Gilbert Boyer

Galerie Michèle Chomette

In Montréal, if you want to see Gilbert Boyer’s La montagne des jours (The mountain of days, 1991), you take the footpath that winds up and around Mount Royal and look along the ground for five big, flat roundels of granite, which, depending on the season and/or maintenance, may or may not be covered by leaves or snow. In Paris, the two flights of elegantly carpeted stairs leading to Boyer’s recent exhibit also went up and around, and if the trek wasn’t exactly the same, the sixteen “Réflexions-Intérieur” (Reflections-interior) lining the gallery walls were—as the title suggests—among other things, a kind of indoor variant on The Mountain of Days and the other public works this Québecois artist has created for urban spaces in Canada, the United States, and France over the past decade.

Indeed, what might at first glance have seemed like a classic exhibit of photographs in a classic Paris photography gallery was in fact a remarkable exercise in site-specific art. Boyer declared in the generic title he gave the show, “Je ne suis pas photographe. . . mais j’y pense” (I’m not a photographer—but I think about it). For the occasion, his thoughts led him to use the camera as both tool and subject. As the title also suggests, each of the framed and matted “Reflections” presents a sepia-colored Cibachrome of the inside of a camera.

The array itself was impressive, from stately 4 x 5s to a state-of-the-art disposable, by way of Brownie, Polaroid, a double-lens ID camera, or a Kodak 8 mm movie camera “made in France.” But this look at the inner workings of the camera had little to do with technology. In an uncanny role-reversal, the close-cropped lenses and shutters became so many eyes peering out at the viewer (who was in turn reflected along with the rest of the gallery interior, on the surface of the glass). Like portraits of different generations in a family album, the cameras themselves were transformed into markers of time—haunting witnesses of all those who, like the viewer in the gallery, have passed in front of them.

In fact, and notwithstanding their visual interest—the geometry of the objects, the sensuality of the sepia tones, the linear traces of the light pencil used to brighten portions of the image during long exposures—Boyer’s “Reflections” are not strictly visual. Lines of text engraved on the glass cast shadows quite legibly onto the mats, and less so onto the cameras. As with the inscriptions on the roundels of The Mountain of Days, these are not written texts, but transcriptions from everyday speech, with all of its contractions and hesitations, plus turns of phrase and pronunciation that are unmistakably Québecois. A simultaneous “reading” of images and texts was obviously impossible, but—like the cast shadows that give visible form to the elusive characters on the glass—the fragments of conversation, all in the first-person singular, seem to echo the fleeting sensations of memory evoked by the images: “I don’t know why, at a certain point I think of that . . . ” (Reflexion-Intérieur no. 1); “I don’t know if it’d be in the form of a ladder or . . . like a big sack . . . like a sack of memories . . . somewhere in my head . . .” (Reflexion-Intérieur no. 7); “to leave room for hope . . . you preferred . . . not to remember . . . ” (Réflexion-Intérieur no. 12).

The source of this “audio-vérité” is a public art project that Boyer recently completed in the Quebec town of Rimouski, where he interviewed local residents about the processes of remembering and forgetting and (using some forty hours of tapes) created sound pieces for the local museum, a shopping center, and a toll-free telephone number accessible throughout North America. By bringing these intimate but faceless voices before the camera’s mute gaze, Boyer creates a kind of private public space where each viewer is free to reflect, to remember, to forget: “you take everything in, but . . . what sets it off can be something else, it can be a smell, an atmosphere, it can be a sound that’s going to let you reconstruct . . .” (Réflexion-Intérieur no. 16).

Miriam Rosen