No traditional nude here, staying or lying supine, exhibiting itself in an often artificial pose before the eyes of the beholder. When we see it in full view, it appears to be a walking nude, that comes nearer, passes before our eyes and moves away:
It is underway, only furtively crosses our path, just like the girl
in Baudelaire's 'A une passante':
Although, with Brill, it is not a furtive glance that lights up amidst the mass of passers-by, but a ripe body that appears, enveloped in an abundant mane of hair. And although we are not submerged in the buoyant jazz of the city, but in the timeless space of an intimate space pervaded with a shimmering mist, out of which the nude looms up like an apparition, only to dissolve in it again.
Disappearing and disappearing: not only in the literal sense. For, what - equally on the literal level - is merely a kind of mist, is often condensed into something that can only be named in terms of (the absence of) light as such: into a dark grey, out of which looms up something that equally cannot but be described in terms of (the absence of) light as such: a dark spot - the saturated suggestion of a more than benevolent body:
And that reminds us of the fact that Brill does more than merely stage
the appearance and disappearance of a woman. He is also mesmerised with
the fathoming of that other, nearly related mystery: the appearing and
disappearing of the visual world. In full light, we all too easily take
the appearance of visual object for granted. Only by mitigating the
violence of the light can we penetrate the twilight zone between being
visible and being invisible, where appearing is not only lighting up,
but can also be the protrusion of a dark shadow from a nearly dark
background: the mystery of becoming visible, of being visible as such.
Thus, the appearance and disappearance of woman and the visible are one
another's metaphor. We will come back on that topic below. We first should explore the 'literal' dimension to some greater length.
Nude men, women and children are wandering around in little groups across the woods, under a roof of foliage, where they are not exposed to the violence of sunlight on the open plain, under an open sky. The tension with what is there outside and above the woods is kept alive through the often fairy-like light, that envelopes the figures in the dark of a backlight, whether they are moving away or towards the light. Above the sheltering woods is the open sky, and outside them the open plain. Sometimes, when the light is tempered through a shimmering mist and the sun is not too high, they venture to enter the open space or the beach.
This series is pervaded by the atmosphere of idyllic primeval times. And that impression is only enhanced when the night falls. The group stops wandering then and comes to rest in the dance in a circle; the ritual feast in the dark of the night, nearly lighted by the shine of the moon.
After the night, the bodies resurrect in the mystic light of break of day
or wandering around, although it is not clear where they are going to or whence they come.
The open spaces in which these masses wander about are no longer extending under an open sky: a sometimes dense mist hides from view any horizon that could delimit and determine.
To grasp the specific nature of these masses, it pays to compare them with images of other masses. Of course, photos of the deportation of Jews - who certainly are coming from somewhere and going somewhere - impose themselves:
Or we are reminded of the dense masses of Antony Gormley, which are not underway at all, but standing still, staring with wide open eyes to some invisible leader in front of them, as in the detail of 'European field' below:
And we realise at once that Virgil Brill's masses are totally different. Even when underway and together, they do not close their ranks: they only share their destination. And also when standing still, they do not even think of coming closer to each other. In that respect, they resemble the figures of Giacometti, especially when grouped together in an ensemble.
But even when hundreds of Giacometti's sculptures were summoned up, they would never stop being self-contained individuals, but rather the endless variation of one and the same individual. And that holds especially of dispositions like 'Another Place' of Antony Gormley, where we are dealing with the literal repetition of hundreds of identical casts, spread over the beach in their frozen posture:
But we do not read Gormley's repetition as the multiplication of one and the same person as with Giacometti: rather as a feeling of identity in many different persons, as with soldiers in an army. Virgil Brill's masses are not of that 'uniform' kind. Even when the differences between his silhouettes are nearly discernable, we deliberately experience his figures as individual persons. The focus is not on the separate figures, nor on what all the individuals have in common, but on the individual as an integral, organic part of a group.
In 'Another place', all the figures are staring at the North and in 'European field' at an invisible leader: these masses are structured around on organising principle. Such unificatory principle can also proceed from within the group, as in 'Quarto stato' of Fabrizio Pellizza de Volpedo (known from Bertolucci's 'Novecento') where the self-conscious mass is marching shoulder to shoulder behind three figures that are not so much their leaders as their representatives.
Not so in Virgil Brill's masses. Even when there are many people
together here, they are not together because they searched each other's
company. Even when they are heading towards some common destination or
seem to be fascinated by the same phenomenon, they nevertheless do not
like to get involved with each other. We cannot help being reminded of
the mass from which Baudelaire's passante was looming up:
the loose individuals in the shopping streets of our cities, or their
transposition on the beaches, where Virgil Brill has photographed them.
Although one and the same invisible hand seems to have driven them
together on one and the same place, they all maintain a safe distance
between each other. This kind of group did not originate in the need to
bundle the power of separate individuals against an inimical group.
Rather are we dealing with individuals that keep each other at a
distance, while the group itself is not more than the ever expandable
addition of individual atoms. Such addition
is not at all the pre-social primeval condition of man wherein Hobbes' 'bellum
omnes contra omnes' is waged. Such is rather the kind of organically
structured group that Virgil
Brill staged in his 'Faërie'. The mass of individuals repelling each
other at a distance, on the other hand, is a late product of human
history: we find it only when aggression and exploitation have become
the invisible and anonymous work of abstract money relations, leaving
the real bodies somewhat soulless and relationless behind.
It appears that only the humiliated, the defeated, the enemies are apt
to be depicted in the image.
In the Ancien Régime, the people as such is summarised and represented in
the one and single person of the ruler. That is why the clash of the
warring masses on the battle field is often condensed into the duel
between two inimical rulers. But that is bestowing to much honour onto
the enemy: far more stronger is the contrast between the one and only mighty ruler
and the impotent mass of the humiliated and chased enemy. Ever since the
industrial revolution (and the corollary French Revolution) the masses,
that, due to the development of new means of transport are becoming
increasingly larger, begin to play an ever more important role. We
should expect them to appear in the image accordingly. But the images of
soldiers in barracks or on the battle-fields, of workers in the
factories, of consumers in the shopping streets and shopping centres,
the tourists on the beaches, the streams of migrants and fugitives remain scarce exceptions.
To be sure, there are the scenes from the Napoleonic wars, but there,
the masses are reduced to the mere decor of the appearance of Napoleon.
The mass as 'le
Only in music is the mass amply and impressively represented, especially since the 19e century: think only of the finale of Beethoven's ninth, the impressive choirs in many an opera and a symphony of the nineteenth and twentieth century, but above all of that most remarkable phenomenon of the 'Requiem' - think of Mozart, Berlioz, Fauré, Ligeti, just to mention the most impressive examples. And it cannot be by accident that, not otherwise than in the image, it is the resurrection of the death that seems to be natural habitat of the mass in music.
In that sense, Virgil Brill is entering virginal territory with his
photography of the mass. And precisely therefore, the instinctual certitude
with which he knew to develop this
theme can only surprise us.
And once initiated, the movement cannot be stopped. In the sextet below, a new élan is pervading the previously isolated atoms:
It is as if angels, driven by some ardent inner fire, are setting out
for some holy mission. Even when they do not touch each other, the
shared élan transforms them in some superindividual organism. Such quasi
messianistic élan strongly contrasts with the rather 'Atlantic'
melancholy that hovers over the series 'Faërie'.
By zooming in on these emergent formations, the rest of the group seems to be driven out of the image. And that makes us conscious of the fact that Virgil Brill approaches the group from ever changing points of view.
While Brill does not refrain from zooming in to the point where the mass threatens to dissolve into a single pair, he cannot zoom out so far that we get the entire mass in view. it continues to extend far beyond the already stretched edges of the image, and also in the depth there will always loom up new members, how far the camera might penetrate it.
We seem to get a somewhat better grip on the group when the camera takes a bird's eye view. But only now do we fully realise, not only how far to the left and the right, but also how far forward and backward this mass is extending.
Far away or nearby, we always have the feeling that we are standing
outside the group, that we are excluded from it: were the image able to
render sound, it would seem as if we did understand nothing from the far
away murmur, and from what there is to be seen, we only see the vague
contours. We will come back to that aspect.
And what do they witness, the members of that group that seems to have isolated itself from the mass, while a last individual seems to hurry away?
And what is happening in that ominous encounter of two beings with a group that seems to have being awaiting it?:
And what does the man, followed by two beings and then by a larger group, approach on the photo below?
On other photos, it is not so much the posture of the otherwise immobile figures that intimates nameless dramas, but rather the movement of the mass as such moving away of hasting towards something. We cannot see from where they come or to where they go. But on some photos, Virgil Brill has replaced the evil fate with a kind of windy rain that swipes their backs - as if they were transformed in wandering Jews .
Or the artist transforms the image so that the goal the group is heading towards is visualised as a light above the horizon, while the entire space on the foreground is transformed in a kind a giant funnel perspectivally leading towards that goal .
Only now do we fully realise
the meaning of that distant perspective: only the distance transforms
these scenes into silent, nameless dramas and thus lends them the
polyvalent character that makes the threatening truth loom up from
behind the innocent figure of the group. and it is also the distance
that makes the gaze susceptible for what all too easily threatens to
disappear behind a nearby surface.
When they have left the scene, a mysterious void remains wherein no more objects can be seen, no more surfaces separating an outside from an inside and thus creating a distance space between things. Together with the objects, their surface and their interior, also distance is dissolving - perspective is collapsing - so that everything begins to permeate everything: no longer can before be discriminated from behind, left from right; the horizon as the dividing line between heaven and earth dissappears, so that also above and below dissolve into one single continuum. And after the disappearance of men, we also expect the dwindling of the gloom and doom, the evaporation of the sadness that permeated space, night to give way to the break of day:
And here we have those marvellous photos from
another magnificent series of Virgil Brill: 'Mémoires du pays d'or'.
the title is not random: The break of day is like the beginning of a
golden age. In that mystic morning mist we cannot yet discern the
contours of the earth's surface nor the silhouettes of the human beings
that inhabit it. Thus, the break of a new day is merely a promise - or,
as the title suggests: a memory. In the blue morning mist, there are no
people yet - or they have dissolved in it. Thus, that mystic
morning mist is equally the advent of an inner mystic space, widened to
the cosmic dimensions of the world: pure self-perception of the soul,
not confined within the limits of the body and by the presence of other
men. Unbroken beauty, sheer 'promesse de bonheur'.
It would lead us too far to
analyse the dynamics of this development. But it is very interesting to
describe the conception of the theme of 'Migrations'. On a hot
summer afternoon, half asleep on the beach, Virgil Brill descries through
the shimmering heat hazes
the silhouettes of bathers. 'Ces braves gens
étaient en vacances et allaient se baigner... Mais, vus de loin,
indistincts, ils avaient l'air de s'être rassemblés pour quelque motif
important et mystérieux'. Such looming up of the mysterious reminds of
the appearance ad disappearance of the woman that we described in the
beginning of this text. Just like the woman out of the mist, just so
looms up from what Brill calls 'cette banalité étrange' the hidden life
of the group. The 'étrangeté' of what becomes
visible then, can easily be tempered by the reconstruction of the 'banalité'
that lies at the roots of it - just like one tries to escape the horror
of the nightmare by waking up and then identificating the banal trifle
that was causing the clairvoyance of the dream: it was but a dream....
To work that wonder - to
make visible what threatens to hide from view - all the appropriate
means have to be summoned up. As no other, Virgil Brill has mastered a
whole range of photographic techniques.
Sometimes the reduction is so drastic that the tokens seems to be inverted: on the photo below, it is as if the black lights up from the grey:
When studying these marvellous photos, it comes to dawn on us what the
master means when he writes: ' j'ai été aspiré dans le vertige des gris'.
On the photo below Brill succeeds in conjuring up an unheard of feel of whiteness, which has something of the tactile sensation of the feathers in the wing of a swan:.
More akin to the chemical character of photography is the technique of (an often repeated) solarisation - Brill is talking about an ''enchaînement un peu délirant de solarisations de plus en plus multiples':
The same chemical manipulations lead to effects that remind of sophisticated graphical techniques:
The emphasis on grain not only reminds of certain drawings of Seurat, but foremost of graphical techniques as the 'mezzotint':
Sometimes the photos approach the sensibility of charcoal or grainy paper
On other photos Brill
succeeds in evocating a nearly ethereal atmosphere, which reminds of the
etchings of Rembrandt:
It is apparent then, that Virgil Brill is deeply embedded not only in
the rich tradition of photography, but foremost in the broader tradition
of the visual arts as such. That holds true already on the purely
technical level, in as far as, with Brill, the distinction between the
graphical arts their offspring, photography, seems to evaporate.
In view of what he has managed to reveal us in his
images, Brill's contention 'There will be no revelation, because
revelation is impossible' cannot but sound as a
Eyemazing 2007, 2
traveling with the ghost
the unforgettable poetry of carlos barbarito:
Light wing of faith
over the fire of the world
ws4u 05/11/2004 07/12/2006 5.044