tHe enigma variations
by Bill Kouwenhoven, International Editor. Hotshoe International. London
With the work of Élise Boularan, the viewer is constantly left to fill in gaps and find meaning in the accumulation of ambiguous images juxtaposed with one another. Is there a series at play? Is there a narrative in progress? Boularan (narbonne, 1984) leaves us guessing with images that are tantalizing yet enigmatic. With a poetic eye towards language in the titles of her works and a simple structure to her photographs, Boularan constructs enigmas out of thin air and the play of light. Sequenced photographs invariably force the viewer to make sense of the content or non-content of each photograph and, when they involve images of people, they demand we build a story around them. As such, a series of images should be more than the sum of its individual images, but with her mind’s lens focused, or de-focused, on the spaces in between that which can be seen and that which cannot be seen, Boularan concentrates on the elisions and ellipses, the lapses and the lacunae that invert the dynamic of storytelling whether through words of pictures.
Her palette is soft with beiges and ochers, greens and blues, and blown-out whites suggest a haze of memories felt but not quite remembered, of Mazzy Stars and dust motes. In lapsus Prompta, people seldom look straight at her camera, but when they do, they have the quality of faded Polaroids or forgotten snapshots of a summer’s idyll. Put a picture of a bed in between those of two people, and we build a romance around it, put some trees between people, and we conjure up ancient vacations and lost youth or the loneliness of old age.
yet, as we are well aware, and pace roland Barthes, the photograph is an instrument of the here and now that is displaced to the there and then. Boularan, who studied painting and philosophy in Toulouse is well aware of this. She writes, “There is a lot of nostalgia [in my work]. But the question of time is very present and important in my practice. Photography is, we know it, the privileged instrument of this temporal ambiguity.” For her, these images are of the present but which present. on this she is equally ambiguous: “I need this timelessness in my images. As if the time was suspended, far from the world of appearances.”
We can see this dynamic at work in e.m.a.j, a combination of letters that suggest the French pronunciation of the word “Image” but which might also be titles for the four images in this set. very obscure and dark they feature what looks like a doll on a bed, a heavy stuffed chair in a corner, an old woman at a dining table, and a semi-clad woman with her dark hair occluding her face.
In C. 43n1e, a diptych, a red-haired woman in a flowery dress or bathing suit looks first demurely down and then in a slight change of perspective, to the side with, perhaps, the Mona lisa trace of a smile as in some Éric rohmer film. Who is C? Perhaps what is C or where is C are better questions. 43n1e could easily refer to the latitude and longitude of Salège, Cazavet, in the Midi-Pyrénées of France. Maybe C stands for the place; maybe it is the woman’s name, Claire or Clarissa or Catherine, for example. Boularan admits no clues. She writes, “Then as regards the titles, I often play on oxymorons, paradox... It plays an important role in my practice. An ambiguous title... doesn’t define in a formal way [with] the exactness of the speech, but leads at once the spectator to wonder.” Indeed.
These enigmatic variations on ambiguity are at the heart of Boularan’s artistic project. Where there are places in her work, a farmhouse, and abandoned warehouse, a bedroom, a field with a well-worn path..., they seem dilapidated and fraught with some kind of history. They seem timeless but also suggestive of unseen specifics They are the bearers of lives lived and stored, but what was stored and who lived those lives then, and where are they now, we are, as she puts it drawn to wonder. Élise Boularan contrives to pull many somethings out of almost nothing. nothing happens in her pictures. There is nothing going on in her pictures. They remain very still but are somehow secretly imploring us to search for meanings. These quiet little pictures seduce by resisting interpretation. We are drawn into them by their very non-specificity and by their juxtaposition in sequence. The work could be about anything and nothing at all at the same time. out of time and out of place, they nonetheless strike the viewer with the power of their very ambiguity.
As such, Boularan’s photography is a kind of anti- photography. She writes of “preferring a picture to decrypt” to a picture that “presents that which is already given there.” Her pictures are gestures of resistance to our ability to read them and are in their own way unsettling. They reflect not that which is seen but the uncanny, the invisible, the un-see-able within us: our emotions, frailties and above all our uncertainties.
It is in the gaps between the pictures, in the elisions and lacunae, the things that we cannot see that we hope to find meanings in Boularan’s work and in our own selves.