote seems to describe the internet, that is a mere accident). One pictures them mutely working away, looking up and gazing at one another and vanishing into thin air before they manage to try and speak, their erstwhile presence preserved by nothing more than the marks they have left in stone. And yet what have they told us? Both singularly and together? What has it amounted to?

Philippe Durand’s photographic investigation of La Vallée des Merveilles might offer some clues to this particular mystery, which is perhaps more existential and social than archeological or ethnographic. But while the mystery of these 100,000 plus engravings located in the Argentera massif within the Maritime Alps north of the Italian Riviera, which date to more than 4000 years ago, is a point of interest for Durand, the real interest for him and this work lies elsewhere, and is much more of the order of art and metaphor. It is at once a question of the origins of art and where it may be found, where it could be said to exist, how and ultimately for whom. These engravings, which represent everything from human figures to bulls heads to obviously more recently inscribed Mickey Mouse and the Twin Towers, clearly, in the case of the former, possess a ritual or shamanic function, and in the case of the later, that of graffiti. And yet, the valley hosts them both equally and the same. Indeed, the stuff of perfect, if rural anarchy, these engravings are free of any hierarchy, which, should it ever arise, comes not from with, but from without, as if imposed there by the mutable, internal and fleeting laws of culture.

Dutifully abiding by the metaphorical horizontality of the place, Durand’s photos prescribe no sense of hierarchy to the images found therein, depicting them as the valley itself contains them. It is for this reason that Durand perceives the valley as not only an Arcadian proto-museum, but also as the ideal museum, period. Devoid of custodian and curator, and therefore virtually any criteria for discrimination, barring one, maybe two exceptions, this museum is a kind of museological utopia avant la lettre (of the museum). These two negative exceptions are integral to its positive, largely all-embracing character, and they are these: authorship and remoteness. Against authorship, and by extension the individual, this museum admits everyone by not admitting anyone specific, at all. Second to this negation is that of location. Given that reaching it requires a three-hour hike, it could be said to conform to certain supposition regarding the difficulty of culture, which, paradoxically negates the first purported lack of prejudice, at least physically, by implying that culture is not for everyone– or at least necessitates work.

Perhaps more important than this is the question of magic– for here is a museum, contrary to numerous well-known prejudices against the museum as a mausoleum, whose contents do not necessarily forfeit their life upon entering it. Once inscribed into the valley, these images, it could be argued, retain their use and significance– at least for as long as the distant culture that originally produced them remains alive. Even then, the magic that they once sought to invoke has yet to entirely withdraw from them by virtue of the essential, unsolved mystery of what they represent, what motivated them and what they formerly communicated. If this mysterious residue does not directly become a metaphor for the magical nature of art, then it at least alludes to it by way of analogy. Additionally, it goes virtually without saying that their preservation, their continued life cannot be dissociated from the fact that they exist outdoors, as opposed to indoors, in some cloistered interiority which immediately likens itself to a mausoleum. The ideal museum is not only without doors, but even without walls.

Despite the clear and specific ideology that underpins these works, they are not merely containers of that ideology. Shot in 35 millimeter analogue, the photos themselves are compositionally complex landscapes, whose rich tones and hues, are deeply engaged in a discussion with art history, landscape painting and photography. Historical precedents include everything from Kaspar David Friedrich (painting) to the decidedly more urban registrations of graffiti of the Romanian photographer Brassaï and the American photographer Aaron Siskind. In the sense, the work enters a tradition which could almost be considered anthropological, if it weren’t for the fact of their specific contextual aesthetic determinations (in one case, the primitivistic preoccupations of European modernism and the other, Abstract Expressionism). To this end, the iconographic contemporary urban analogues with which Durand pairs many of the engravings in this book, from graffiti to symbols on billboards to markings on windows not only consolidates his position even more directly within this specific tradition, but also retroactively formalizes as such. By the same token, Durand enters this tradition not only in terms of content, but also through technological media. Akin to his forbears, his relationship with the inscriptions that he both photographs and films is indexical in so far as he is, like them, using analogue means of registration. This indexicality of course replicates the original indexicality of the engravings themselves. Where in one case they are inscribed by hand (via a tool), in the other they are inscribed by light (via camera), and as such, in both cases, they are directly marked by and within the place itself.

Thus it is not so much a mise-en-abyme, as an act of continuity between the past and the present– a present that multiplies and re-contextualizes the past. All that said, it is not only the indexicality that Durand replicates here, but even the very logic of evolution of the engravings themselves and their relationship to time and history. By which I mean, it is precisely the aesthetic complexity of the works that, like the engravings they depict, ultimately permits them to not only transcend their author’s intentions, but to begin to shed their author altogether. Indeed, it is by acting as a conduit and distilling a culturally codified system of reference and production into these images that they begin to abandon Durand himself as author, assuming, almost in the spirit of structuralism, a multitude of authors, like the valley itself.

Chris Sharp , 2015
Chris Sharp is Curator and Galerist