Iseult Labote,The Industrial World and the Truth Claim of Pictures
Text by Vanessa Morisset, Art Critic and Philosopher at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2002
Iseult Labote’s photographic paintings disclose a world of religiousness within the transit areas, building sites, warehouses, and plants which are by nature ephemeral and doomed to disappearing.
Realistic through their faithful way of rendering the materials and colours, while often abstract through their close-up framing, these photographs confer their objects a power of radiation, endowing them with an intentionality as if they had been, despite their industrial origin, made by man with particular care and thoroughness. From modernist buildings, functional architecture, such as scaffolding or “mobile offices”, to stored sand awaiting its processing into concrete, they are all rediscovered by the photographer and turned into an oracle.
From icons to photographic paintings
Of Greek origin, the artist is the inheritor of an orthodox culture, which helps her see an intense presence emanating from these places. Iseult Labote has been initiated from an early age in the religious art of the Eastern Church, thanks to his father’s collection of icons. This also pushed her into practicing, during her years of training, the restoration of medieval paintings. Turning then to photographs, first in black and white with the Zorki camera offered at adolescence by a Greek friend, then to colour ones, she transposes on this medium her interest in the “connection between visible and invisible without any concession to realism and without despising, however, the matter”, which is specific of the icon: reflecting its object as an “enigma, becoming thus the living proof of the existence of what it depicts". The photographer does not cease thereby proving the power of involuntary aesthetics specific to the industrial constructions.
This attachment to architecture and industry places Iseult Labote’s work in line with that of Lewis Hine (1874-1940), Germaine Krull (1897-1985), or Lucien Hervé (1910), whom she particularly appreciates, who were all concerned with revealing the heroism of the workers and the poetry of their achievements. However, contrary to this tradition marked by social progress utopia, Iseult Labote depicts an abandoned world, deserted of all human presence, in an aesthetics which recalls sometimes the abstract paintings or the still-lives, such as those of Giorgio Morandi. The colour of her photographs, which varies from a series to another, from shades of grey-beige to yellow and the tangiest reds, does not change anything, her work being marked by a nostalgic tone.
But this colour, which Iseult Labote obtains without any processing, relying only on the sun light, is among the factors that approach her photographs to pictorial paintings. Very attentive to the confrontation of unexpected colours that some industrial sites propose, juxtaposition of heterogeneous materials, degradation due to use and bad weather, Iseult Labote transforms these works of chance into genuine compositions.
Poetic variations on the building and the industry
The themes developed across intertwining series, created over several years in the course of various travels to Europe, America, Asia or USSR... bring thus together urban landscapes which, although geographically distant, are strangely similar. Instead of being encyclopaedic or documentary, these series stand for poetic variations of a theme that resembles to a musical composition suggesting resonances between the images.
The Urbanus series shows, as vestiges of an ancient civilisation which is however still ours, building facades, shelters in Berlin, Amsterdam, Marseille, stored tyres depicting a recurrent motif on a background of corrugated sheets of mobile offices. Only the traces remain behind a human.
Another series, Abstraction, constructed around the same building theme, insists on the degradations of concrete, stains, breaks, scratches, which the photographer invites you to see as a sophisticated search of matters and shapes. For example, in the photograph Abstraction n° III, the artist proposes a look into the interior of a home under construction in an image which we could compare to a painting by Rothko: the volumes are levelled off in a succession of grey-beige stripes which are made visible only by a light from the background.
The series Métropolis, in which the sun is sometimes inquisitor and the prison architecture, close to the distressing universe of a De Chirico, is even more terrific. Other series state their objects; it is the case of SMASH, taken in 2000 at Babolat de Lyon plant, a tennis racket and strip plants. Large monochrome yellow horizontal or vertical stripes, all on surface, flow alongside pictures of coils taken in an accelerated perspective implying a sense of movement, agitation, dynamism. The arrangement of photographs imposes a rhythm, which is underlying in the other series, but becomes here even more obvious: we nearly hear the pounding murmur of unwinding nylon ropes. But while being highly official, this series takes thus a sociologic side. Just like the architectural photographs of Iseult Labote favour the workers’ output rather than the famous architects’ one, tennis is not seen from the point of view of the players who became famous, but from the perspective of the work carried out upstream, in the plants.
The same work of anonymous people is revealed in the series Bouquet, created throughout the construction of Athens’ subway. A vegetal metaphor, the title of these photographs of steel pipes, whose sections are all coloured in a bright red, is an invitation to see these objects as a bunch of red roses laid before the photographer’s eyes. It is therefore a gift of chance, which transforms, by an interpretation in abyss, the images themselves into gifts, as a claimed operation of seduction.
The repetition of these pipes recalls the Minimalism’s duplication of forms, as well as the industrial material and red colour, which were highly favoured by Donald Judd, "the sole colour to really render a precise object". But this profusion also evokes the industrial sites which hold millions of presents, if you want to see them. Here, the site offers an almost ready to take away bunch.
One of the latest series, Nourrice, is devoted to white iron cans which, stored in the open, are touched by stains of rust by the bad weather. This degradation is transfigured by the photographs, as if the metal had been coated in a gold foil, similar to that used for plating the orthodox icons. The cans become thus precious objects, which reveals the ambivalence of the Nourrice, who is both a jerrycan and a mother. Seen through a mesh that coincides with the image surface, they are placed on cardboards to show the perspective. A tension is thus revealed between the notion of treasury suggested by the cans’ gold and their negligent storing on the one hand, and between the surface and the image depth, on the other hand, which favours the parusia of the object.
Finally, the feeling of religiousness is even more obvious in Voile. Shapes, sometimes close to the anatomic ones, moulded or masked behind a white matter which is gradually identified with the plastic, reveal across the photographs of this series clues, industrial materials. This work may be understood as an homage to Christo. However, while the latter limits his aesthetics to the literariness of the packaging, seeing the art as a “sociological relay”, Iseult Labote’s packaging becomes a metaphor for the fog, and thus, her work becomes a reaffirmation of the strength of metaphorical evocation.
In fact, Iseult Labote’s photographic work is filled with vegetal, organic, aquatic or mineral metaphors, which far from trying to conceal the reality, describe a sensual approach which may in some cases verge housebreaking. These metaphors animate the objects, give them a heart and let see their real faces.
Iseult Labote’s industrial variations
Text by Fabien Franco, art historian, 2008
Iseult Labote : The disturbance power of photography
Françoise-Hélène Brou, art historian, 1999