Impression and Place
We tend to perceive images of the familiar, of things which appear immediately recognisable. In approaching Dirk Braeckman’s oeuvre, the concept of Impression assumes a central role. As our eyes sweep fleetingly over the body of his work we see motifs such as a closed door, half-concealed by a curtain (p. 2). We see a window through which we can just make out the equally blurred outline of a cityscape, and to the left — even more diffusely — a canvas hanging from a wall (R.G.-B.X.-99; p. 18–19). We see a female body in a yellow tungsten light (p. 196), or a woman’s averted head (Alexia; cover image), in whose surfaces the flashlights are reflected or absorbed. We see sofas and mattresses, draped with folded, geometrically patterned covers, crystal chandeliers, mirrors, tiled bathrooms and corridors, wooden panels, a television, whose blank screen dominates the centre of the image (S.O.-H.O.-96; p. 105). And repeatedly we encounter stairwells and corridors, sometimes almost nothing, save an interplay between intricately enmeshed black and white tones (N.P.-F.G.-05; p. 293). We see a carpet, which in common with the adjacent metal structure, tapers down into the darkness, dissipating the proportions and configuration of interior and exterior space (T.A.-A.N.-96; p. 56–57). In addition to the low contrast, the hard crop and the grain, common to all these works is a kind of veil, a filter which precludes closer observation and reinforces the notion of an impression. One could assume that Braeckman is subjecting his world to a longitudinal study from a distant place, perhaps one consisting of turbid water?
But what could it be, Braeckman’s world? What places is the artist visiting? When he writes of “non-places”, the French cultural theorist Marc Augé is referring to phenomena of our globalised world.1 Shopping-malls, airports, industrial complexes, car parks are zones of the transition, designed less as staging posts to enjoy a brief repose, and more to facilitate an effortless progression — the well-practised motion in space. Serving as optical guide rails which we are intended to disregard, the essential features of such architectures are their quotidian discretion and invisibility. Having developed from, among others, Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds and forests, and the typologies of the “Anonymous Sculptures” by Bernd and Hilla Becher and to Lewis Baltz, the artistic fascination with comparable “non-places” has increased over the years and still endures today — yet Braeckman penetrates much deeper into the material. He finds variants of these “non-places” everywhere in architectures demonstrably fashioned by human hand, promising orientation, protection or intimacy: in buildings, rooms, corridors, on their walls, borders and blind spots, in exterior and interior spaces. He ventures out along the Belgian coastline, photographing the rectilinear horizon from his curtain-draped windows as part of a commission (Beaufort, 2003; p. 359) in Ostend. Yet Braeckman’s terrain does not end here, but ranges far and wide: everything he sees, every perspective can potentially fuse into his image.
Moment and Permanence
Walter Benjamin describes Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris’s deserted streets from the early 20th century as possible crime scenes2. Like a vortex, we fill such images instinctively with sequences of a before and after. The works of Braeckman also invite similar suspicions, and the emptiness opens up space for speculation: what occurred in these spaces, what took place, what traces are inscribed in them? What is the image proof of? Now and again we feel even reminded of Larry Sultan’s sexually-charged interiors shot on the sets of porn films in rented premises. And in the images of the female nudes, all the different surfaces and objects seem suffused with longing and desire. But bereft of answers to these questions, Braeckman’s images appear to meander, shrouded in the haze of the photographic process. And in this precarious condition they mediate a feeling of disjunct, autonomy, and ultimately of timelessness. The image keep us at a distance. It seems as if Braeckman’s working sphere is space, and time his confidante. And whilst in keeping with the classical concept of the medium — the art form of time, photography, chips away at the fabric of the permanent, architecture itself can be regarded as the art of the permanent: the mere massiveness of the buildings, together with the inherent timescale etched into their construction stands in contrast to the delimited span of the photographic moment. As with an ageing body, the ravages of time leave their indelible scars on the architecture: the coming ruins are written into the time axis of every building — every artefact, whereas a temporally bounded status, akin to a time capsule, is conferred upon the photographic trace. The only object threatened by erosion is the image carrier itself. But how is all this related to Dirk Braeckman’s oeuvre? Although operating within the medium of photography, he expands its conditions in such a way that his artistic practice resembles that of a sculptor.
“Every image is a unified whole”, as Braeckman himself observes, referring to the palpably autonomous and timeless quality in his work.3 The latter is less a function of his subjects, which fundamentally communicate an aesthetic spanning the turn of the previous century until — and perhaps this is no coincidence — to the time in which Braeckman commenced with his artistic activity: the early 1980s. Consequently, the aura of timelessness can best be explained through Braeckman’s artistic methodology itself. For he deconstructs the “fleeting moment” — the borrowed time — the subject of such detailed analysis by Rudolf Arnheim, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roland Barthes — until it morphs into a non-hierarchical array of timeframes which in the finished print coalesce to become space once again.
The Body as a Camera
Braeckman has always photographed using the same cameras, with the same focal depths. He subsequently has the film roll developed — often only to allow it to lie untouched and forgotten in his archives for many years before, if at all, finally subjecting it to processing. Thus he extricates the photographic print from the moment of its genesis: a situation which perhaps was prompted by a whim or an unconscious narrative. Over the past 20 years, Braeckman has in this manner assembled a vast trove of potential works from which he continually draws, often rephotographing his own prints and, in so doing, creating uncontrollable, infinite loops. The problematic term infinity is applicable here because the artist has not amassed an archive of negatives, meticulously classified according to date and location. Fundamentally for Braeckman, the negative does not possess the value of a document — since this would be tantamount to an inversion of the photographic rules: serving as proof is the print processed exclusively in the studio. Logically, the year concealed in the work’s name also denotes its date of production.
Ostensibly, Braeckman’s distancing of himself from the negative would appear to contradict his emphatic attitude towards the photographic act: “I never feel freer as when I am photographing.”4 Yet even here one can sense the ambivalence since Braeckman seems to possess a knowledge over the self-negation and uninhibitedness informing the photographic act — and consequently he interposes a constructive doubt in the form of a delay before processing the material further. But also the physical posture which he adopts to take a photograph is striking: “I am photographing wherever I am standing or sitting.”5 In short: Braeckman photographs everywhere, and the precise “where” is irrelevant. Yet any form of pre-planning would restrict the (artistic) freedom and the focus of his activity, which comports with the fact that Braeckman never visits his locations in advance before returning with tripod and equipment. He photographs where he stands and demands from himself a radical openness: “I ultimately would like to scan the whole world around me, everything I encounter in it, in my own, almost obsessive way. And that’s how I try to bring order to the chaos that bombards me.”6
Lying behind Braeckman’s artistic perspective of the world and its images is never the endeavour to become the master of a given order. On the contrary: by intimating a potential threat, he assigns the things and images an unpredictability and arbitrariness. This is redolent of an almost childlike interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of “being thrown into the world”. However, in its conscious application it carries drastic implications for his photographic practice, since its rules are reversed: reality no longer presents itself as a passing flow of consecutive events which — as the genuine task of the photographic medium — are to be captured in the “fleeting moment”, but as a surging, pulsating, seething mass which only through physical resistance can be organised with a sculptural gesture: in order to stem the flow.
When Braeckman photographs where he stands, this speaks not only to a certain physical posture, but also to a fundamental constant characterising his relationship to space. This is exemplified vividly by the narratives of the photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose “childhood bedroom was his first darkroom, and the shaft of light filtering in from the closed window shutters his first lens.”7 It is not only Braeckman’s eyes which scan the surroundings, but rather his whole body which has become a camera.
The “Lived Space”
But what determines our relationship to space? It still is customary to speak of space as a receptacle encasing the human form as an independent corporeal entity. Such a perspective contradicts the philosophical approach adopted by Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre, who conceive of space as something which we only produce through our very existence. Hence according to Sartre there are no relationships because we are ourselves these relationships by virtue of the fact that we constantly generate a flow of thoughts, desires, actions and glances. Ultimately space only emerges at the moment in which we inhabit or occupy it. “Man and space (are) inextricably bound together. Space is not an opposite of human beings.”8
How does the photographic act take place within such a space? Our consciousness resembles a subjective model of intertwined and interlaced patterns of perception which — in not dissimilar fashion to the imprints of photographic traces — translate our thoughts into actions. Sustained by memories and our understanding of the world, this model is applied in the photographic act. In the context of the “lived space” however9, its modus operandi is transformed as the model is, at the same time, activated by both the space and by us — freely adapted from Georges Didi-Huberman, whose concept of the image postulates that it is not we who are reading and interpreting reality, but rather reality is looking at us and bringing us quasi into position. And accordingly the photographer is activated to release the camera’s shutter. Perhaps Braeckman is referring to such instances of ineffable intimacy and immediacy, when he refers to successful moments. Yet these bear no relation to Cartier-Bresson’s famous definition since the idea of the “fleeting moment” presupposes an active quest within the flow of passing time. In contrast, Braeckman is simply “there”. And by developing this idea, one arrives ultimately at a genuine classic of photographic theory: as a counter-pole to the knowledge – driven interpretation of images, the studium, Roland Barthes has coined the term punctum, a shock triggered by observing images which induce a profound sense of the inescapable absence and ephemerality — an evocation of death itself. Under a spatial conception which envisions and absorbs the subject as a space-constituting element, the punctum would then no longer be within a photographic image, but located in reality itself; and perhaps in the case of Dirk Braeckman, the primary force releasing the camera’s shutter within the photographic act.
In the Darkroom
However, with Braeckman both the act of photographing and the work in the studio are inextricably bound together. “When I’m photographing, I’m also working in my darkroom; and when I’m printing I remain involved with the moment I took the shot. Those two steps can never be separated entirely.”10 Despite the time lapse between creating and processing a negative, both activities are tied together by an invisible umbilical chord, which, although stretched, is never completely severed. When Braeckman undertook his first forays into the world of photography during his studies in Ghent in the early 1980s, he set up a darkroom in the workshop of his parent’s cigarette factory. Braeckman still holds this place in deep affection as an other-worldly sanctuary of excess, comparable to clubs, bars or discotheques — places, which promise a freedom comparable to that of the photographic act itself. The dimmed lighting, the gentle bubbling of the water and the acrid stench of the chemicals furnished an hallucinatory stage for self-negation in the artistic process. Braeckman’s basic methodology is vividly illustrated by the streaks on the portraits and self-portraits of the 1980s, which have been ferociously painted over with brush strokes. Since the early 1990s, which marks a crucial turning point in Braeckman’s modus operandi, he has not only banished from his pictures overtly gestural, painterly features, but also people looking directly into the lens. Consequently, the possibility of a narrative was diminished as eyes inevitably tell their own stories. During this period, the passion of the earlier works gives way to a more meditative approach: by extending the “fleeting moment” in the darkroom, Braeckman dismantled the photographic space-time continuum into increasingly finer nuances. Not only by playing with the depth of field and the veiled haze of an infinite array of gradations, but also through the application of further elements. This is clearly perceptible in B.C.-D.L.-98 (p. 80–81), for example, which appears to be enshrouded by an opaque layer, sealing off the pictorial space. This work was based on a negative which had been lying on the floor — and hence literally imprinted by the ravages of time. The application of such a process accurately embodies Braeckman’s capture and extension of the immutable photographic print, as does the addition of dust, hairs, selective blurring and the darkening of individual details, or the repeated photographing of an existing print. Conceived of as an artistic technique, this successive accretion and depletion is comparable with sculpture, as is Braeckman’s body as an extension of the camera in the photographic act. And analogous to paintings or sculptures, one cannot identify from the finished result which element was added to the work at which stage. If one conceives of the individual elements in Braeckman’s prints as photographic documents, all the traces would serve as evidence of origin. Enveloped by the pictorial space they merely furnish proof, however, of the non-information that clues were either added or deleted. All these layers merge together in the images which then take on the appearance of concrete objects. Consequently, their meaning is only discernible in the aesthetic space, comparable to the standardized letters and sequence of numbers in the works’ titles which do not reveal the locus of their genesis. As abstract information — as a formula, which seals the work in writing — their meaning can only be divined by the artist, and not by the viewer. These are messages without a code, reinforcing the impression of timelessness and placelessness which informs the entire work.
Impression and Denial
Thus behind the Impression, Braeckman’s images conceal an immeasurable temporal depth — a depth which he consigns to the surface, and squeezes flat in the darkroom. Frank Vande Veire has described this as “dimensionless depth”.11 When assuming the role of an archaeologist we endeavour to fathom the putative foundations beneath this phenomenon, the motifs sometimes vanish. Analogous to the fable of Sisyphus, our degree of failure is proportional to the effort expended. This is illustrated clearly in D.I-D.U.-00 (p. 68–69) for example, where from the semi-raised perspective we see three spatial levels stacked on top of each other in an apparently familiar context. As an holistic entity, the image withdraws from us, since neither the impression of a beach promenade nor that of a pavement is confirmed — so what is it then? The impression transforms into blank refusal; the “interpretative gaze” rolls off the motif like droplets of water down a varnished surface.
A similar process is also in evidence in F.E.L.S.#1-2010 (p. 321): the idea of a rocky landscape recedes as we peel back the numerous details — whereby not only the dimensions of scale disappear, but also the initial notion of the “natural” is undermined. By way of contrast, in B.W.-L.O.-96 (p. 92) one can almost sense a physical pain as soon as one makes the effort to adjust the eyes to the course grainy haze which leaps out at the viewer like an open wound.
We find a different effect in H.S.-N.Y.-0-94 (p. 168–169) or M.F.-G.D.-99 (p. 138–139). Here Braeckman’s focus is directed at ornaments, which, as decorations masking the surface, support our secret need for intimacy and privacy when we retire into bedrooms and bathrooms. Braeckman seems to have an obsession for worn, even shabby surfaces, whose marks indicate some kind of past event. Particularly in combination with the abrupt cut-off framing, a technique which finds application in the media to emphasise the “authenticity”, this reinforces the invitation to suspect that behind the images lie some erotic, mysterious or, in some shape or form, even “negative” stories.12 But in Braeckman’s work this suspicion is reflected back onto the viewer as his artistic concealment of the surface leads us to a zero point: in images without a centre, in which we as viewers seek orientation.
When depictions of partially naked women appear in the interiors they too form part of Braeckman’s “lived” and intimate space. Our eyes both dwell on, and are repulsed by, these images. Here we might assume reflexively the presence of an art-historically sanctioned male gaze, but the motifs blend smoothly into the work.
The motif of a female depicted in an interior, traces back to a long-standing tradition in the history of image-making: it speaks to the aspect of gender, the socio-political component of sex, and consequently to the woman as an object of the male gaze and desire. In Braeckman’s interiors we encounter figures both dressed and naked, at times returning the gaze, at most other times not. Yet it is the nature of the spaces that distorts our reading of such motifs: they are “spaces of otherness” as defined by Foucault, in which the rules and norms of the society no longer apply, such as brothels, porn cinemas or even hotel rooms.13 The spaces in which these figures appear hold the potential for an encounter, a “falling-out of time”, a physical intimacy or interaction which might merely take the form of exposure and glances. This very act can then be construed as a gesture of liberation, self-consciousness and self-pleasure, not only on the part of the photographer/viewer. Hence neither an aggressive expression nor one of indifference is to be found. Braeckman remains exactly where he is: as he scans his environs he never transgresses beyond the threshold into the overtly obvious. Rather more, the viewer is confronted by the pressing question of who is actually looking here. This applies particularly in the case of the rephotographed ready-found images from the Internet, which fall between the proximity, intimacy and the abstract detachment of the technology.
The Familiar and the Other
A remarkable feature of Braeckman’s entire oeuvre is his use of flash lighting. In commercial photography, it helps to bridge the medium’s limitations to the real space, thus allowing the finished images to match our physical perception of reality. In artistic photography, such as Walker Evans’ famous photo of a bed, this device already reveals its own emphatic presence. Braeckman, however, applies this device more existentially: essentially, it enables him to define space — the “lived space” — as in the aforementioned T.A.-A.N.-96 (p. 56–57), where the flashlight rips opens the space like an expansive shock. Yet, at the same time, this gesture also precipitates its optical occlusion, that grey-black mass from which a few visible volumes of space still protrude. Elsewhere, as in N.P.-A.F.-04 (p. 346–347), or in the even more minimalistic V.F.-V.F.-01 (p. 131), the flashlight reflects itself. Not only does the shock of disclosure feed back into itself, two-dimensional maskings such as wooden panels, carpets or tiles evince not only a haptic quality and spatial depth, but their tendency to decay. The self-reflexive medium reveals both its own desires and exposes itself as the limited medium of artificiality.
Braeckman’s works are continually balancing on the tight-rope between disclosure and concealment, between enticement and rejection. They remain largely “provisional”, as Braeckman himself states. Whilst in no way undermining their autonomy, this opens up their special potential to emerge from their state of absence: in his essay The Origin of the Work of Art Heidegger writes: “The more solitarily the work stands on its own, established in a form, seeming to let go, cleanly, all ties to human being, the more simply does it strike into the open that such a work is.”13 From a distance, the work exploits its enigmatic valence, which is why it turns out so extremely haptic. Braeckman’s images succeed in keeping the viewer at bay, but only in order to forge an uncontrollable opening from this disassociation.
The function of the flashlight prompts yet a further central question: where is Braeckman, what role does he assume? This is not difficult to answer. He is, of course, everywhere. His attitude — “where is he” — saturates the pictorial print and its processing like the diffuse field obtaining between a ready-found image and its photo-graph. Whereas in the early works of the 1980s he is often immediately identifiable as a person, his presence evolves from the beginning of the 1990s into innumerable, indirect self-portraits. Using the dual technique of demasking within the photographic act and the subsequent capture and masking of his own traces, each work also raises the question of where the actual self ends and how much space it can actually occupy. Or framed another way: where are the boundaries separating the familiar from the other?
As part of the exhibition Over the Edges staged in the city centre of Ghent in the year 2000 (p. 358), Braeckman covered the façade of his academy building with a glaze which fixed the slowly peeling plaster. He inserted a subtle boundary, which once again underscored his sculptural methodology in respect of the opening and closing of space. Only from certain spatial perspectives could the reflected glint of the sunlight and thus the visual echo of the building be detected. This gesture was akin to a visual transformation of something in decay into something bearing promise, or, expressed another way, the absurd extension of the familiar into the other.
Actor and Director
If one considers Braeckman’s own position both in the photographic act and in the darkroom, then his relationship to the self-portrait takes on a different meaning: whereas with the camera he operates consciously as an openly receptive actor, he processes and finalises the self-created image in the role of a director. Consequently, he is simultaneously cast into the role of author, eye-witness and reporter of his own narrative. Or, to paraphrase Foucault’s famous metaphor about the author: Braeckman is both the imprint in the sand on the beach and the incoming tide which gradually erases this trace. A paradigmatic example of Braeckman’s approach could be found in a scene from W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz where the narrator/author goes through a revolving door into the interior of a waiting room, like an actor taking the stage.14 The journey along the periphery continues, for behind each door awaits the next room with next impression which opens yet another door, whose form has been previously shaped by the space. Braeckman’s absurd and artistic objective is to reconstruct the fleeting impression of a moment through its capture, expansion and eradication: “What it’s still about for me is the first impression when you walk into a room.”16 His images linger long in the mind like a visual echo. And with the nonchalance of an echo sounder, Braeckman continues to scan the world around him on his unceasing journey of exploration and discovery.
If one were to give a different interpretation to the recurrent presence of ornaments, patterns and surface structures in Braeckman’s work, they might stand as the abstract representation of his journeys — as permanently intersecting lines and grids which constitute a kind of interior texture or furnish a mysterious logic to his journey. And thus in the form of a diary, Braeckman’s work presents itself as an expanding parallel universe, as an antidote to the daily flow of attention-seeking images in the media. The narrator/author from Austerlitz began his undertaking with the wish that “all moments of our life occupy the same space.”17 And perhaps Dirk Braeckman is the architect of such a space.
1 See Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-modernity, London/New York 1995.
2 See Walter Benjamin, Small History of Photography, in: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt am Main 1963, p. 56.
3 Dirk Braeckman in conversation with Erik Eelbode, z.Z(t).I, Ghent/Amsterdam, 1998.
4 Dirk Braeckman in conversation with Erik Eelbode, z.Z(t).I, Ghent/Amsterdam 1998.
5 Dirk Braeckman in conversation with the author, 18-5-2011.
6 Dirk Braeckman in conversation with Erik Eelbode, z.Z(t).I, Ghent/Amsterdam 1998.
7 Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Berlin 1986, p. 12.
8 See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Reinbek 1962, p. 548.
9 Franz Xaver Baier, Der gelebte Raum, Cologne 1996, p. 11.
10 Dirk Braeckman in conversation with Erik Eelbode, z.Z(t).I, Ghent/Amsterdam 1998.
11 Frank Vande Veire, Blind Auto-Reflexivity. Dirk Braeckman’s Light on Photography, Brussels, 2002.
12 Just as we speak of “Straight Shooting” with William Eggleston, the term “Straight Cutting” would appear applicable to Dirk Braeckman.
13 French philosopher Michel Foucault first elaborated on the concept of heterotopia during a lecture in 1967.
14 Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, in: ders., Holzwege (Gesamtausgabe, I. Abt. Bd. 5), Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 47.
15 W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Frankfurt am Main 2003. Translation by Anthea Bell, Penguin Books Ltd, 2002.
16 Dirk Braeckman in conversation with Erik Eelbode, z.Z(t).I, Ghent/Amsterdam 1998.
17 W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Frankfurt am Main 2003, p. 367. Translation by Anthea Bell, Penguin Books Ltd, 2002.