La Fabrique des illusions
Collection Fouad Debbas et commentaires contemporains
Mucem, fort Saint-Jean—
Fort Saint-Jean Georges Henri Rivière Building (GHR) 320 m2
From Friday 19 July 2019 to Sunday 29 September 2019
“La Fabrique des illusions” confronts the “Orientalist” photographs in the Fouad Debbas Collection with works by ten international contemporary artists.
Photography and its history have only ever been questioned from a point of view that has been distorted by painting or, more broadly, the graphic arts. “La Fabrique des illusions” suggests a different way of thinking about the origins of this medium, particularly in its relations to theatre and the performing arts.
“Orientalist” photography can be just that special place for such a necessary overhaul, the latter having always functioned in the mode of simulation. In the 19th century, photography and theatre introduced new modes of representation. This was the time when “visual spectacle” was invented—a complex scenography with special effects and a mass of new images.
The perspective of photography in all visual performances during the 19th century, especially in theatre, is based on common codes and references that are understood by all. What is sought above all else is the illusion of life, best embodied by the scene and its effects. Photography is a theatrical space.
“La Fabrique des illusions” confronts the “Orientalist” photographs in the Fouad Debbas Collection with works by ten international contemporary artists: Mac Adams, Nadim Asfar, Vartan Avakian, Elina Brotherus, Daniele Genadry, Randa Mirza, Louis Quail, Angélique Stehli, Wiktoria Wojciechowska and Ali Zanjani. Overall, the exhibition presents some 300 pieces.
Since the 1970s, contemporary photography has offered an alternative to illusion.
It is well versed in gimmicks so as to be able to spot a ruse. The challenge of this exhibition thus lies in confronting deceptive beauty with true lies. In fact, “La Fabrique des illusions” sketches the picture of another history of photography—contradictory and, in short, illegitimate.
—Curation : François Cheval, Exhibition curator, co-founder and co-director of the Lianzhou Museum of Photography in China, co-founder of The Red Eye in charge of artistic direction of the Circulation(s) festival.
Yasmine Chemali, Head of modern and contemporary art collections at the Sursock Museum in Beirut, in charge of the Fouad Debbas Collection.
—Scenography : Jacques Aboukhaled
Interview with Yasmine Chemali and François Cheval, exhibition curators
This exhibition proposes a new way of approaching the history of photography, in particular by highlighting its links to the theatre in the 19th century...
Yasmine Chemali and François Cheval (Y.C and F.C.)
It is a mistake to consider the history of photography as having been definitively written. For several reasons. First, given that its invention only dates back to 1816-1822, we are still far from being able to assess the full effects of such a complex medium, which is only two centuries old, yet has made itself universally accepted.
Secondly, for reasons that cannot be explained here, the official history was written by institutions and businesspeople—mostly Anglo-Saxon. All shared the idea of photography as the “legitimate daughter” of painting. This is, no more and no less, an exercise in the revision of the nature of the medium, the transformation of a multiple into a rare good—unique, even.
By linking photography and theatre, we propose another way to understand, not just the history of photography, but the establishment of the “society of spectacles”—a world seen as a perspective scenic space, a place of the representation of the absent, a belief in the totality...
Why the choice to confront the Orientalist photographs in the Fouad Debbas Collection with contemporary works?
Y.C and F.C.
The Fouad Debbas funds alone can provide the elements needed for a reflection on the photographic object. However, thanks to contemporary works, we wanted to demonstrate that the questioning of the medium is more relevant than ever. One of the qualities of contemporary photography is to precisely question the medium and determine its limits and to position it in a world that determines modern representations.
Contemporary artists are better than legends at clarifying the demonstration of “curators”.
Which pieces from the Fouad Debbas Collection have particularly caught your attention, and how did you choose their contemporary “partner”?
Y.C and F.C.
No piece was selected for its “remarkable” character. One of the aims of the exhibition is to challenge the notions of “iconic” and “vintage”.
19th century photography, through its aesthetics, the choice of subjects, etc., has been able to establish its reputation on criteria of “beauty” that allow it to hide its real, ideological meanings. The Fouad Debbas fund can be analysed in terms of significant series. Authors’ “beautiful” sets are treated in the same way as the “chromos” considered vulgar by the history of photography.
What is important to understand through the 30,000 images collected by Fouad Debbas is the idea of seriality. Repeatable capture—offered by the mechanical image—goes hand in hand with the reproducibility of the medium—the logic of printing. It is a business logic. In direct link with the catalogue of views taken by the Maison Bonfils for example, the client then collects a series of images, a real one, that he believes he owns. Albumen prints, their enlargements, then their derivatives in the form of postcards or stereoscopic views, are all practices that bring 19th century photography closer to the contemporary. For us, there are no pairs, only confrontations, subjects of discussion between, for example, an Elina Brotherus and the figure of the cabotin that is Adrien Bonfils.
Light reveals (through heliography for the image, gas lighting and electricity); it strives to be justification. It illuminates the world of truth.
If the devices used are intended to validate, they also have the power to conceal. Too much light damages the subtle. And if, sometimes, contrast arises, if darkness manifests itself, it is done under the sign of the threat, that of the dark, cosmopolitan alley.
As the dark rises to the surface of the stage, the audience is filled with feelings of fear or mistrust. Light, whether in “oriental” photography or in 19th century French theatre, derealizes the scene—either to both reinforce the feeling of the enigma and reveal only distant and disturbing contours and shadows, or to dehistoricize it.
Extras from outside their own world
These bodies that are summoned to these multiple scenes made for the West suffer the space invented by a story that overwhelms them. In representations, they are actors who will play sheet music as simple extras, foreign to their own world.
They provide a presence that is only a false interiority of the subject. Whether imposed or conceded, the subjects of photography slip into the folds of the character, the specular body becoming “type”—social and ethnic.
The latter brackets all autonomous activities. In the spectacularization of the world in the 19th century, a tenuous relationship between the unconscious, the role and the actor is thus established.
We know that the theatre at this historical moment often turns the actor’s performance into an exercise in showing off. Here, we overplay, when photography eliminates the sensory traces of the subjects.
To feigned involvement corresponds the absence of feelings. Because the only thing that counts, in the end, is commemoration through text. What theatre and photography celebrate is the word from elsewhere. The caption accredits and the booklet certifies.
The scene is the place where one can—where one must—see the evidence of the unrepresentable.
Paradoxically, colonial culture is a connection with the Idea.
The eye of the prince
Photography is a theatrical space. It requires the presence of the absent person. Here we are facing the other, forgotten and distant. The mission of photography is, after long centuries, to exhume the dead in order to confront them with the living.
Perspective, a Western invention, imposes the image of power through its illusionist strength as the only effect of reality.
The vision of the scene is organized from the ideal point of vanishing lines, called “the eye of the prince”, thus establishing a social position of the gaze. From now on, the spectacular is created within a confined and restricted space.
Finiteness becomes the privileged place of universal drama. In the first half of the 19th century, Western societies pushed the limits of the visible. Thanks to technological progress, they are able to define new frontiers, as a result of the possibilities offered by advances in optics and lighting.
The irrepressible need to see and show is imposed on other forms of description of the world.
The visual spectacle that is taking place reinforces the illusion of a bipolar world, on the one hand light, and on the other hand darkness.
Now in this world, only the effect counts
The function of the visual spectacle presupposes common codes, references understood by all. Obviously, the early calotype, reserved for the intellectual and commercial elite, cannot be compared to the late and more popular postcard. Everything is too much for the holders of “good taste”.
The sense of reality is lost in the hyperbole of an extreme colorization considered vulgar. Melodrama, vaudeville and operetta flourished in an era (the late 19th century) that loved nothing more than the “great show” with its special effects scenographies.
At the same time, new images appear and find an audience eager for visual sensation. Stereoscopic vision, this small domestic theatre, is undeniably one of the first successful commercial forms.
As for the panoramas, they propose with regard to the cities and landscapes that literature has popularized in a flood of original effects.
The spectator and the user do not know how it works and do not care: only the effect counts. From the deus ex machina theatrical to the photographic revelation, the Western and urban spectator admits his submission to the spectacle.
For him, reality can only be seen in a form of strangeness, a phantasmagoria, an exoticism within sight. The Aristotelian laws of unity of time and place are withdrawn in favour of a chimeric time, pure intellectual construction and the consequence of decorative games.
The scenes follow one another as a series of visual phenomena in the form of crossfades or optical compensations.
The control of light allows the hypertrophy of feelings.
Oriental photography, a trompe l’oeil
Oriental photography, photography of workshops in particular, under the guise of archaeological scholarship, methodically organizes by its system of representation the fragmentation of a vague region that would be dispossessed of its history by Islam.
The colonial project is based on a trompe l’oeil approach to the world, on a biased relationship to reality. It elaborates a “poetic-biblical” commentary that is as effective as it is historically incoherent.
The image of imperial modernity (railway construction, booming trade, etc.) is a set of adulterated productions whose permanence is ensured, from the first daguerreotypes to postcards, from the Egyptian expedition to the SykesPicot agreement.
What gives coherence to this heterogeneous production is neither the thirst for knowledge nor the desire for scientific classification; it is the satisfaction of a feeling of European superiority, this consensus carried by the entire colonial society.
This process needs unreality and in particular mythical places. Apart from any chronology or even simple logic—a mixture of ordinary characters and celebrated heroes—the subject is a historical rewriting. The vestige—a ruin or an object—is not a document of analysis.
Endowed with a symbolic value, it refutes its instrumental function to attain the status of a monument.
The past, a romantic figure, puts the living in front of corpses or ghosts.
Partners and sponsors
Programmation associée aux Rencontres d’Arles dans le cadre du Grand Arles Express.
Une exposition du Musée Sursock, Beyrouth
Avec le soutien de la Fondation Alexis et Anne-Marie Habib