John Stomberg, Director of the Dartmouth Museum of Art

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 BETWEEN “BEING AND OUGHT”: Laetitia Soulier’s Fractal Architectures

The Fractal Architectures, the title of this exhibition, refers to a series of images the artist, Laetitia Soulier has created recently, in which the scale of the architecture on display is based on fractal patterning. Her work embraces contradiction, complexity, and ambiguity in a manner both marvelous and mysterious. Soulier revels in the dichotomy between the careful logic she has established for her miniature interiors and the jar- ring effect of the dramatic scale shifts they reveal when photographed with human inhabitants.

The three-dimensional architectural models in the exhibition were assembled after the photographs were completed. They capture the feel of the world Soulier creates photographically, and they reuse many of the objects made for her photographic sets, but they offer an alternative experience by extending the role of the imagination. With them we are able to project ourselves into the scenes, becoming immersed in the wonder of the world she has created. As open-ended as the photographs are, allowing for seemingly unending interpretive possibilities, they nevertheless freeze time. The models, on the other hand, encourage a participatory engagement that unfolds across time and space differently from their twodimensional cousins. We move around them as objects and examine them from multiple vantage points. Ultimately, the models invite us to enjoy a very serious form of play.

When we enter a gallery of Soulier’s work, the normal rules of reality are jettisoned, only to be replaced by a strict, if random, new logic of time and space. Disproportionate humans occupy a miniature world, like fairytale characters come to life. As she will tell you herself, it is no mistake that the children who appear in her work appear to be about eight years old. That is the time in children’s development when they begin to learn science and start appreciating life as a complicated natural system, but they still retain enough of their youthful imagination to accept a more magical understanding of the world. This exhibition brings that precarious moment to life, featuring scenes, forged from a combination of poetry and mathematics, that teeter between fantasy and logic.

Soulier’s work extends and adds significantly to the history of creating tableaux in photography. This is a story that most likely began in the 1850s, when the Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander (who, not surprisingly, be-friended Lewis Carroll after moving to England) used multiple negatives to sew together visual allegories with complex narratives.1 Rejlander, like Soulier, used a combination of stagecraft and darkroom techniques to achieve an opulent visual repertory that pre-existed only in his imagination. While the specific tools have changed, this creative impulse remains.tumblr_oi53jwXTsQ1vt7vrbo1_1280 copy

In many ways, Soulier’s work relates more closely to Rejlander’s than to that of other contemporary artists photographing architectural models. Oliver Boberg, Thomas Demand, and James Casebere, for example, construct moody, ethereal, threatening, and banal scenes of uninhabited places that stand in marked contrast to the fantastical rooms Soulier creates. Others, such as Laurie Simmons or Miklos Gaál, populate their worlds with obvious, toy-like characters that knowingly assert a puppet-show reality. Like children at play, we suspend our disbelief in order to participate. In the context of photographers using architectural models, Soulier has found a space of her own, a place where existent people occupy a nonexistent world. Her scenes appear plausible until we recognize the slippage in scale made apparent by the figures that inhabit her photographs. And that is key. At first we accept her world without suspicion; then we experience a reality shift as we recognize the fiction of her constructions.

When engaging with Soulier’s photographs, we can begin to question our own place and scale too. The concern becomes, as it did for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, against what do we measure reality? Soulier, like Carroll, bends the laws of logic in defense of nonsense. In The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, the protagonist is continually faced with the seeming structure of formal logic to reinforce the mad world in which she finds herself.

Take, for example, the famous conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat: “But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”2 You are mad because you are here and you are here because you are mad. It sounds logical, irrefutable even, but of course is exactly the kind of reasoning Carroll skewered with his book. Soulier, likewise, marshals the careful logic of fractals, but does so in support of a fantasy. In this her work has a distinct voice in contemporary art.

Still, it would be a mistake to distance Soulier’s work too far from her intellectual and creative forebears. She operates within a conceptual structure examined by Sabine Dorscheid in her 2005 exhibition post_modellismus: Models in Art.3 Dorscheid coined the phrase post_modellismus (“post_modelism,” in English) with a knowing wink to post-modernism. Her term acknowledges that the creation of models for artistic purposes has a complicated history with modernism and, in turn, with modernism’s relationship to the ideal of authenticity. Models are inherently not the thing itself, but rather a way of referring to a thing—real or imagined. Writing in the post modellismus catalogue, Thomas Trummer describes the generation preceding Soulier’s as working in a world forever caught between “the irreconcilability of model and artwork, copy and original, past and future, being and ought.” Trummer describes the model phenomenon as perpetually liminal—a model is always representing something past (established) or future (dreamed of)—a then or a there. Soulier bridges this gap. With the insertion of figures she creates a present—a now and a here, a “being” and an ought.”4 In her work, photography is once again called upon to attest to an event. That the event was staged hardly matters; or perhaps more accurately, the staging of the event forms the heart of the matter. Her photographs provide evidence of a hybrid reality increasingly present in our daily lives: truth as a combination of the virtual and the real. Conceptually, at the very least, this hybrid reality has growing acceptance as authentic experience. Soulier’s work operates within this developing realm, celebrating the collapse of existential dualities and relishing the expressive potential that has resulted. Soulier’s photographs evoke a world rich in narrative possibility of the marvelous sort. Each work is an incomplete story—an open book with one page showing. Viewers are given the setting and a glimpse of the action, and the rest is up to the imagination. As we participate and engage, the works come to life and grow in unpredictable ways. This is the essential dichotomy Soulier evokes: within the totally logical construct of a fractal-derived universe, where all scale can be determined in relation to what is visible, Soulier kindles fanciful tales whose beginnings and endings viewers can only imagine.

NOTES

1. For more on Rejlander, see David Elliott, ed., Oscar Gustave Rejlander, 1813(?)–1875 (Stockholm: Modern Museum /Royal Photographic Society, Sweden, 1998).

2. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865; repr., Chicago: VolumeOne Publishing, 1998): 90.

3. Sabine Dorscheid, post_modellismus: Models in Art (Vienna: Kringinger Projekte, 2005).

4. Thomas Trummer, “Artworks Based on Models,” in Dorscheid, post_modellismus, 25.

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