Of Fact and Fiction: Sophie Ristelhueber’s Fait
French artist Sophie Ristelhueber stands back to view the wall of enlarged photographs, a massive grid of abstract forms in metallic greys and yellows. “C’est bien,” she nods in approval. The artist has just arrived from Paris to install her monumental work, Fait (1992), acquired by the National Gallery in 2013 after gaining iconic status over two decades of international exhibitions. The 71 enlarged aerial and ground views of the Kuwait desert, photographed in 1991 in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, depict the detritus and scars of the conflict in a cool, detached, decidedly unsentimental manner.
Installed on a wall 4.5 metres high and 47 metres long, this vast array of images takes up three of the museum’s contemporary galleries – the same space occupied until recently by Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass (2012). As with Farmer’s work, viewing Fait becomes a physical experience, as you enter the room and grasp the whole, then approach individual photographs, and finally walk its length to take in the cumulative and sequential effect.
From afar, Fait is an indecipherable mosaic of muted colours and varied patterns. As you step closer, recognizable forms emerge: tire tracks written in the sand, burning oil wells, charred tanks, bomb craters, bunkers, spent missiles, soldiers’ blankets and shoes, but not a human in sight. As you walk along, it becomes a bleak, lunar landscape, one that has been defiled, defaced and then abandoned.
For 30 years, Ristelhueber has explored the scarring effects of human conflict on architecture and landscape, beginning with her series Beirut, Photographs (1984), in which she documented that city’s once elegant buildings reduced to rubble during the civil war. The destruction of Beirut hit disturbingly close to home for the artist. “We saw this modern city in ruins – a city that could have been my own,” she said in a phone interview from her Paris studio.
Such events drive the artist to action. “For me,” she explains, “it is vital to do something about these conflicts and, even if it seems very presumptuous, to ensure that there are works of art by which to remember them. I have taken political positions, and I can be engaged, but I’ve never mixed that with my work. It's more, for me, about giving form to something that obsesses me, about making a ‘work of art.’”
Fait was, in fact, about giving form to a double obsession. The first was with Man Ray’s Dust Breeding (1920), a remarkable photograph that looks like an aerial view of a strange arid land, but is really a picture of a year’s worth of dust accumulated on the back of a large glass work by Marcel Duchamp. Ristelhueber had long been fascinated with Dust Breeding. Then, starting in January 1991, when the U.S. began airstrikes on Iraq and Kuwait, she was gripped by the extraordinary images emerging in the media. This was the first war in which TV cameras were strapped to missiles and satellite technology allowed live reporting from the battlefield. Highly controlled and censored by the U.S. government, the media portrayed a futuristic, sterile war, apparently free of casualties.
It was a tiny aerial view of the war-ravaged Kuwait desert, published in Time magazine, which finally led Ristelhueber to put this dual obsession into visual form. Far from the image of a vast, wind-swept deserted desert, the arid Kuwait landscape, seen from the air, had become criss-crossed and pock-marked by human conflict. “It was this desert that was no longer one, that was no longer empty, that was filled by war. That’s what I wanted to put into form.”
From early in her career, the Sorbonne-educated Ristelhueber has chosen to leave humans out of the picture, focusing instead on their traces left behind. “Beginning with Beirut, I very quickly realized that the absence of man in my images reinforced his presence. In Beirut, it’s the architecture. In Fait, it’s objects used by man, namely the objects of war. And there were a lot of things lying around. When we see the Scottish blankets, we imagine a soldier covered with it in the desert night. Absence can suggest presence in an incredible way.”
The title Fait has a double meaning. The word is French for both fact and made; the work reveals the undeniable fact of war, but at the same time, functions as a piece of art or fiction, not of reportage. Such ambiguity is characteristic of Ristelhueber’s oeuvre. She likes to play with scale, perspective and meaning, confounding and disorienting viewers. At the same time, she strips her photographs of specificity – the Iraq desert could well be an African one – and turns them into universal stories.
Fait has been exhibited only once before in Canada, in 1999 at Toronto’s Power Plant, where NGC Director Marc Mayer was then at the helm. The National Gallery is the only institution in the world to own the complete set of 71 images. It makes a fascinating addition to the permanent collection, complementing other works of contemporary art that explore similar forms and ideas. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs come to mind, for their shared depiction of ambiguous landscapes despoiled by humans. And installed opposite Fait, Kelly Richardson’s large-scale video, Mariner 9 (2012), which imagines a future Mars filled with Earthlings’ detritus, all in silver and ochre, makes for excellent pairing.
Fait is on view in the NGC’s Lower Contemporary Galleries until March 31, 2016.