“But now comes
a colourless age. You, in the midst
of this dazzling obscenity
I shall remember your
timorous gaze, how I
saw it first, that time
when in Haarlem we swam
through a gap in the dike.”
— W.G. Sebald, After Nature, 1988
It has been said of Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique that the author put grey-tinted lenses in front of our eyes. It was Michel Foucault who situated Roussel’s writing and invention in a darkness full of nuances and gradations that draw ever deeper into the dark. None of these are hidden from sight, and some even possess a gleam, which, quite uncannily, shades these sentences, as if they were images. Roussel himself described the gaze as a ‘very fine photograph / imperceptible, undoubtedly’. When I first encountered photographs by Dirk Braeckman a long time ago, they seemed to me to be aspirated, like Lucretius’ membranes, pelliculae or simulacra (De rerum natura), emanations of things and of people, all quite this-worldly and yet as if consolidated as they flew towards our gaze. Certainly they clung to the time of their taking, yet another time had attached to them, a time between that taking and my much later observation, a duration that turned the dark, the skiagraphia into the definitive, the final time of the photograph. Dirk Braeckman’s images carry a continuous darkness. They lie before us, and a finely-woven gauze lies over them. One could think that the images themselves were covered by a retina.
They attract me, but why? What do I care about the bare rooms, the overcast views, the surfaces oscillating in the dark sheen, the views borrowed from a second image as if a bright fire were burnt into them, the substrata, materials, carpets, sofa patterns, wallpapers, palisades or bricks? Where does my desire come from and is it so tightly wrapped in crepe that in these so near abysses I see the expanses of my own longing, my disguised desires? Why are these images so close to me? Surely not because they are dark and the black gall—as once Baudelaire’s eyes, ‘like bleeding lottery balls’, in the Louvre—has poured out of their insides? Because this darkness—in which the world is not immersed but from which it emerges—is not the opposite of light, neither negative nor positive, but doubt and irony, and the things in the images, the people, furniture and angles, are geometries of doubt, planes in which a faint, very faint turmoil shimmers quietly and covertly. Yes, as if we were all dressed in Dirk Braeckman’s images, if we wanted to be, and arrange the curtains as metonymies of a desire. That is why I appreciate his art so much, and that is why the images are so dangerous, because nothing in them is symbolic or metaphorical.
Poussin said that Caravaggio had come to destroy painting. While the one painted a symbolic elevation of nature and the world, the other was only concerned with the allegorical flaring up of the world as it is. Or as his Flemish contemporary Karel van Mander wrote in 1603, Caravaggio would not have painted a single brushstroke without drawing directly from life. Louis Marin confronts the Arcadian space of Poussin with the arcane space of Caravaggio, the light of the vastness vaulted by the firmament with the darkness of the closed timbered room. What if there are secrets in these dark realms, in these bays of time that we want to uncover, to redeem something that has been silenced? The veils over Braeckman’s photographs are also veils in the photographs, a varnish of existence, as it were, a screen memory that only appears as a veil, a curtain, so as to conceal something else. Freud’s term Deckerinnerung is translated as screen memory, souvenir-écran, because an image of a memory only appears to conceal what lies behind, the prior experience. That memory is not just an instantaneous image, that curtain is a disruption of a continuous story and stands, metonymically, for the absence that shines through, depending on the degree to which the light is dimmed. Is it not so that, according to the incident light, the gauze can conceal or also enable a latency to appear? No etymology is needed to demonstrate a relationship between ‘gauze’ and ‘gaze’ and it surely is coincidental that the gauze as veil shrouds the gaze, while the gaze is attracted by that which is shrouded. ‘Sur le voile se peint l’absence’ writes Jacques Lacan, collector of photographs of veiled women. In the world of Dirk Braeckman the veils arrange themselves into images as well as in the images, to such an extent that the gaze constantly strives to strip them (‘dénuder les images’). To me, this is the reason why these grey-stroked waves are lifted by an Eros whose amazing tension can be traced back to the very particular geometry of Braeckman’s spaces and the things laid out within them. Moreover, there is always this light touch of the gaze which, as something from the outside, flashes in like a voyeur.
And then there is the hair that Dirk Braeckman lets shine out in the darkness—‘Ah! Tu ne sais pas, tu ne sauras jamais ce que je manie dans tes cheveux… ‘(Ah! You do not know, you will never know, what your hair means to me, Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte)—near and far and at the same time, these veils of hair make and block the horizon, they are gently detached from the space or are all space, re-photographed and flashed in. Were we to raise these veils, there would be no gaze to see, we would have to turn the woman around, as she was looking away from our gaze at the moment of exposure. At best, the veil, the curtain, allows us to give an image of the basic situation of love, according to Lacan. The presence of the veil conceals the absence, the loss. What is not there becomes an image. What we see in the rooms, the reflections, the correlations between the things, in the swaying, the emerging or the departing of the light, is the foam into which time lays things in the hollows of darkness. Is it not amazing how Dirk Braeckman is able to strike time in and out of his images, like Nabokov’s warder painting the hours on the face of the clock anew, every hour, and so painting time, giving time an end with each image and yet letting the end last? In the way he avoids all metaphorization, also and because every observation is an escape into language—the tiled wall is a tiled wall, the bench a bench—Dirk Braeckman puts the meaning beyond linguistic signification. Nothing is to be recovered, everything is there and present even as it goes away.
Photography testifies to the loss of mimesis; the grapes are plucked—as Baudelaire had already grasped. If the object of desire cannot be depicted, its consistency only appears in distortion, and this requires irony, firm negation.
If I may have recourse to linguistic tropes—the rhetoric of translating physical experience into repeatable linguistic utterances—then metonymy, allegory and irony are the mentally visual tools, optically focussed by the camera, that allow the world to fall into the image from its exterior, its corners. There is no recipe for doing this. Dirk Braeckman succeeds beautifully in putting things into the light of the becoming image and at the same time releasing the image from the things by dimming their appearance. Artistically he accomplishes a separating movement that grants autonomy to what we see in the image, as if the things could flee the image at any time, like Caravaggio once managed in real life to flee his cell in Valletta on Malta with a rope similar to the one he had painted in his Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, where it can be seen to this day, dangling in front of the imprisoned witnesses behind bars: the artist escaped his painting. It is certainly not the rope between light and dark that draws the things in Braeckman’s work in and out of time—‘Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, l’inconsolé / Le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie’ (I am the dark one, the widower, the unconsoled / The Prince of Aquitaine whose tower is destroyed, Gerard de Nerval, El Desdichado).
There is withdrawal there, a separation of thing and appearance, a deep doubt about the accordance between the things in the image. Yet redemption is also there, and exists in Braeckman’s singular way to convey this very doubt, to accept it and to carry it forward within the image.