Galerie Michèle Chomette

The photographs of Christine Felten and Véronique Massinger call to mind John Berger’s dictum that the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. At first glance, the large-format landscapes and cityscapes the two artists have been making for the past fifteen years in and around their native Belgium recall seventeenth-century Dutch paintings with their panoramic views, low horizons, and cold light, not to mention a strangely varnishlike cast to the colors. At second glance, traces of the present emerge as well, from highways and electrical wires crisscrossing the countryside to urban high-rises and billboards or the occasional parked car. And at third glance, a certain number of curious absences—and presences—manifest themselves: There are no apparent light sources, no cast shadows, no clouds, no atmospheric perspective, but from time to time a cometlike trail of light blazing down from the sky or gleaming mirrors that punctuate building facades in place of windows.

What we need to know in order to make sense—technically, at least—of what we are seeing is that these complex and profoundly unsettling images have been created not with the latest digital technology but with that most ancient of photographic devices, the pinhole camera. In its Felten-Massinger version, the camera obscura becomes a darkroom on wheels, in the form of a secondhand camper (caravane, in French) painted black inside and pierced with a minuscule hole in one wall. Notwithstanding the simplicity of the device, photographing with this “Caravana Obscura” amounts to a paradoxical process of still moviemaking, complete with lengthy location-spotting, meticulous mise-en-scène (via the positioning of the camper), and one long, lensless sequence shot (three to six hours or more), which “films” the passage of time on a sheet of color-reversal paper inside the camper. And notwithstanding the complexity of the preparations, there are so many physical variables—light, humidity, temperature, wind, smog—that, beyond what the artists themselves can see and know, each image has a life of its own.

If this visual alchemy has always played a role in their work, it becomes determinant in the six photographs Felten-Massinger made in 2004, not on their familiar terrain but on the other side of the world—and the equator—in Brazil, where they represented Belgium at the XXVI Bienal de São Paulo that year. “We were suspended,” they explain. “We didn’t have any personal landmarks. So we were on the planet.” Indeed, the muted landscapes of the north give way to southern planetscapes in a spectacular palette of earth reds, vegetation greens, coffee-bean browns, and multiple sky blues streaked with electric setting-sun yellows. To be sure, traces of the day-to-day realities of southeastern Brazil emerge: coffee plantations and factories (Ipanema II, Brazil, July 2, 2004, Fazenda Conquista); the construction site of a dam (Salésopolis); and, behind a magnificent expanse of land overlooking a lake, the makeshift campsite of the Landless Movement (Campo do Meio). But (with the exception of Interlagos, product of an ironic face-to-face between the Caravana Obscura and a row of campers in a depot outside São Paulo), the space is so vast that the vanishing points have themselves vanished and it is impossible to fix an angle of view. “When we were there, looking for ‘our’ images, we had the impression of perceiving the landscape,” comments Massinger. “But now, I say to myself that there’s something kind of mysterious: the difference between what we do and what we think we’re doing.” And Felten adds, “It has to do with taking the time.” No pun intended.

Miriam Rosen