Young Parisian photographer Guillaume Amat has recently completed a series called Open Fields in which he photographed natural and industrial landscapes of his home country while using a mirror placed in the centre of the scenes, resulting in beautifully composed, surreal images:
Amat’s concept explores the ‘nature’ of spaces as well as the photographic medium itself. By situating an 80×120 cm (31.5 x 47.2 inch) mirror into various environments, he incorporates reflections into his photographs and invites the usually unseen or irrelevant (the behind or the reverse) to take part in the meaning-making. The photographs’ unified field gets interrupted by fragments of visual information that have been transmitted from elsewhere and which impart an almost fictional quality to Amat’s constructions.
Another appealing aspect of this series is a portrayal of border-crossing, literally and figuratively. In one of his images, the photographer captures a red and white pole, the one frequently found at toll and customs booths, and doubles its presence in the mirror reflection. In addition to such reverberation, the mirroring inverts or distorts the perception of distance in the picture- the photographer himself appears to be close to the crossing yet the mirror image reveals him to be standing far away.
So if close can become distant then up can become down and left can shift to right; Amat’s work implies that in life as much as in art, we have to navigate mutating spaces as we construct some of them and simultaneously destroy others; we continually put up and erode certain barriers. This further leads to questions about photographically fixing territories that are never stable and static and Amat’s mirror interruptions hint at partiality and incompleteness of the medium. A field of yellow flowers with a human figure barging in, the sea horizon with a man-made ship inserted in the middle, a grey warehouse juxtaposed with a block of flats- the viewer is presented with a seamless collage of views derived from multiple directions of looking in a particular space and can sense the movement and head-turning that the photographs embody.
Guillaume Amat’s Open Fields series has been inspired by the central premise of a project Liquid Territories: The Mission on the New French Landscape (2011-2014) that transposes the typically French tradition of organizing photographic missions to visualize and strengthen the national identity into the 21st century. According to Paul Wombell who managed the group of artists working on the subject, ‘these photographers and the wider members of the Mission are redefining what it means to be a citizen of a nation’ in current times. Since nation states take their territories (land) as a space to sovereignly exist, borders and delineations take on a role of preserving and protecting the state. Yet, in reality, spatial restrictions are overcome every day by the Internet traffic, transnational companies, airplane travel, digital technologies and strategies of globalization. The nation state itself has been challenged by the formation of larger bodies, such as the EU, with its fundamental principle of free movement which is now, paradoxically, found in a situation of self-questioning and flux. In any case, Liquid Territories as a whole and Open Fields as a part of it address topical political and cultural developments and initiate a discussion on the identity/nature of societies, states and human-related activities generating the shape of the landscape.
Amat’s work also brings to mind a historically significant photographic mini-series of mirrors hanging on trees and sitting near rivers authored by Robert Smithson in 1969. His famous oeuvre includes instalments of non-sites in galleries or the construction of Spiral Jetty on the shore of the Great Salt Lake but also his Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) produced during the travels in Mexico. Smithson visited several locations in Yucatan when he inserted a group of mirrors in more or less organized arrangements into the soil, tree branches and rock formations. He would then photograph these staged scenes and publish them with a lyrico-philosophical essay in the ArtForum in 1969 in which he further ‘reflects’ on the intersections of time and space, limitations and boundaries, art-making and language. His thoughts flesh out an artwork that consciously intends to activate spaces and objects by the strategy of dis- and mis-placement because ‘art works out of the inexplicable. Contrary to affirmations of nature, art is inclined to semblances and masks, it flourishes on discrepancy.’
In the text, Smithson contemplates why art should be without nature or, on the contrary, why nature should be without art. His mirrors catch transient reflections of the shapes of leaves or the fragments of the clouds which compels him to ponder the presence and absence of light and colour in these formations in nature. He investigates these structures like an art critic would assess a painting but instead of purely formal descriptions, the artist heavily indulges in metaphorical writing and philosophical ruminations stimulated by the landscape. It becomes evident that the materiality of the mirrors is closely intertwined with the history and symbolism of the place where they were situated (Smithson refers to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations and their gods). On top of the deeply personal musings and the invoked mythical dimension, Smithson also mentions the mineral structure of the place and makes the readers aware of its limestone or obsidian foundations, emphasizing matter as if in anticipation of the discourse on new materialism nowadays. And yet, the meaning of the displacements transcends all of these individual elements and proposes nature, as well as photography, as discontinuous and entropic phenomena whose limitations and borders are far from fixed and which exist in a more liquid state than we habitually think.
Amat’s and Smithson’s projects stem, of course, from two very different artistic practices and their focuses are,similarly, quite distant from each other, too but they share a strong awareness of the implications of the photographic processes for our understanding of space in its many variations, be it a state, a territory, a landscape, a road or an urban area. They recognize the interrelations between art and identity, (visual) language and constructions of the world and, undoubtedly, between what is (real/natural) and what (is) not.
P.S.- Videos of artists’ production for France(s) Liquid Territories (in French) can be found here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x17mise_france-s-territoire-liquide-mission-photographique_creation