Seton Smith

Gilbert Brownstone & CIE

After having concentrated primarily on luxurious views of interiors from previous eras—metaphors for man’s desire to domesticate everything, to stylize everything—Seton Smith presented a series of photographed objects that was as “enigmatic,” as the earlier work, but more abstract, more fluid. Taken from the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Smith gave these objects a fluid identity—one no longer freighted with the weight of culture.

These objects seem like orphans, as if they had no history. Their origin no longer matters: they inhabit the interior space of the viewer’s personal memory. Photographed objects that can only be perceived through the vitrines in which they are presented (Smith returns us once again to a voyeuristic position), they embody the photographic act itself, which distances us from reality. By contrast, the preceding works isolated decontextualized bits of architecture, as if Smith were filtering our gaze through venetian blinds, returning us to the places that construct us and inhabit us in the form of memory.

In the current works, the artist denounces the reification of cultural knowledge that occurs when objects are placed behind vitrines. As Smith notes, “How can we discover, through objects, the traces of other cultures? We see these objects separated from their time and origin, isolated in vitrines, lit by an artificial light. Do we imagine them in their original context or, rather, are we attracted by this special space, this empty box, constructed to give them value?” The vitrines are generic spaces, spaces that are identical the world over. Like the generic spaces that museums have become, vitrines have no distinguishing characteristics. Thus, in these photographs, Smith is more interested in the box than in the objects themselves whose origin becomes as arbitrary, as fluid as their image. Taking them out of context and enlarging them, the artist gives these fragments an architectural, environmental dimension that the objects placed in the interiors depicted in the previous photographs already possessed. Thus a Chinese pillow becomes an isolated bed in a space—an empty space in which objects are inscribed at the limit of the visible.

To see, like taking photographs, is to construct a bridge, while the periphery remains in flux. To see is to see fragmented pieces of reality. To see is to make the landscape of the past instant appear in memory. In an era when the whole world manipulates images-events, these photographs clearly pose the question of their status as signifiers. In the words of Maurice Blanchot, “But what is an image? When there is nothing, the image finds its condition of possibility, but disappears therein. The image demands the neutrality and effacement of the world, it tends toward the intimacy of what still subsists in the void; there lies its truth.” To approach the void in order to be closer to the real. The work illuminates by dissimulating, reveals by remaining shadowed in obscurity. In the works using luminous boxes, produced a few months before for the Centre d’art du Crestet and recontextualized for this show, the images of water, stairs, or alleys unveil a void as well as a condition of flux. Suspended in time, these works try to recreate a temporality of the instant torn from the images they depict by the photographic apparatus.

Jérôme Sans

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.