• Together —— Laurence Chellali Photography Exhibition
    Essay: Chen Haiyan
    Opening: 2017.03.04 / 16:00 - 18:00
    Duration: 2017.03.04 - 04.28 / 10:00 - 18:00
    Venue: OFOTO Gallery. 2F, Building 13, 50 Moganshan Rd., Shanghai

    Defintion of “Together”

    by Laurence Chellali

    One with the other, ones with the others, at the same time
    But also a noun in the singular.
    The sum total of elements that constitute a whole,
    The collective action of group,
    Perfect simultaneousness, good synchronization.
    (Mathematics) Collection of elements having in common one or more properties that define them,
    (Arts) The balanced composition of work,
    By extension, well-matched individuals – they go well together,
    Suit composed of separates (skirt, pant, shirt, jacket,…)
    Thus an ensemble designates a multitude that can be understood as a whole composed of NON identical elements.

    Words on the Side 

    by Chen Haiyan

    "Modernity signifies the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable." - Charles Pierre Baudelaire

    “Together” is a series of works by Laurence Chellali, a French female photographer. When I put her name in Chinese "希拉里" in the search box of Baidu, the first entries that came up were all about the high-profile American presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Chellali and Hillary are obviously not the same person, but this coincidence brings us to the keyword here: symbols. A name is a symbol or a code for a person. When a symbol is used multiple times in similar contexts, the abstract dimension of it fades away; it takes on specific conceptual meanings and relations with other words, and thus becomes a perceptible carrier of meaning. The Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman once said, “All language codes that work as symbol codes and trigger rich associations on the axis of consciousness work in the national historical and cultural context.”
    That leads us to another concept: cultural discontinuity. When we come across a foreign cultural idea as we view or create artworks, we tend to unconsciously use familiar concepts, emotions, and habits to code or decode them.

    To realize this series, Chellali spent half a year on a balcony looking out at a neighboring school playground. As an expat in China, she finds many things commonplace to us to be fresh and intriguing. On the one hand, such sensibility comes naturally from cultural discontinuity; on the other hand, it comes from her inquisitions of the juxtaposed objects and concepts such as child and adult, game and ritual, costume and everyday clothing, uniform and chaos, order and disorder, collective and individual, freedom and detention, obeisance and rebellion, nature and nurture, independence and attachment, individuality and conformity, performance and reality… Besides, to use a language code in various registers makes it possible to interpret it from multiple angles. For instance, the general word “操场” translates as either playground (for entertainment) or drill ground (for military training) and gets more specific in meaning. Such interpretation in the process of selective viewing is based on the cognition, understanding and focus of attention of the viewers, which is the same case for the process of photography.

    For Chellali, what started as a kind of mystery seeking must have led to deeper thinking that inspired a fresh style that integrates the content and the form in her photography. Without a doubt, the meaning and value of an artwork is delivered through its form, but to fully understand it one has to put the content into the context of the times. Chellali empowered us with the rights to code and decode her photography series, along with the freedom to reminisce about our shared childhood experiences and unspeakable peculiarities. She seems to have visualized the roots of certain anxieties and struck a chord there, providing some "comfort” in the form of art, be it “slight."

    All humanity shares the longing for the ideal of freedom. For that there is no fundamental cultural discontinuity. People just go to different extents in pursuit of different versions of this ideal and such difference generates various forms of cultural shock. Has Chellali been through a cultural shock (in China)? I have no idea. At least there is no such a clue in her notes or work descriptions that would give away her attitude or position. There is a surprising or even disappointing lack of passion in her words just as in her photos: mild colors, blurred strokes, “mediocre” sizes that fail to pop out and grab my attention… It seems impossible to figure out the personality of the person who created these works. It might seem a little far-fetched to compare Chellali and Hillary, but they two stand for two completely different styles. The latter makes a scene in a tough pose even after her presidential campaign failures and during her marriage crises, showcasing her distinct personal symbol.

    Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Mankind, it seems, has to find a symbol in order to express itself. Indeed 'expression' is 'symbolism.’” His words seem to give us a key to reconsider Chellali’s sweet purpose of semiotic drift, which I believe is to “dissolve”! In term of the presentation of the artwork, the dissolving happens in the color balance, in the narrative of the grand scenes, in the dilution of the individual characteristics in the crowd, and in the hallucinatory noises that crowd makes. Meanwhile, the artwork dissolves all possible conflicting cultural symbols such as presumptions, positions, and moral judgments that a viewer might jump to. Thus, it downplays the so-called “objective" recording nature of photography, and gives back to the viewers the scope of free interpretation of the symbols. This is also the reason why I try very hard to tiptoe around my own interpretation of the works in this article. Cherishing the efforts Chellali has made, I certainly do not want to have my nose in the air and make arbitrary comments or "turn graphic language into texts”. I’m convinced that every choice a “translator” has to make comes with a cost to the original message. Through art, the artist magnanimously shares her privacy, and an “ideal” viewer of art should be able to respect that. After all, unlike selling artworks, art is a lonely pursuit.
    I’m sure that other viewers can get a wider range of ideas and feelings from her works than I ever could. I might have noticed some of the more “eye-catching” points among the photos and in between the lines; however, missing the big picture for these are simply not worth it! More often than not, one way of contemplation and decipherment, even one with the most innocent intentions, may exclude other possibilities or freedom. Ultimate freedom, whether for interpretation of an artwork or for a person, can never be achieved. As the character Augustin Gora in the Romanian writer Norman Manea's novel The Lair asks, “Is freedom the escape from the labyrinth dissolution of the labyrinth altogether?"
     This series also reminds me of the trinity of body, image and life. In the studies of visual culture, this is what forms the relationship between biopolitics and art. To elaborate on that, GrorgioAgamben introduced the notions of “the bare life” and “form-of-life”, and Aristotle even stated that man is by nature a political animal, an animal with “language”! The pithiest statement in this regard should be a quote fromThe Gospels,“I’m the life."

    On another note, as I was viewing this series, I was particularly drawn to the photo of quilts aired on the playground. It resonated with me through its artistic language and brings me to a sweet secret realm beyond art. It mesmerized me like a few rare spots of delightful bright colors that pop out in an image. Of course, these are just words on the side.
     
    Written in Shanghai

    Dec. 31st, 2016


    Translation: Chen Dan

    翻译(中-英): 陈丹