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J.M.Huitorel " Les lieux d'une ruse"

Les lieux dune ruse (1)
A Note about Philippe De Goberts Work
Jean-Marc Huitorel
La Pluie (Projet pour un texte), a short 16mm film by Marcel Broodthaers, made in 1969, shows
the artist writing. He is sitting on a chair, in a garden, against a whitewashed wall on which we
can read the inscription DÉPARTEMENT DES AIGLES. The table is unusually low. The
artist is writing facing the camera while the rain falls and wets the paper on which is written projet
pour un texte [project for a text]. A photograph supplies precious information about the
context of the shot. In fact, it does take place in Broodthaers’ garden, rue de la Pépinière in
Brussels. The table is a crate such as is frequently found in Le Musée d’art moderne département
des aigles. To the right of the image is a person, perched on a ladder, who, with the help of a
watering can, releases the so-called rain. In another photograph, one sees Franz Dahlem holding
the watering can; he is accompanied by his wife Oda and by Blinky Palermo. Something laughably
thrown together for a work of infinite poetry. Or: what is the place of an image?
Philippe De Gobert contacted Marcel Broodthaers very early on, in the mid-60s. It was before
le Département des Aigles, before his departure for Germany. For the young man who, despite
being technically trained as a photographer had never gone to art school, Broodthaers acted
simultaneously as big brother, mentor and mediator with the art world. Their bond was friendly
and professional, the younger having taken numerous photos for the elder. I also think, and
although it has rarely if ever been pointed out, that the artist-poet also influenced the work of
his younger friend, as I will try to show.
Today and for the last ten years, Philippe De Gobert has worked principally in large-format
(between 80 x 100 and 150 x 200 cm) black-and-white photographs, in silver-plate prints of a
very high quality, soberly framed with narrow pieces of grey wood. His photographs mostly show
spare interiors, whose floors are occasionally strewn with simply shaped objects – some rapidly
identifiable, others not. The light generally penetrates through the openings – doors, windows,
or simple holes positioned in the frontal or lateral walls; these holes often look like lead-paned
windows such as one finds in artists’ studios. Sometimes also, the background wall opens onto
the perspective of other rooms that communicate with each other through openings, generally
without doors. Occasionally a curtain, seeming to float in space, betrays the presence of a puff of
air. The light sources can be many and can come either directly from the outside, or from another
room that one imagines to be more luminous; this light can also ricochet off a mirror or off
(1) I am borrowing this title from the French writer Georges Perec, who recounts his psychoanalysis in this beautiful text. It is not
that I intend to approach Philippe De Gobert’s work from a psychoanalytic angle, but I would simply like to reveal in his work, as
in Perec’s, a dual quality of rhetoric and of utopia, the first quality serving the second.the sheen of a floor. Of the six partitions of the prototypical room, Philippe De Gobert’s images
almost always show five, at least when his chosen perspective is axial. In this case, the surface sections
that the eye retains most easily are the background wall that the viewer’s gaze confronts
first and the floor, whether made of stone or of wooden planks, whose junction with the vertical
of the wall traces a horizontal line that not only structures the photograph itself, but also serves
as a lowered horizon line that extends from one picture to another when they are hung together.
Among the objects that occupy these spaces, when there are any, one notices the simple, geometric
shapes, cubes or parallelepipeds, a few tables or wooden arrangements, one or two glass panels,
a rare container placed directly on the floor, and finally, occasionally, canvases on stretchers,
or stretchers without canvases, or canvases without stretchers, which, associated with the leadpaned
windows, lead one to believe that they depict most frequently artists’ studios. Sometimes
there are a few sheets of paper or even rubbish on the floor, traces of meticulous work or of a
cleaning abruptly interrupted. Rarely, other than the light itself, does an outside element enter
to disturb the calm arrangement of the places; when an outside element does appear, for example,
the vague outline of branches that we glimpse beyond the openings of the Japanese interiors
(in Voyage à Cipango), it takes on the quality of an event, or at the very least of an exception. At
first viewing, this group of works presents a rigorous and almost austere universe of pared-down
lines, in light that is precise and slightly cold; a world devoid of human presence, a space distilled
down to the sole reality of architecture that develops and reveals its luminosity. The viewer who
would be satisfied simply with this superficial impression of formalism that we often associate
with a certain German aesthetic in the wake of the Bechers and of the Dusseldorf school, would
largely miss the point of Philippe De Gobert’s work. To better understand his work, obviously
one can read the artist’s very illuminating texts, but one can also, and more immediately, visit his
exhibitions and linger in front of the works themselves. In so doing, one will be quickly seized by
doubt. Something is amiss and counteracts the first impression. The apparent rationality of the
arrangements splinters, incoherencies appear. Over there, one perceives an object that remains
just at the threshold of identification, as if it represented some generic quality that hardly agrees
with the teeming vivacity—at once precise and chaotic—of the real. Here, one would say that
the light that reflects off the parquet floorboards comes straight out of a Photoshop program.
And even more, this fantasy of the relationships of scale, as if, taking advantage of the absence of
a human reference point, the architect of these silent interiors barely considered the fact than an
improbable visitor could have knocked his head against the top of the door frames. Finally, under
the rigorous exteriors that confer an extremely subtle and highly controlled range of greys onto
these surfaces, lies the vague sentiment of something having been thrown together, certainly skilfully,
but something unlikely to be exposed. Consequently, once the hint of suspicion has been
introduced, and art, as opposed to advertising, necessarily instils unease and doubt, one can reasonably
think that Philippe De Gobert’s photographs are neither photos of architecture nor
even photos with an ordinary referent (interiors of houses): his photographs are constructed
images. The photographer makes no secret of it and willingly consents to describe his approach.
Now however, I would like to cite another element of his work, which he sometimes exhibits
separately from the photographs: the models. The singular complexity of this work lies in the
photographer’s mindset when conceiving these models and in their relationship with the photographs
or sometimes with a drawing.Before addressing how De Gobert constructs the subject he photographs, one must describe an
earlier period in his work, and plunge into that environment wherein lie the sources of the
coherence and homogeneity of a universe that, for 30 years now, he has never stopped clarifying
and refining.
Philippe De Gobert was born into a family of Brussels’ artists. His father, Guy De Gobert, left a
body of work marked by pop art and hyperrealism. It should also be said that, to earn his living,
the father built structures for stands in trade fairs. He then reused these large constructions,
sorts of real-scale models in his home, as kitchen or storage elements, creating a kind of dead
space between them and the walls, like backstage wings where the children could thread their
way and hide. The memory, also, of these large letters, veritable advertising sculptures that filled
the house’s space. Theatrical decors and a theatre of memory. I am thinking here of the universe
steeped in domestic and familial reminiscences of Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, of their common
reliability, of their sense of detail. But, even more, how can one not think of Kurt Schwitters’ studio,
progressively invaded by sprawling constructions, simultaneously sculpture and architecture
(“I construct an abstract-cubist sculpture where one can come and go,” he said.)? And when
looking at the few photographs (Merzbau of Hanover), those from 1933, at the Sprengel Museum
there, one begins to think that they could well be photos by Philippe De Gobert, so much the
general atmosphere, the precision of the outlines and the light sources suggest similarities. But,
other than this photographic link, Schwitters’ collages and especially his Merz constructions
were to profoundly mark the young Belgian artist. One can see it in a work from his youth that
he saves, hung on a wall in his home; it is even more verifiable in the very spirit of the models of
the studio, less within their exterior appearance than within this taste for throwing things
together and for using recuperated materials.
In fact, in parallel with his training and his activity as a professional photographer2, Philippe De
Gobert also concentrated on his personal artistic work. He saved this drawing, a rough sketch3 of
the model suggesting Pollock’s studio, a small stage set (in the theatrical sense of the term) 38 cm
wide and approximately 20 cm deep and 20cm high that, with the aid of a fax, he extended it in
width then in height, a procedure he would later reuse for photographic variations4. From his
childhood homes, he has retained the image of the studio. From painting, it is also the image of
the studio that he retains; it is his way—contiguous—of envisioning art history and its masterpieces.
His homage to great artists would take the form of models of studios. Either he reconstitutes
the atmosphere of these creative places based on visible characteristics of the works (the
Mondrian interior with a very “Mondrianesque” window in the wall and a Rietvelt chair), or he
reconstructs, with extraordinary accuracy and precision, the studio as it appeared in photographs
or in paintings. He also occasionally reconstructs certain famous scenes such as the Chambre des
époux Arnolfini. These models, the same size as the little Pollockian scene mentioned above,

(2) He divided his activity between photographing architecture and photographing artworks in collaboration with artists, collectors
and museums. One cannot deny that this activity had an impact on the artist’s work.
(3) The drawing plays an essential role in Philippe De Gobert’s work, often as a first step in circumscribing the space, as a rough
sketch of the place. And if these photographs possess such a graphic quality, it is undoubtedly because even before the model,
there is the drawing.
(4) To better understand this process of stretching out the photograph, one should examine Atelier 7 and Atelier 8; one will see that
each of these photographs constitutes one variation, by stretching out the image, of Atelier 1.
attest to a concern for detail and to an unparalleled virtuosity. Perhaps too much. Too much
reference. Too much exactitude. The artist feels that what retains and delights the public, is
just that, that particular curiosity. Since, what Philippe De Gobert is seeking, so patiently, so
modestly and so unselfishly, is everything except the exact representation of these places, which,
after all, are unknown to him, where he has never been and which, for the most part, don’t even
exist. Out of these non-existent places (which, it should be said, is the definition of utopia), he
draws three-dimensional spaces that consequently are real. That fundamentally represents nothing
if not the proof of an intimate interaction with the works, and in any case, it is not resolved by
adopting the classical form of painting.
Yet, the late 1970s through the early 80s was the period of a return to history through these eclectic
and cultured citations that founded, in particular, the Italian trans-avant-garde movement. No,
what concerns this artist and what is important to him is rather to circumscribe the place of the
work. For the moment, he uses reduced models, while still dreaming of the freedom in Schwitters’
collages, of the poetry of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, of what René Magritte’s strange images could render
in three dimensions. On his side, Broodthaers had also taken part in this dialogue with various
tutelary figures in art, (with Schwitters, of course, but also with Magritte, Wiertz, Courbet, to say
nothing of the writers, La Fontaine, Erasmus or Baudelaire), indeed in different ways, although a
piece such as La Malédiction de Magritte heralds some of Philippe De Gobert’s “boxes.” I am also
thinking of the slippery shifts that Broodthaers enacts through language, in the constructions such
as René Magritte écrit, Charles Baudelaire peint, Paul Valéry boit, etc.
The collage, in its physicalities as much as in its conceptual premises, is situated at the heart of
Philippe de Gobert’s first period — and undoubtedly, although in a more complex way, in his
entire body of work. Still, it concerns less a direct surrealist influence than one of more unusual
and unclassifiable figures as we have already seen with Schwitters and Broodthaers, and as we are
going to see now with Joseph Cornell. Thus, Cornell, the sedentary, stay-at-home from Long
Island, who spent the majority of his life in his wooden house on Utopia Parkway in the New
York suburb of Flushing, as much through his way of living as through his work, could only
seduce and mark a young artist fascinated by the theatre of the studio. Fundamentally, Cornell’s
boxes are only the principal and three-dimensional modality of the collage; and some of the
objects that constitute his enigmas that are so theatrical and so poetic enter into his boxes, for
example, in the form of iconographic documents or of an engraving representing a bottle of
champagne in an untitled work from the 1930s. Although the photograph as such is not introduced
in the “studios” of De Gobert, they are nonetheless conceived or based on similar documents,
and all of them will end up culminating in a photograph. We are also aware of the profound
interest that Joseph Cornell had in Europe, in its culture but also in the hotels that populate
its literature and its films and whose presence is constant in the boxes. The Parisian hotels
were to the American what the studios of the great artists are to De Gobert, with this additional
point in common: both artists know them only through iconographic intercessions, in this way
leaving all the room to the imagination and to the dream. Description in one artist’s work, restitution
at first in the other’s, but in the end, both address a re-treatment of places, an improbable
re-treatment since the places themselves have never been visited; they are almost utopias in particular
spaces, confirmed within the only reality that counts - that of the work. One of Philippe
De Gobert’s models expresses perfectly the intimate junction of these two universes. At one
time, the Brussels’ artist had a small studio in a “kitchen-basement” (half-basement) that
reminded him of the studio on Utopia Parkway. The work that he created there, although it
restitutes faithfully enough certain elements of the Brussels’ studio also integrates “Cornellian”
details such as geographic maps or the chair that one finds in a photograph representing the
American artist relaxing in his garden. If he patiently reconstituted the chair and the staircase,
the majority of the small objects that furnish the space are mini ready-mades, as will be some of
those that will structure future models to be photographed.
Let’s return now to Philippe De Gobert’s large photographs, which I tried to describe at the
beginning of this text, and say a word about the way in which the artist produces them.
As of 1995, he stopped making faithful reconstitutions of artists’ studios and of interiors in order
to devote himself to these large photographs with which we identify him today. To this effect, he
also built models that were almost the same size as the earlier ones, that is, not exceeding 50cm
by side but which, and this is the new element, with rare exceptions, do not refer to anything
known. These are interior spaces often resembling artists’ studios, always meticulously constituted
and arranged, but which present themselves more like syntheses of places that were imagined
or visited, kinds of mnemonic archetypes. The exceptions concern three spaces that gave rise to
three groups of works and that refer to precise architectures: the Wittgenstein house (partly
conceived by the Viennese philosopher for his sister), the house of Arbat (built in 1920 in
Moscow by Constantin Melnikov for his professional and personal use) and finally the contemporary
house of the Japanese architect Toshiaki Ishida, that gave rise to an ensemble of works
entitled Voyage à Cipango. About these exceptions, one can simply note that, even though they
do suggest more explicitly known places, they nonetheless preserve a strong generic dimension.
All the models are closed structures where the gaze penetrates through openings in the walls, but
they can also open up in order to be photographed. The materials are those of the reality of construction:
plaster, wood, paper, dust. That is what endows them with this powerful effect of the
real. Indeed these are the sources and the subjects of the large images. De Gobert photographs
them in a studio using a particular large-format apparatus, which allows him to master the perspectives
and depth of field. In fact, he is confronted with a subject that presents simultaneously
two kinds of technical problems: those of an architectural photo and of a close-up shot. The
model is lit by several light sources as on a movie set. With the help of a Polaroid attachment
when preparing the shot, he tests the lightings and can thus modify them until he obtains the
desired ambiance. The second intermediary stage consists in making prints of approximately
30x40cm, from which he selects some images and crops or reframes them before making his
definitive prints in large format.
The model that, usually, is a reduced model, a miniaturization, of the real, here becomes the
point of departure for an enlargement; and this inversion of the process is not without consequence
in terms of the final rendering of the image. The enlargement, in fact, accentuates the
materials and confers a very particular aspect onto the palette of greys; at the same time it
amplifies and accentuates the slightest defect, demonstrating the very nature of the procedure.
In this sense, the work is modernist because it proclaims loud and clear the specificity of its
medium and of the materials that it uses; however, it would be too reductive to consider it only
from this angle. Neither straight photography nor sculpture, and although the models are often visible, Philippe De Gobert’s work is in this sense unique and we should examine it through
numerous perspectives. We have already noted several, now let’s try to go a little further.
In a recent article5, Anne Wauters gathers together a group of artists, including Philippe De
Gobert under the name “model-making photographers.” Within this group, one finds principally
Thomas Demand, James Casebere, Bernard Voïta and Edwin Zwakman. What unites them in
her eyes? What she calls the “verisimilitude,” that is, starting with a subject that is not taken
from the real but that is constructed by the photographers, the concern is less for mystification
than for verisimilitude, a kind of contract of confidence between the artist and the viewer. In
doing this, each of these artists, in his own way, questions the status of the photographic image in
its relationship to the real and as an artefact. Anne Wauters, who emphasizes correctly that none
of these photographers chose to use sophisticated computer technologies, takes care not to turn
them into some kind of family, necessarily artificial. On the contrary, she is attached to the specificity
of each approach. And in fact, although De Gobert can claim a certain closeness with
James Casebere (as for me, I also see a closeness with Bernard Voïta, as well as with the French
couple Loriot-Mélia, all of whom rely on the desire for an image that enables the viewer to “faire
le tableau”), it is clear that the points in common with Thomas Demand are, on the other hand,
very superficial. Although they both use models, Demand conceives of large, fragile ones in flat
expanses of colours; he engages public or semi-public spaces, sometimes, it is true, in reference to
painting (Pollock still and always); his spaces are propitious to a more political reading of the
work. And if Demand is interested in architecture, it is as a sculptor. His formal register is
frontal and unembellished; in that he is the rightful heir of the Bechers. Philippe De Gobert,
however, questions architecture more than sculpture, the place rather than the object, and when
he builds (his models like his photographs, his installations more rarely) it is not under the steady
light with which Thomas Demand lights his spaces, but rather it is through the lightning flashes
of memory, through the skilfully diffuse sensuality of his childhood paradises.
What perhaps best characterizes Philippe De Gobert’s work is, in fact, what one could call an
oxymoronic tension between formal rigor and emotive vibration. To which one should undoubtedly
add a very discreet sense of humour made of a distanced perspective and a sense of derision;
it is the same sense of humour that one finds in numerous Belgian artists and which constitutes,
all precautions taken in terms of generalizations, a part of this Belgian-ness that Magritte and
Broodthaers, Mariën and Scutenaire, but also Charlier and Delvoye, Van Caeckenbergh and so
many others, represent so wonderfully. The apparent formal rigor of De Gobert’s images results
from an indescribable pleasure of constructing something, from an intuition for the right detail,
more than from an obsession for precision. As for the ongoing play on scale, through the consideration
of the distortions of childhood memory stripped however of nostalgia, through the fascination
of points of view combined with the eye of a professional photographer, it is a challenge
that is constant and that reclaims the rules of architecture. And one sees clearly that, in the end,
what Philippe De Gobert is aiming at is less the cathedral of memory than the constantly
renewed circumscription of a place. And of course it is a utopia because this place does not exist.
It does not exist for the good reason that it does not arise from topography but rather from the spirit of the place. It is also for this reason, after several attempts at introducing colour (either by
painting certain elements of the model, or by retouching the prints), that his images are most often
black-and-white photographs. Not because he adheres to some outdated mythology of the “belle
photo,” but rather because the effect produced by black and white seemed to him to be the best way to
show not an image with a referent but rather a conceptual image, an idea; but it is a perceptible idea.
What Philippe De Gobert is after in the synthesis of the artists’ studios found in the poor-quality photographs
in many magazines, what he admired in the great painters’ works or in the images of these
modernist houses, is something like the absolute studio, that is, the place of the work. Not a particular
place, not even in his most faithful models, but a space crossed by light and where the event takes place.
But the best thing is that by combining the architectural and light conditions of the propitious space,
he manages to create not only the conditions of the work, but also the work itself.
All through this text, I have placed the accent on what I consider, today, to be the central element of
Philippe De Gobert’s work, that is, the give-and-take between the model and the photographic image,
neither being considered as the absolute medium but rather as the most appropriate means, in the photographer’s
view, of obtaining what he desires. One should also say a word about another aspect of this
work, one that is perhaps more occasional but which, nonetheless, never stops preoccupying him: the
landscape. For artists, the landscape, in a way, is the architecture of the exterior, and this is even truer in
De Gobert’s work. For example, there was his installation in homage to Monet’s garden and to his
water lilies, or also those models in various scales in the colour photographs of the village of Tourinnes
in the Brabant that the photographer took during the summer of 2002. One clearly perceives there this
artist’s taste for the confrontations and the changes between scales, for no other reason than the pleasant
game of surprise, of renewing the gaze, like Rabelais placing his giants within the human context of
his childhood. Philippe De Gobert’s most recent work, a series in progress, is called Modern Landscapes.
These are black-and-white photographs in more modest formats than the interiors, sometimes 74 x
90cm, sometimes 74 x 60cm. Here also it involves constructed images. Models of houses or of apartment
buildings loom up in décors that could be views of construction sites or of ruins. For the artist, it
involved presenting these zones mid-way between nature and urbanization, the woods and fields that
are gradually being overrun by the city. The atmosphere wavers between utopia and entropy, between
the modernist impulse and the twilight intuitions of a Robert Smithson photographing the foreseeable
ruins of the Monuments of Passaic. A car here and there hints at a human presence, a vague allusion to
fiction, also a zest of humour. The general tonality of these images differs visibly, at least at first glance,
from the placid order of the interiors; and here the artist does not seem to be pursuing the same objective,
as if the shadow of uncertain developments loomed up to threaten the constructive jubilation of
the previous works. As for me, I see there rather the sign of a growing complexity of the work, and
undoubtedly a discreetly confirmed ambition: to seize not only the spirit of the place of the work, but,
in a larger sense, to reveal the very ambivalent nature of the modern project that has reached the stage
of contemporary uncertainties.
Translated by Jane McDonald

(5) “La Photographie, medium de la vraisemblance,” in Dits no. 3, automne-hiver 2003. Published by Mac’s at Grand Hornu.