The Oblique Vision of the Explorer
What is the experiential and perceptual horizon of a photographed landscape? Why does the photographic, with its limitations and possibilities, have the ability to reconfigure the appearance of territory and, as a result, to trigger a perceptibility which goes beyond an experience of the visible? What relationships are interwoven between the real landscape, its representations and social actuality? These are pressing questions for many contemporary artists, for whom working with landscape involves an ever more relevant and crucial challenge, that of examining the phenomena of the appropriation and transformation of space, of uncovering the impact, dilemmas and echoes of history on territory.
Geert Goiris’s work is intimately linked to these issues. Looking at his work, we find a great diversity of subjects and photographic genres, including architecture, portraiture and the photography of objects. Yet landscape is the genre which is at the heart of his photographic practice and imagination. In landscape Geert Goiris reveals a clear attraction to territories which examine geographic boundaries, such as maritime landscapes, the desert, the savannah, volcanic zones, the polar region, glaciers, underground spaces, forests and mountains – in other words distant, remote and inhospitable places which lie at the edges of civilisation and are frequently unsuited to human life due to their extreme topographic and climatic conditions, though in some images we glimpse traces of earlier occupation, now condemned to being slowly and patiently absorbed by nature.
Places tend to be represented from a general rather than a particular viewpoint, as metaphors or symptoms of a global rather than a specific reality. One senses the artist’s desire to emphasise a peripheral and oblique view of human presence and action, as if it were necessary to travel to geographical extremes in order to attain a perceptive level from which the full breadth and complexity of certain (historical, psychosocial, ecological, etc) phenomena can be distinguished and examined. Geert Goiris is interested in landscape as a theme, but also as a perceptive model, as two absolutely inseparable dimensions which sanction the existence of a fundamental relationship between the gaze and reality, simply because there is no landscape without the gaze which creates and frames it. In general, Geert Goiris’s photographs are notable for their absolute simplicity. It is as if the subjects were simply presenting themselves, free from any artistic mediation. Geert Goiris’s desire to establish a consistent and productive congruity between the type of place and type of photographic approach is evident. What is also immediately recognisable is an approach informed by the formal parameters of documentary photography, which aims to maximise the descriptive, objective and realist capabilities of photographic representation – based, in other words, on an emphasis on technical precision, on clearly and precisely constructed images, and a complete rejection of any kind of pictorial expressionism or any sentimental or mannerist tendency. In their concern with being photographs – nothing more, nothing less – and their use of the camera’s extraordinary potential and ability to deepen our understanding of a space, a territory, or a landscape, these are images which bring the meaning of photography to the fore. A closer and more sustained analysis, however, reveals to us that Geert Goiris’s photographs are not entirely objective, much less documentary. Their rhetoric lies in the combination of the image’s descriptive capacity with its potential for speculation and reconfiguration, i.e. in the articulation between the desire to represent suggestive and paradigmatic places in visual and symbolic terms and the necessary assumption of the image as a privileged form of aesthetic and critical (re)evaluation.
It could simply be said then that Geert Goiris departs from the conventions of the objective image in order to search for a broader and more productive subjectivity. And that his images are unstable, which is certainly a quality, since it helps to ensure one of the principal aims that drive artistic practice, the possibility of a different, extensive and ‘obtuse’ (in the sense used by Roland Barthes) gaze capable of triggering the utmost subjective, sensory and projective engagement from the viewer. In Geert Goiris’s photographs, the referent which is evidenced, the concrete subject, the here and now of the photographic capturing, is not what is most important. It is essential to consider what is triggered by the image, its value as a presence, the resonance that emerges from the photograph. They are images which work on the level of reception, like a strange block of space-time, reminding us, as Thierry de Duve states, ‘that owing to its indexical nature, the photographic sign cannot be subject to semiotic analysis without the phenomenological or even the existential getting stuck to its skin, so to speak. In the image of the real transformed into surface, not only as a reference, over there, but also as existence, here’.1
Another fundamental characteristic of Geert Goiris’s work is the way that certain images instil a feeling of strangeness. Yet the strange and the unusual are not qualities inherent to the objects, situations or places, even if some of these are highly evocative – such as a prostrate rhinoceros in a savannah (Rhino in fog, 2003), a brightly lit corridor in the midst of what seems to be a forest (Tunnel vision, 2011), three sun-like lights in the sky (Three suns, 2009), an explosion in the middle of the countryside (Blast #3, 2001), the bizarre and desolate form of a tree (Solitary Tree, 2006), the fragment of a destroyed bunker which, covered in snow, is reminiscent of a dog or a sphinx (Sphinx, 2004), or the enormous unruly cactus (CCTS, 2009), which resembles a gigantic and terrifying spider.
Rather than being characteristic of the things themselves, the feeling of strangeness is fundamentally triggered by us as viewers, emerging from our sensibility and perceptivity, the result of a mental predisposition which, stimulated by the spatial and temporal freezing of the image, is able to blur the boundaries between the real and the unreal, between the known and the unknown, reinforcing a disquieting ambiguity, as if they issued from a hypnagogic state, the altered state of consciousness, halfway between wakefulness and sleep, in which the individual is more receptive to the intrusion of other visual frequencies. With respect to this, Geert Goiris proposes the idea of traumatic realism, referring to a mental state that marks a turning point in which fact and fiction merge in a type of micro-mystery in which the familiar takes on an unfamiliar presence, a place of transfiguration reminiscent of some of the ideas proposed by the Surrealists in the 1920s.
People rarely feature in the majority of Geert Goiris’s images and when they appear they are solitary figures, shown in a moment of apparent introspection. They are static shots, in which action is absent or minimal. There is no narrative, no before and after. In their immobile state, characters are destined to be melancholic figures, not because of what they do but because of what is suspended, not because of what they express, but because of the evident containment that can be seen. The care with which the artist constructs the image and, in some cases, places the solitary figures and their most significant suspended gestures (see Giant #2, 2010, Crater, 2004, Shawn, 2012 or Enoch, 2011), allow us to see the extent to which Geert Goiris’s work is constructed around a climate, or more precisely a melancholic atmosphere which shrouds our perception. Melancholy is one of those rare western conceptual constructions, devised not only to underline the luminosity of the spirit but also its introspective mode, not as an affirmation of purity but as a way of allowing impurities to penetrate, not to highlight the identical but as an affirmation of the ambivalent, offering a strategy of individuation and distinction (which defies rules or the norm, or which somehow exists in an absence, an interval, while simultaneously being a condition of great plenitude). It is a way of being, a tonality, an inflection, the sense that the world and experience lack unity, a basis, meaning, and it is also consciousness of the unstoppable and elusive course of time, in which nothing seems to really happen despite the frenetic nature of many events, and in which it is difficult to escape a contraction of movement (suspension, slowness, minimal movements) and a reconfiguration of the parameters of the experience of time.
Linking Geert Goiris’s work with melancholy is not therefore a reference to any weakened or depressive condition, but merely to its openness to the perceptual possibilities of time, in that his work argues for a long and extended time, for unhurried perception, a totally different experience to that offered to us by the dominant culture and by media entertainment.
In venturing to these sorts of places, the photographer endows the experience of the explorer with a contemporary meaning, more specifically a particular combination between the incursions into nature made by the Romantic painters, as exemplified by the work of Caspar David Friedrich, and the walk undertaken by WG Sebald through East Anglia and magnificently described in The Rings of Saturn. The contemplation of the ineffable and of the sublime expressions of the natural world is here framed within an analytical attitude which involves a consciousness of history and a critique of current reality, as in the image Election Day (2010), made on the day in which elections were held in Geert Goiris’s home country of Belgium. The photograph shows a landscape of verdant low-lying vegetation and patches of red earth below a sombre and densely clouded sky which heralds the imminent arrival of a powerful storm. We do not know if the photograph was made in Belgium and if the title was thought of at the moment or on the day in which the photograph was made. It is a twilight scene and its pairing with the title is surely not innocent. On the other hand, the lack of an obvious and literal relationship between the landscape and the title is a clear indication of the photographer’s intention to expand our perception of that space and moment: one is there but one is also somewhere, in a larger territory; we are witnessing a moment, but the connotations pertain to an entire period.
Geert Goiris’s work is based on a intense questioning of the transparency of the image, on the systematic attempt to treat the photographic image as a unit of meaning that is not established by its obvious content or by the original conditions in which it is produced. It is recognised that behind an image lie other images which invoke other resonances, other memories, based on the appearance of the referent of the first image. In this process, the psychic space – strangeness, anxiety, trauma – is in a sense made real, to the extent that it is externalised and acquires form. As such, the value of certain of Geert Goiris’s photographs lies in their ability to seduce the viewer at a fundamental level: the possibility of extending, broadening or even subverting the referential function of the photograph to the level that Walter Benjamin described as the optical unconscious, a representation in which in place of a space impregnated with consciousness, another emerges which is driven by the unconscious.
The figure of the explorer is a valid reference in the case of Geert Goiris not only in the physical sense of searching for new landscapes, but also in the sense of searching for another type of perception. As the photographer himself stated in an interview, ‘the distance I put between myself and some of the subjects could be almost extraterrestrial: like a visitor from out of space, seeing the world for the first time, would glance at things. When everything seems alien and new, there is no hierarchy anymore’.2 This is a singular way of formulating an experiential and conceptual attitude, one that is rare in the field of photography and much closer to that of an artist
such as Robert Smithson, particularly with respect to his seminal work, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967), in which the artist photographed ‘monuments’ of an alien land, his own region, as if it were another planet, a place subjected to a series of semantic experiments, testing physical and conceptual parameters, one against another – in short, testing the place and searching for an active understanding, instead of succumbing to the complacency of familiarity. It isn’t of course possible to see something for the first time, because it is impossible to extinguish past experience; it is not possible to eliminate accumulated knowledge and a frame of reference that compels us to create associations between everything. On the other hand, we know that images activate pre-existing knowledge, notions and visions. It is important, however, not to lose sight of what results from or is generated by our encounter with images, if we understand this as a process of expansion which is not so much part of a widening of vision than part of a psychophysiological experience which attempts to retrieve what we might refer to as the pre-verbal nature of the image. It is as if we had entered a zone of passages, in which clarity and rationality give way to an unpredictable and generative imagination.
Thus, rather than being objective and rational in approach, Geert Goiris’s photographic gaze is linked to a process of sensory and subjective exploration capable of triggering a revitalising and immensely prolific perception, open to generating fertile and original encounters, making it possible, for example, to experiment with variations and fluctuations in the appearance of things, playing with the differences and overlapping between figuration and abstraction, as occurs in images such as Wetwood (2007), Trope (2013), the various images from the Fragments series (2011- 12), or, even more clearly, in the images that make up the notable work that is Darkcloud (2012), a projection of 38 black and white slides (6×7) showing various types of rocky surfaces and formations. However, even in this case the move towards abstraction never results in a non-figurative effect, since the referent remains recognisable, similar and explicit. In addition, Darkcloud reveals another important characteristic that runs through Geert Goiris’s work: the relationship with elements and materials, such as earth, water, ice and snow, lava, stone and rocks, vegetation, but also wood and concrete. The presence of and attention to these elements and materials foreshadows an interesting correlation between visuality and physicality, which evokes a primary level of perception, a level in which there is a more specific bodily and phenomenological relationship with physical and material conditions: we sense haptic qualities, cold or heat, we become aware of the existence of above and below, left and right, front and back, and thus that we live and feel a space of varying sensations and intuitions.
Another work which examines the limits and fluctuations of sight is Whiteout (2008-2009). The work consists of a projection of 30 large format slides, made during two expeditions to the polar region of Antarctica. The sequence of images attempts to narrate the photographer’s experience at the same time as it attempts to reproduce the sensation of a whiteout that Geert Goiris experienced, a recurrent sensation in this kind of environment which occurs when the sky becomes as white and luminous as the snow, making it impossible to pick out the horizon line, and as a result, to tell the difference between land and sky. It is a landscape without references, an archetype of sublimated absence, of the inability to see, the experience of the insuperable. The world becomes an immense white plane, like a screen, and after a certain point one’s senses are no longer to be relied on and perception is left to drift, overcome by the void and disorientation, on the brink of hallucination.
From Whiteout to Crater, from Futuro (2002) to Broken (2012), from Paranal (2005) to Aeolian (2013), Geert Goiris’s imaginary consists of a vast spectrum of ways of seeing and examining landscape as a subject and as a visual experience. In his work the image is never a simple reality. Photography becomes a field of operations, of relationships between what can be seen and what can be said, a way of playing with similarities and with forms, with identity and territorial alterity. As a result, it could be said that Geert Goiris uses the photographic image as a fundamentally paradoxical representation, one that is dialectical and hybrid, like something that concentrates a series of contradictions, that questions our visual faculties and our inability to organise the forms of the visible. They are images that reflect the world of appearances in its inextricable uncertainties, ensuring that the landscape reveals its banality and strangeness, its evidence and counter-evidence, its truth and fiction. To sum up, Geert Goiris is not only an explorer of geographical frontiers and expanses; his photographs are also distinguished by the exemplary way that they explore the value of impermanence in images, in the sense that beyond their specific value images fulfil a heuristic function, the search for another understanding of the nature of things, privileging this probing movement, in which vision is simultaneously suspended and liberated, in order to stimulate imagination and recollection. They are images which compel us to discover the nature and purpose of our own gaze. We will always have the possibility of looking at the image as something similar to what we have already seen and what we already know. But we can also, as Geert Goiris does, accept the challenge of rethinking everything, knowing, beforehand, that we don’t see only (nor primarily) with our eyes, and that to fully experience the visible requires the mobilisation of a body and a mind that are receptive to experiencing a reality which is sensed but which is not entirely seen, but from which starting point everything is imaginable. As Marie-José Mondzain states in Homo spectator, ‘The spectator is therefore no longer the man who uses his eyes while all his other senses are resting but the théatès, the one who looks at or contemplates what the world or another person gives him to appreciate in order to make him understand. He is a citizen trapped inside the spectacle of an action that affects him and which he himself affects in some way’.3
1 Thierry de Duve, «Pose et instantané, ou le paradoxe photographique», in LisboaPhoto. The caesura
2 Geert Goiris, Imagine there’s no countries, interview between Geert Goiris and the
team of the Centre d’art contemporain d’Ivry – Le Cedrac, floor text, Ivry-sur-Seine,
3 Marie-José Mondzain, Homo spectator. De la fabrication à la manipulation des
images, Éditions Bayard, Paris, 2007, p. 15 (free translation of the French quote)