Metaphors and imagination: Sophie Ristelhueber's "WB" series

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As part of its collecting of contemporary art, the National Gallery of Canada has an obligation to represent exceptional works that challenge the traditional genres of artmaking. Sophie Ristelhueber's WB series is an example of art that rejects the expression of the sublime or picturesque in landscape in favour of representing it as a disrupted and contested space. A newly acquired set of 12 prints from this series, selected in consultation with the artist, gives the Gallery a powerful body of work that speaks effectively to the role of art in contemporary geopolitics.

Born in Paris, Ristelhueber studied literature at the Sorbonne and worked originally as photo editor and journalist. For the past thirty years she has used photography to reflect on land and territories impacted by natural or man-made manipulation or devastation. A productive and rigorous artist, Ristelhueber constantly questions the nature of the medium she uses, as well as the parameters of the projects she is engaged in. In a 1998 lecture at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, she described her artistic stance as resembling in part that of an archaeologist: “I have these obsessions that I do not completely understand, with the deep mark, with the ruptured surface with scars and traces, traces that human beings are leaving on earth. It is not a comment on the environment … it is metaphysical … in a way, I am an artist standing a little like an archeologist.”

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While Ristelhueber’s obsessions range widely and deeply, they are almost always related to the tangible and abstract ways in which humans have altered, despoiled or left markings on the surface of the earth. Her obsessions are, however, also held in check by an empirical approach to her subject matter, leading her to travel, for instance, to find a physical locus for latitude zero in the Gulf of Guinea or, as at the 1998 Biennale in Johannesburg, to photograph evidence of the southern hemisphere’s centrifugal force as water drained from her bathtub.

WB (West Bank) is a body of 54 chromogenic photographic images made in 2005 on Ristelhueber’s second trip to Israel and Palestine.  Although realized in a profoundly different format, WB is a continuation of her absorption with landscape and geographic boundaries, first expressed in l’Air est à tout le monde, a work completed in four distinct parts between 1997 and 2002.

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The 708 km long wall along the green line separating the West Bank was still under construction when Ristelhueber first visited the region in 2003, and according to her it did not formally interest her at first encounter, as recounted by Catherine Grenier, writer and director of Fondation Giacometti, in her book Sophie Ristelhueber – La guerre intérieure. It was only when she was driving in the vicinity of the West Bank, a contested area bordered by Israel and Jordan, that she encountered the numerous roadblocks that control where and how Palestinians can travel between villages, towns and cities – and in fact to their homes. 

Although WB was well received by the curator of contemporary art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the work was not exhibited there, or anywhere else in Israel, for fear of “making waves," although the accompanying publication was nonetheless carried in several bookstores in Tel Aviv. Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has brought to global attention the manifold ways in which buildings, roads and natural elements, such as trees, stones and hilltops, have been used as instruments of social division and violence in the region, cleaving apart communities, thwarting public access and exercising control over a subjugated people.

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Although profoundly integrated in this geopolitical reality, Ristelhueber’s art eschews partisanship as the artist prefers to take what she sees as an apparently neutral stand. Quoted again by Grenier, Ristelhueber  specifies: " ... while working, I forget the very particular context I am in. It happens to be the West Bank, but at one point, for me and in my imagination, it is only a new expression of humanity's violent destruction. I am not denouncing someone or the other, I am in my metaphor." By insisting that she is neither a documentarian nor a photojournalist, but an artist drawn to her subjects by personal obsession and not by an impulse to report on or editorialize about what she sees, Ristelhueber refutes a teleological reading of her work. Curator Cheryl Brutvan asserts, however, that “While Ristelhueber’s unaltered still images bear no resemblance to those of a journalist, they do indeed figure as confirmation of what has been seen; in fact, it is for this role above all others that Ristelhueber has found photography suitable to her purposes."

The acquisition of selected prints from the WB series complements Ristelhueber’s Fait, arguably her most celebrated work. The Gallery has a complete set of this monumental piece, comprising 71 enlarged aerial and ground views of the Kuwaiti desert taken in 1992.


For details of works by Sophie Ristelhueber in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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