The photographic representation of a dreamlike universe by Christian Caujolle
The world is beautiful. No, the world is sublime, magnificent, marvellous. The world is a splendour that cannot be summed up in words. The world is an enchantment. The world, for those who know and are willing to take the time to contemplate it and see an incredible wealth of materials, tones, and textures down to the minutest detail. The world is a sumptuous bower, made of bodies of water, leaves, herbs, plants, trees and delicate shrubs, for butterflies, dragonflies, deer, fish, birds in astonishing colours, and for children too.
That’s how the world is. Or at least, the appearances of the world as represented by Ruud van Empel allow us to apply such adjectives. If we confine ourselves to the surface, of course. In fact, swept away by a beguiling chromatic richness and by our belief in the veracity of photographic representations which is fundamental to our relationship to images, we want to think that we are in the process of contemplating photographs of the wonders of the world – or a wondrous world to which the photos bear witness. This is a well-known paradox, one that is likely to end up with a massive spread of digital, playful and ever so easily transformable imageries, for we vest photographs with a great power of “truth.’ The (completely irrational) system has been installed through the use of photographs in the press which, when it was powerful, never failed to tantalize the reader with “from our own correspondent” intended to confer on the published images evidentiary value and support for a legitimating function in the elaboration of truth. We nonetheless know, even if we want to believe otherwise, that all photographs result from the decision of an operator and not a simple mechanical process or effect, that they are consequently subjective by nature and by obligation. The fact remains, however (and that is one of the characteristics or singular features of photography), that these images could not exist if “something” had not preceded them in the real, three-dimensional instance, a physical situation that the image retains a trace of, whereas that which made it possible has disappeared once and for all. This dependence, which is intrinsically linked to the process, explains also that the “print” that we can see, which endures, is presented with characteristics that enable us to re-cognize what we are looking at – forms, in fact, with which we have experimented previously. As there is a form of realism fundamentally linked to photography, it is easy to make the leap and confer truth value – of the point that when painters wanted to affirm themselves as “hyperrealists,” they tried to come as close as possible to photographic renditions. And that is how we look at images which seem to be “true” reflections of reality, although they are never anything but an organization of forms in a (square or rectangular) frame, when taken at face value. This is all the more the case when they are without edges and appear simple, evident and legible.
The works of Ruud van Empel can be seen as appearances of photographic depictions of the world – a double illusion, in fact. Because they are not photographs, but works created after hundreds and even thousands of hours of editing and composition, from patiently collected and selected photographs of the representation of an imaginary world which playfully resembles what we want to be believe to be the photographic representation of a dreamlike universe. If such a practice is made possible today by the progress of digital technology which has revived the long-forgotten production of photomontage, it is rooted in the determination to craft image and not to “take” photographs. Whereas all these images at times seem devoid of challenge other than their underlying aesthetic, they could ask or question, albeit implicitly, what the identity and social challenges of appearance are today, and by extension involve the notion of futility in the real as much as in its representations.
The work of Ruud van Empel is clearly part of the digital age, a post-photography era which dominated the making of the world’s memory in the 20th century. It is part of the world of the image and clearly takes into account the fact that digital imagery today finds itself in the situation that photography went through in its beginnings, when it had only painting and drawings as an explicit visual reference. For his part, Ruud van Empel today assumes the dual heritage of photography and painting. A digital painter, he has managed to switch from black and white to colour during his career, from the inventory and documentation of the portrait, to arrive at vibrant abstractions of images of nature today. A contemporary plastic artist, he illustrates perfectly certain issues raised by Joan Fontcuberta or Fred Ritchin, starting with the change of status or functionality of the producer of visual propositions. What is the point, in fact, of continuing to apprehend reality by means of a camera, when millions of our contemporaries are dumping images that they produced using their smartphones – up to the point of making this visual onslaught invisible or illegible. Long considered a marginal profession, the choice becomes as – if not more – important than the fact of producing images. Ruud van Empel combines two functions: that of editor of images drawn from his selection – a memory, a potentiality for him, but to which we have no access – and that of creator of images. And he plays with the nature of photography and our perception of it. While practicing figuration, he keeps reality doubly at a distance, because what precedes his creations is no longer the tangible world, but photographs on which he relies. A complex game of plastic, graphical and visual combinations, which we do not really know how to characterize, which look like photographs that they are not in order to appeal and surprize us first, then get us to doubt, and finally to try and think what we are in process of looking at and what “it” means.
All this work which ultimately tells us that we must not be fooled by appearances is eminently contemporary – on several counts. If we accept to look a little beyond the surface and even though the artist refuses to position himself explicitly on the questions he seems suggest, we are undoubtedly confronted with sensitive issues today. He, who has never set foot in Africa, and we can doubt that he ever did any scuba diving or walked in the expanses of the birch forests of the far North, knows better than anyone else how to play with the codes, shots and conventions of representation. He distorts them while pretending to appropriate them. Unless he appropriates them only to plunge them more in crisis. His children, black or white, are perfect – too perfect, in a certain way too beautiful, to the extent that they at times trigger a strange malaise. And what if they challenged so many contemporary discussions, including in certain scientific circles, which propose to generate, under some form of eugenics, perfect beings, to model or recreate human beings of fashion them for eternity? Similarly, we may well wonder whether the venomous splendour of African foliage reminiscent of Henri Rousseau, just like the subtle variety of nature, in the undergrowth or under water, rid of all human presence, evoke a joyful contemplation, a celebration of an unspoilt world, a call to protect what we can and what must be protected. There is a mystery behind these creations which are akin to a narrative figuration whose author would refuse to deliver the keys and for which he clearly does not wish to hold a single discourse. There is no question of backsliding to illusions of truth or certainty!
Complex, manipulating images to create new ones which, under a harmless exterior, delve deeply into the mechanics (or fantasies) that run through the contemporary world, the work of Ruud van Empel is one of the rare instances that has managed to take into account a completely new situation in the history of humanity which is strictly linked to the development and multiplication of images. In the end, in wishing to reproduce, record and keep a trace of everything, photography generated the outrageous project of replacing the real world by its two dimensional reproduction. While appearing to make the war visible, it ended up establishing between us and the tangible universe, inadvertently and without any planning, a form of illustrated curtain which made the material perception thereof increasingly difficult, due in particular to the establishment of shots, models, codes, and visual conventions that have become more important than the prime object of the representation. Ruud creates (or in any event his work falls within this new context) when the initial experience of the world, which was common when photography was invented and was still in the majority fifty years later, is no longer of the same nature in the end. Even if not in the first months of their existence, human beings today see images first before experiencing reality. Just think of the voyage, of everything that is physically remote from us, and of everything that has become remote, starting with nature, plants and animals – which are ever so remote from denizens of cities. We know the images thereof before we can see, touch and experience them. Human experience henceforth starts with images, and we usually do not know whether they are misleading, unfaithful inventions. We know some of the disasters produced on some children who have mixed up the real world and the image that they had of that world. Ruud van Empel alerts us about this situation in his own way. He does so as a serious artist, without raising his voice, without lecturing. But he does warn us. Beyond their aesthetic pleasures, images are misleading. Without shunning the pleasure, let us be aware of appearances now and ever.