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Features / June 15, 2015

Benoit Aquin: Surface and Catastrophe

Although Benoit Aquin's images might seem to belong to the realm of photojournalism, a closer look reveals Aquin's intense concern for the world.

This is an article from the Spring 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

At first sight, the works of Benoit Aquin may seem to belong to the realm of photojournalism. The images are most often inspired by current events in exotic locations. They are concerned not with wars (a favourite subject of photojournalism) but with other kinds of catastrophes, especially ecological ones: a tsunami in Southeast Asia; pesticide contamination in Nicaragua; the melting of the ice caps in Quebec’s Far North; the scarcity of water in the Nile basin; desertification in Mongolia, the American Southwest or Chinese “Dust Bowl”; an earthquake in Haiti; the explosion of an oil tanker train in Lac-Mégantic. Aquin moves about, works on the ground and brings back images that bear witness to these events. This explains why his photographs are usually presented in series, sometimes with accompanying text by journalists such as Nicolas Bérubé or Patrick Alleyn. His photographs have been disseminated by news agencies (Stock Photo and Polaris Images) and published in newspapers and magazines (La Presse, Canadian Geographic and the Walrus). They have also earned awards (the Prix Antoine-Desilets from the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, the National Magazine Award photojournalism and photo essay silver medal and the Prix Pictet for photography and sustainability). Without question, these images reflect the photographer’s political commitment and his unease regarding rampant industrialization, the depletion of natural resources and the impact of these on the environment, animals and humans. Clearly, he is concerned about the world.

Aquin’s photographs thus have an undeniable journalistic quality, recording the immediate consequences of a catastrophe. The Chinese “Dust Bowl” series (2006–09) presents the desert, cracked earth, dried-up riverbeds, the precarious existence of the Uighur population, herds grazing on the increasingly rare vegetation, sandstorms, reforestation and new planting projects, pumping stations and irrigation systems, artificially sustained oases and new cities, with their businesses, hotels and restaurants. The Haiti series (2010–12) shows Port-au-Prince in ruins, with collapsed buildings, streets littered with detritus, electrical wires dangling from poles or snaking along the round, people injured by the rubble or lying in the street on makeshift mattresses, search-and-rescue teams poring over ruins and United Nations vehicles roaming the city. Similarly, the Mégantic series (2013–14) depicts ravaged streets, collapsed or burned-down houses and oil seeping into the downtown area, Lac-Mégantic and the Chaudière River, and so on.

And yet these images invariably fall beneath and beyond reportage. They quickly transcend the currency of the event, which characterizes journalism. And yet they do not enter the eternal time of the monument, which is the province of the historian—and art. These images pay close attention to the slow and cyclical time of human communities, as well as the long and irreversible time of Earth—which is also that of natural catastrophes and vanishing civilizations.

Beyond the event, these images show the territory: the desert and sandstorms, the Chaudière River that inexorably continues to flow, the city that has calmed down during the night. Beneath the event, they show everyday life: in The Chinese “Dust Bowl,” the herdsmen watching their flocks, the merchants at market, workers on building sites, people going about their business; in Haiti, the citizens helping one another and getting by as best they can with uncommon resiliency, the children playing with a ball, despite everything, the carnival with its painted bodies, multicoloured clothes, costumes and masks, the songs and rhythms that suddenly add a poetic colour to the silent grey ruins; in Mégantic, the townspeople who busy themselves cleaning and repairing their fire-ravaged homes, or who watch television in their modestly decorated living rooms.

By constantly varying the scales and speeds of history, these images evade both the extraordinary and the eternal, manifesting instead the banality and evanescence of reality, the unessential and the transitory. As emblems, these photographs are irrevocably connected to the particular: through their framing, they present only fragments of the world drawn from the totality of its societies and territories; through their instantaneity, they retain only ephemeral moments of time and history.

But while they focus, beneath and beyond the event, on everyday life and territories, these images are never reducible to the status of the document, or to art. They resist narrativity and generality, as well as beauty. They are part of a documentary project; they are eloquent, but they are never perfectly illustrative. With their beauty, they may sometimes appear to be motivated by an artistic impulse, but they are never entirely aesthetic. They invariably contain something that goes beyond meaning and beauty, as if the photographer deliberately shied away from these overly familiar intentions.

Often in Aquin’s works, our gaze lingers not on the decisive moment but on the indecisive moment, not on the whole but on the detail, not on the centre but on the periphery, where the incidental, the insignificant, the unaesthetic hold sway. These images suspend time at inopportune moments, when nothing is occurring or when the bodies are between actions; they freeze our point of view and the frame on displaced fields, which hide more than they reveal, presenting what is behind the scenes rather than in the forefront, backs rather than faces, and which cut off the bodies and objects, pushing them outside the frame. In the details and peripheries of catastrophes and daily lives, in these indecisive moments, they unveil singularities, that is to say, chance encounters, heterogeneous montages—objects of diverse natures and functions, people engaged in independent activities, diverging micro-narratives.

In The Chinese “Dust Bowl,” for instance, at the edge of a nearly empty stream, a dog is eating something unidentifiable, while on the left, two men enter the frame with another dog; on the right are a bicycle and a donkey harnessed to a cart that wait to be set in motion, and in the distance is a large Ferris wheel amidst cranes in a city under construction. Or in the dining car of a train, amidst seated businessmen, a waitress is looking down at we know not what; a businessman waits with an absent expression, his hand on his cheek, as another takes a drag on his cigarette while observing the camera. In Haiti, several images turn away from the ruins and survivors to reveal strange entanglements of materials: an improbable nest of leaves and trunks, wires and pipes, at the border of nature and culture, vegetal and technological; against the black background of night, an orderly network of electrical wires with a mass of spiderwebs; an engine on a pile of tires, surrounded by bricks, cords and barbed wire; a collection of pipes, tubes, belts, wheels and other pieces of metal and plastic, gathered together in a wooden box. In Mégantic, our eyes linger on certain off-centre details: the remnants of a charred book on the ground; a gas-pump tube lying on the asphalt; a safety perimeter—exclusion zone—marking out the catastrophe site; a boom to contain the oil in the river. And then diverse images captured by chance at the homes of the townspeople, which in retrospect become symbols of the catastrophe: on a wall, an old railway map; in a living room, a stuffed heron next to a potted plant; along the staircase of a basement, various old, idealized images of nature.

Aquin’s images are often quite beautiful. But they resist aesthetic conventions. The composition may sometimes appear classical, but never perfectly, as the symmetry is approximate, the bodies eclipsed by the frame. The composition often seems unstable, off-kilter. The images, on the other hand, are always highly sensual. Whether in a long shot to consider the world from the scale of the landscape, or a medium shot to revert to human scale, these images pay particular attention to concrete life, to the gestures of individuals, to their hands, bodies and clothes, to the objects they manipulate, to the landscapes that surround them, to materiality. And they show a decided fascination for surfaces.

Often, these images contain motifs that are extended and flat, which partially or totally block our view, and in so doing anticipate the flatness of the image: a newspaper, a map, a poster, a graffiti-covered wall, a window with two superimposed views, the facade of a house, large signs, a fence, shelves, a line of people, a row of trees. Or with the choice of lens, point of view, framing and lighting, the motifs themselves become flat: an expanse of ground or water seen from a high-angle shot, a closely framed crowd of people or objects and a flash-lit night view all serve to press the photographic space onto the surface of the image. The result is an abstraction—a painting, collage, drawing, graphic.

The surface is also accentuated through the multiplication of motifs, through the uniform repetition of the same motif or through a heterogeneous accumulation of different motifs: a crowd wearing florid clothing in front of a colourful wall; hunters carefully camouflaged amid branches and leaves; flowery sheets; a pile of shoes at a market; papers scattered across a field; masses of snow at night; a web of stems and leaves on soil blackened by oil. These varied patterns, colours and textures fill the frame, cover the surface of the image and animate it with incessant visual movement, as in an all-over painting.

Finally, the surface is heightened when the dark night or misty dawn, the smoke, sand and dust attenuate the contrasts of light and colour, soften the outlines, blur the boundaries between grounds in the depth of the image, projecting everything into an unlocatable space, purely optical, between the outer limits of visibility and the surface of the image, as in a Colour Field painting. Oftentimes, the cities and landscapes, bodies and objects are transformed into a patchwork of materials, shapes and colours, or into a monotone moiré. The world is transformed into pure appearance, into incessant shimmerings.

But this sensitivity to materials and surfaces has nothing to do with the aesthetization of the world common to certain documentary or artistic photography. Nor is it a defence mechanism—a repression or denial—with regard to misery and catastrophes. Paradoxically, this vision does not distance us from the world, from the men and women who inhabit it; it continually brings us closer. It may in fact say something about the world, beyond the meaning we give to it (notably in documentary photography) and the beauty we sometimes find in it (notably in artistic photography): its terrible opacity. This concern emerges elsewhere in Aquin’s works, in similar motifs that recur from one series to the next.

The photographer’s images avoid the commonplaces found in humanistic representations of the “family of man.” They are often harsh, but never pathetic—they do not cultivate the conventional forms of pathos, which invite right-thinking discourse. On the contrary, these photographs remain strangely reserved and sometimes even mute. The faces are often apathetic and inexpressive: they are captured in those moments—numerous in life but neglected by photography—in which they cease to signify because they are concentrated or pensive. But most often, the faces are hidden or blurred—by a mask or a scarf, by a curtain, tree or post, by another body, or simply because the individuals are seen from behind, above or too far away, or because they are out of focus or cut off by the frame.

These images are also concerned with unconscious individuals. In Haiti, Aquin reveals his interest in voodoo. Several images from the series focus on rituals in which participants enter a trance and become someone else: a woman possessed, her eyes rolling in their sockets, moves about within a group of men and women, all dressed in white, their headscarves soaked in hen’s blood; a man covered in black paint, wearing a wig and lipstick, personifies a slave in chains, restrained by his masters; in the middle of a colourful crowd, a woman with eyes rolled back, her arms extended, hands clenched, is supported by two friends; in the muddy waters of a river, another woman in a trance, her eyes closed, her hands open like a saint, lets herself go as a man holds her above the current. Certain images depict other altered states in which the soul leaves the body: a young, intoxicated man, glue bottle in hand, stretched out on the dusty ground of a doorway; a woman asleep by a tree, under the shade of leaves.

Animals also appear frequently in Aquin’s images—horses and sheep, dogs and cats, cows. But they are treated with equal restraint. They too are presented from behind, cut off by the frame or in a close-up that transforms them into speckled or iridescent planes. And when seen frontally, they are rarely humanized. They manifest the same apathy: they are occupied, they wait, sleep. Their expressions convey nothing. In the series L’agriculture au Québec: un photo-roman d’anticipation (2013–), one image reveals this in exemplary fashion. Cows are crammed into a pen of an industrial farm and photographed with a flash in a front-view close-up. Their black coats merge with the darkness, while their few white spots stand out as archipelagos on a map. But their gazing eyes, in particular, are turned blue by the blinding flash. The image thus conveys the mystery of a certain animality: their eyes are impenetrable, seemingly devoid of intentionality, at the very edge of consciousness.

In the series Hunting (2002–09), animals inevitably abound. But they appear in that state of absolute otherness that is death. The images suggest violence, indirectly, but with a rare intensity. It is as if the tranquility and immobility of the aftermath conveys, more effectively than the moment of the kill, the primitive violence of the hunt. The animals are shown lying still, in the serenity of the forest: a deer with a bullet-ridden flank and bloodstained fur; a disembowelled bear on its back, like a deposed Christ; a moose hoisted on a high beam like a body hanging from a gallows; the entrails of an animal on a carpet of leaves. An emblematic image in the same series shows a dead moose lying on the ground, peering at us from the very centre of the image through its dead black eye—but unseeingly.

In L’agriculture au Québec, another singular motif appears, strangely interacting with the animals. Agricultural machinery is presented, not in an incidental way as a detail of the scenery, but in a fundamental way as the main theme of the image: the wheel of a tractor, the two round harrows of a harvester, a ceiling fan, a ventilation outlet. But the machines here are not in operation: they are shut down, perfectly immobile—captured as they exit the factory, on the site of some agricultural fair, or between uses at the farm. Closely framed and perfectly centred, they often take up the entire image, visible to us in all their manufactured perfection. But they remain strangely inert, like ready-mades.

Beneath and beyond catastrophes, Aquin’s images testify to the opacity of the world, to the indifference of nature and history. Nature wanders blindly, said 18th-century philosophers, at the dawn of modernity, soon after the Lisbon earthquake, which left tens of thousands dead, striking the minds of many Europeans as a sign of the absence of providence. This troubling fascination with opacity is no doubt a symptom of the increasing secularization of modern society and the disenchantment that goes along with it: God has withdrawn from nature and history, men and women have been abandoned, the world has been deserted—it has no meaning and its beauty is purely accidental. The Real is unyielding. But it may also be a symptom of the infinite extension of capitalism, of its sublime indifference, the hidden power of which we feel even in the solitude and silence of the deepest forest. In our very own eyes.

In this opacity of the world, however, Aquin’s images offer a hint of an opening. Never do they assert, in a simplistic manner, the notion of nature versus culture, non-human versus human, natural processes versus industry, machines and technology. Nature is presented here not in a romantic way, as an idyllic site—wild, separate and immutable—that must be preserved as is, but rather as a system of open and ever-changing relationships that include human activities. The model that emerges here, from image to image, is perhaps even essentially energetic. Aquin’s works, in fact, have always involved a reflection on the forms of energy (fossil, hydraulic, solar, wind, telluric, electric), on the fundamental forces of the universe (notably gravity and electromagnetism) and all processes of transformation. And photography, of course, lies at the heart of this general energetics—in a meeting of landscape, light and a device that converts the electromagnetic radiation into an electrical signal, like a form of photosynthesis. In many images, nature is presented as a vast field of active forces, modulated by human activities. Such a model may appear too close to radiesthesia or geobiology which, confronted with the opacity of the world, seek to re-enchant the landscape. But it may also anticipate a political project—a balancing of forces, a maintenance of the system of nature—for simply human ends.