Douglas Fogle

Under the Skin

Dirk Braeckman, Koenig Books, 2017, 192 pp, softcover, 25,5 × 21 cm, € 39,5, ISBN 978-3-96098-115-2

‘I do not see it according to its exterior envelope; I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me … ’
— Maurice Merleau Ponty

When you think about it, much of what we call philosophical discourse is really about our limits and the skin. There is me and there is the world but where does my body end and the space of the world begin? This isn’t a question often asked of an artist using photography let alone of a photograph (is it ever asked?). Photography is typically spoken about in serious tones as a mechanical and chemical process that objectively (or subjectively) records a moment in time onto a filmic emulsion. It’s very Cartesian and sets the medium up as a kind of technological recording angel that is all mechanical eye and no body. The funny thing is, no one ever talks about how the camera touches the world in front of it. But what if we did? What if photography itself were thought of as a tactile medium that reached out to touch the surface of the world that envelops us, and what if the world reached out to touch back? What would that look like? It’s hard to imagine because it goes against everything that photography has been purported to be. It’s not simply that photography can be and is often a subjective practice that flies up against its long alleged scientific objectivity. That is an old battle that has been resolved for some time. It involves a far deeper rethinking of the artist’s relationship to the space that he or she inhabits and an acknowledgement along with Merleau Ponty that ‘the world is all around me, not in front of me.’

I think about these limits when I look at the work of Dirk Braeckman whose photographic objects move effortlessly across the skin of the inhabited world as a kind of material embodiment of vision. Although he looks at his environment through the lens of a camera, in his hands photography becomes a tactile thing as much attuned to the acute sensitivity of touch as to the flicker of the glance. So much so that I’m not so sure that he’s actually a photographer any more (whatever that might mean today) as his objects are born of the photographic process but are not necessarily of that world. They bring light and shadow into an intimate embrace with the silver-based chemistry of photography but his resulting objects feel more like the tremulous surface tension on a drop of water or liquid portals between interior and exterior spaces. These are shimmering, wavering, resonating, and vibrating objects that exude a kind of Heisenbergian uncertainty, neither here nor there but both and neither, blurring the defined lines between the inside and the outside. They beg the question ‘what is a surface?’ while acting as portals between two worlds, or between our bodies and the spaces around us.

Braeckman doesn’t so much have subjects that he photographs as spaces that he inhabits, interrogates and dances with in a choreographic movement of buildings, furniture, objects and bodies (his own and his models). In one work a slightly out of focus chandelier floats like a kind of alien mothership at the top of an image above a modern wood-panelled wall that acts as a backdrop to a sea of geometrically patterned carpeting. The only sign of human presence in this uncanny topography is the glare of the artist’s flash, which casts two ghostly oval shapes onto the wood panelling. This pregnant absence of bodies continues in many of his works including images of hotel bedspreads framed obliquely within the confines of his viewfinder in order to become enormous territorial expanses of nearly abstracted fabric, the outermost edges of which recede into a blurry, crepuscular no-man’s land. They are both haunting and all too familiar, while being completely unlocatable in time and space. Wood panelling, the folds of drapery fabric, textured wallpaper, tiled surfaces, bevelled glass, corners, walls, doors, windows, passageways, chairs, stools, benches, couches, beds… these are the architectural elements of our built environment that draw Braeckman’s attention. He seems particularly fascinated by the places where objects come together in proximity with one another, as if the touch of different textures and materials might offer some kind of answer to the question of how the world works. The friction generated by the things in his images speaks as well to the tenuous surface tension between the chiaroscuro world of his making and the one that we ourselves inhabit.

Not all of Braeckman’s works are devoid of an overt human presence. In fact, far from it. Over the years the artist has solicited female models to pose in his works or at times re-photographed images from magazines. Usually shot from behind or the side, these mostly naked figures rather ambiguously inhabit the classical tradition of the nude in a seemingly deadpan manner. They almost seem like poltergeists haunting the empty rooms of the nameless everyman quarters that form the core of Braeckman’s adopted mise-en-scène. In one image a blond model stands in front of a hotel-room mirror slightly contraposto, her hair obscuring her face as she casts her gaze to the space beyond the edge of the image. Looking carefully we see the reflected leg and arm of the artist in the mirror as he takes the photograph, provoking a strange tension between the space of the room, that of the reflective surface, and our own viewing space. There is a disturbing mutual implication of gazes and imbrication of spaces in this image that makes it confusing and destabilizing like so many of his works.

There is another kind of evidence of inhabitation in these works in the form of Braeckman’s embodied vision. Working predominantly (but not exclusively) with a hand-held camera, the artist takes pictures from a normal viewing position wherever he sits or stands. He doesn’t crouch, bend or lean in any kind of unnatural way but rather sees the surface of the world from the familiarity of his typical, if unspectacular, subjective position. Although Braeckman’s conceptual agenda is not overtly spoken but is rather embedded in his way of moving through and seeing the world, this working method nonetheless brings to mind the phenomenological works of Vito Acconci’s early instruction photographs, such as his work Jumps, or Bruce Nauman’s physical mapping of the contours of his studio space in videos like Slow Angle Beckett Walk (1968). Nauman’s absurdist performance using unlikely and meaningless body movements described in the literary works of Samuel Beckett and Acconci’s self-imposed photo methodology of snapping a photograph with each jump down a country path both spoke to the attempt of the artists to locate their phenomenological experience within their artistic practice.

Unlike Acconci and Nauman, Braeckman doesn’t foreground the choreography of his own body as the topic to be explored in the work itself. It is simply a part of his way of seeing. Nonetheless, Braeckman is similarly in possession of a self-consciously phenomenological vision in which his eye is always roaming to the edges of his viewfinder ever mindful of the off-screen space lurking just outside the frame. The artist himself has referred to this as a kind of paranoid way of seeing: ‘I never simply look straight ahead. I always look at the edges. I play with the edges. I always look in that way, even without my camera; it’s a continuous urge to concentrate on what’s just next to the image. Maybe it’s a bit paranoid. As if I constantly want to monitor my field of vision.’ 2 This paranoid vision owes as much to the conceptual practices of artists such as Acconci or Nauman as it does to any figure within the more traditionally defined history of photography.

Moving from image to image in his oeuvre he seems to restlessly scan the horizon, always emphasizing his complete immersion in the space beyond the confines of his viewfinder. Ever watchful, Braeckman embraces a productive uncertainty in his work that we might describe as capturing the ‘indecisive moment’ (against the self-assuredness of Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisiveness’) in a demonstration of a particular kind of humility and empathy in his looking that values the minor, the neglected and the forgotten. There is no hierarchy in his images as his emocratic taste values everything in his field of vision: a festering hole in a plaster wall, a forlorn modernist wooden bench next to an elevator in a building lobby, or a worn wooden chair caught awkwardly between the corner of a desk, a nightstand, and a bed as if it was a small part of an ice floe. All are of equal interest to him and nothing takes precedence. When it comes to his subjects he is a leveller and these are the all-too-lived everyday surfaces that form the skin of the architectural spaces that make up his visual milieu.

Braeckman himself would tell you that he does many things incorrectly in his photographic practice from his wandering idiosyncratic framing to his at times wilful disregard for sharp focus. Chief among these ‘wrong’ photographic techniques is the tell-tale use of his flash. Punctuating the dark shadows of his picture planes with a glistening light, his flash seems to liquefy the surfaces of the objects that they touch, creating a palpable physical resistance to their appropriation by the gaze of the artist but also revealing something of their true nature as simulated approximations of different types of class taste in interior design. One might think of these provocative pools of light, as the artist’s own attempt at the nineteenth-century tradition of spirit photography, although in his case the apparitions he produces are of a decidedly materialist nature. Whether illuminating the well-worn surface of a leather couch, the scratched metallic patina of a set of elevator doors, or the vintage wooden walls of an apartment, his flash speaks a certain truth to the materiality of the objects on which it falls. It’s ironic that an element as identified with vision as artificial light could paradoxically evoke the sense of touch as much as he does with his flash.

This tactile materiality is at the heart of Braeckman’s artistic practice in both the images that he produces and their concrete manifestation in the physical world. One could even say that the objects that he creates live a complexly schizophrenic existence. Reproduced in a book they live a half-life caught between the surface of the publisher’s pages and the artist’s original negative. When they are printed and mounted on the wall they bring something altogether different to the table. The difference is one both of degree and ontology as the unglazed surfaces of his objects respire with a life force that belies their two-dimensionality. Touch the actual surface of his works and they’re gone, lost to the abrading friction of the fingertips and the corroding oils of the hand. In turn, their caress of the world is just as fragile. It would be wrong, however, to think of there being one correct and proper incarnation of these works. Like the photographic and painterly practice of Sigmar Polke, Braeckman openly embraces the aleatory and the reverie of the wayward surface incident.

Throughout his career, Braeckman has been Polke’s fellow traveller. In Braeckman’s work accidents are similarly seen as productive while the printing error is equally cherished and often encouraged. Like Polke, Braeckman has also been a consummate wanderer, in both a geographic and technical manner. While Polke went to Afghanistan in the 1970s, Braeckman went to downtown Manhattan, each in search of something beyond their individual experience. If Polke approached the darkroom with a distinct alchemical intention in an attempt to reveal the hidden mysteries and higher truths of the world, Braeckman’s approach has been more temporal and might be thought of as invoking a kind of photographic time travel. We see this in the fact that Braeckman thinks of his work as a living archive that defies temporal organization. There is no before and after in his work as negatives taken years ago might lie fallow and not be realized as printed objects until years or even decades later. Photographic prints that no longer exist might be re-shot as still-life objects. Accidental surface incidents on a negative that remained mute for years later come back to speak an archaeological poetry, their imperfect surfaces giving new life to a moment in time that has passed but can be reactivated in a completely new context. As with that of Polke, the skin of Braeckman’s work is a living organism.

Separated from the chronological flow of life in a kind of frozen temporal amber, these works embrace an openness to the touch of the world that magically conflates surfaces and skin. It is this openness that suggests that it is not photography that Braeckman practices. It’s far too concrete. These are unspoken tactile poems using light and shadow. Theirs is the secret language of twins, both tangible and inscrutable, that gives the world a second skin.