Is the Earth flat?
The first work I saw from Noémie Goudal was a photograph called ‘Cascade’ from her series ‘Les Amants’. In a forest, the French photographer created an artificial waterfall made from the plastic that you wrap around your furniture for protection when moving house. The effect is wonderful, magical even.
When I met Goudal before the preview of her show, ‘The Geometrical Determination of the Sunrise’, at Foam, I tell her that I love the image. Goudal was interested in creating a picture of interaction between man-made and the organic. She inserted artificial materials in nature, trying to see how she could invent a new landscape.
I ask her whether the work is also a comment on how mankind pollutes the earth by leaving rubbish in nature. “Not directly,” she replies, “more a sublayer. But it is fine if you take that away from the work. I want my photographs to have as many readings as possible.”
The heart of the Foam exhibition is Goudal’s series ‘Observatories’, in which she invented a new landscape by using a backdrop. The series was inspired by the observatories of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India, consisting of 19 architectural astronomy instruments. Goudal photographed parts of concrete buildings in Germany, the United Kingdom and France, such as a pulpit from a church and made a backdrop of it. She then re-photographed these backdrops in a barren landscape. All the images are shot analogue, no digital manipulation was used.Noémie Goudal: “I want my photographs to have as many readings as possible.”
The result is somewhat mysterious, even illusionary. It borders between reality and fiction. Goudal is well-read and works of literature have been a source of inspiration for her. For instance, Italo Calvino’s ‘The Invisible City’, where the author explores the concept of the imagination and the imaginable, and the relationship between dreams and reality in Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’.
‘The Geometrical Determination of the Sunrise’, showcases how Goudal explores, playing with 2D and 3D in her photography, installation and video works. All her still and moving images emanate a calming, contemplative feeling.
The installation of the show is well-considered. The narrow hallway in Foam is a challenging space for exhibiting photography. The reason being that there is hardly any room to take a step back to look at the pictures. Claudia Küssel, the curator of the show, made the space function as a nice ‘bridge’ amongst the three rooms of the show. On the walls of the hallway ten stereoscopes are installed so the viewer has to come forward. Goudal presents a series of pictures of rocks, islands and mountains; powerful images in their own right. However, when you look through the viewer you see the images become 3D and the rocks look like cut out cardboard. The effect is wonderful, in particularly in the image of the mountains half-covered in clouds. It is the opposite of ‘Observatories’, where the buildings printed on the 2D cardboard merge into the background.
The two video works in the show, ‘Tanker’ and ‘Diver’, are looped and feature staircases and humans with repetitive actions. The latter presents a group of professional swimmers, are climbing and jumping from a diving tower in the lake of Annecy. Just like the ‘Observatories’, there is a distant viewpoint and the framing is monumental.
The idea of the backdrop in Goudal’s pictures was originally a creation out of necessity. During her studies she was interested in making a story about the inhabitants of Orkney Island in Scotland. There were no trees on the island, however, there was an incredible wind. It would be impossible to portray these people in the landscape. Goudal took a picture of the landscape, printed it and mounted it on a cardboard and used it as a backdrop. She asked the people to stand in front of it. The idea of the backdrop was a trigger as to what she could do further.
The backdrops in ‘Observatories’ are roughly 1.5 by 1.5 metres. They are printed on A3 paper and then mounted on 3mm cardboard. “They look like a mosaic of paper”, Goudal says. “Sometimes a print gets slightly darker out of the printer than the print next to it. The gradation is not the same which is good. It’s important to show the construction and to see how it is done. Sometimes the backdrop looks so real that I have to modify it. I don’t want people to have the impression that the construction is standing on the beach, so I make creases in the paper and make the folds deliberately discernable”.
When she takes the picture, Goudal reveals that somebody is behind the cardboard holding it. “I don’t need a stand as I take the picture really fast”, she explains. “I check out the location where I want to position the cardboard in the landscape, install my camera and the person behind the cardboard bends and I take the picture”.
In the catalogue of ‘Observatories’, Martha Gili writes, “Noémie Goudal belongs to that group of artists who consider that images must offer the elements required for the construction of a thought, but without actually revealing it”. Goudal admits she sometimes struggles in finding the balance of how much information to reveal or to leave out. “In my work, I give the viewer some clues, that you know something is invented, created”, she explains. “You can discern the rope, the tape, the paper, but you need to fill in the gaps yourself. The difficulty is that if I put in too little then the viewer will be lost and won’t engage with the work as much as I would like. However, when I offer too much information, there isn’t room for the viewer to insert their own interpretation”.
She does test her work on her assistant and people in her surroundings, but deep down she knows already if something is working or not. She seeks affirmation or tries to find out what is lacking. Sometimes, she works on an image for so long, that she doesn’t know why it’s not working. “I remember when I was working on the waterfall image, I was forest for two days with a friend of mine and at a certain point, I had no idea what I was doing anymore. Then a man with his kids arrived and he asked me what I was doing in his forest; he said we were on his property. I apologised, I told him I thought it was a public forest. I explained that we were taking a picture, that we would be wrapping up soon and we would be leaving. I asked him if he would like to see what we were doing and when I showed it to him, his kids said in awe ‘Oh, look daddy, it’s a waterfall!’ That was a magical moment”.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
Images from the serie Find a Fallen Star, Chapter I:
Les Amants (Cascade), Colour Photograph, 168 x 208 cm, 2009, photo © Noemie Goudal
Observatoire VI, 2013-14 © Noémie Goudal
Observatoire III, 2013-14 © Noémie Goudal
Stills from the video Diver, 9 mins (loop), 2014 © Noémie Goudal
Noémie Goudal, ‘The Geometrical Determination of the Sunrise’, Foam, until 23 of August 2015.