Whitehot Magazine

Francois Sanges @ Arret sur l'Image Galerie

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François Sanges, Jardin de l’Ombre I  #12, 2008-2009
4x5 in large format photography, gelatin silver print, 6.4 x 8.8 in
Courtesy, François Sanges & Arrêt sur l’Image Gallery

 François Sanges: Le Jardin de l’Ombre (Garden of Shadow)

Arrêt sur l’Image Galerie
Hangar G2, bassin à flot #1
quaì Armand Lalande
33300 Bordeaux, France
17 February through 26 March, 2011

“The past is the beginning of the beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.” H.G. Wells

 A new beginning from a forgotten past is a dusty business. Add ambient moisture to the dust and you have fertile ground for new life. It is a simple process of nature we’ve seen repeated time and time again; but what if things aren’t simple? Arrêt sur l’Image Galerie in Bordeaux France presents the latest series of work by Francois Sanges, a penetrating look at a fertility mutated by a limited environment lacking in resources. Le Jardin de l’Ombre (Garden of Shadow) is a group of sixty-one 4x5 large format photographs, printed by Sanges himself, taken in an abandoned submarine base in Bordeaux. The series was photographed in four sessions over the course of a year, 2008 to 2009. The current exhibition at Arrêt sur l’Image consists of twenty-seven of these sixty-one photographs. 

The all-white gallery situated in a marine hangar and surrounded by architecture studios was a place where you could breathe. It was a near-perfect foil to the dark, hermetic and somewhat claustrophobic work by Sanges. I enjoyed the simple contrast of having my attention pulled into the visual space of the photographs while feeling quite at liberty in the luminous gallery. The photographs on view were somber, brooding and silent. Sanges and his 4x5 camera penetrated into a place hidden; a place where genetic diversity is not known. It is a place of adaptation within strict limitations and with few options for survival. Mutation is normal here. It called to mind the photographs of weeds growing at ground zero in Hiroshima by Joao Penalva. 

Christian Gattinoni, author of the exhibition essay, suggests Sanges’ compositions resemble vast plateaus minus the grandeur. However, I found the space within the photographs confined by a near-constant back wall and the prevalence of a low concrete ceiling. But this spatial confinement gave poignancy to the work; a poignancy too often gratuitous with plateaus. In 1985 Sanges photographed on Easter Island, the resulting book, Île de Pâques, 1988, has vistas in abundance. It was on view in the gallery and conveniently opened to a page with a plateau, illustrating the similarities between the works. I found a different continuity, not in the physical similarities to topography but in the historical memory of the two places. They are settings which have forgotten their own narratives and new ones have sprung up in their place. This is a disturbing notion when reminded of the environmental challenges facing us, as suggested by the circumstances of the eco-system in Sanges’ photographs.

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François Sanges, Jardin de l’Ombre II  #1, 2008-2009
4x5 in large format photography, gelatin silver print, 6.4 x 8.8 in
Courtesy, François Sanges & Arrêt sur l’Image Gallery

Moving from the grandeur of an outdoor landscape, the setting of Sanges' photographic practice for over twenty years, to a nearly entombed enclosure is not an easy transition. Only two images succeeded in creating the depth on the grand scale mentioned by Gattinoni. These two images, aided by the fine detail and long exposure time of the large format camera, made a tunnel out of a cross-section view of the physical structure of the submarine base. The receding perspective ended in a sunlit vanishing point of flora resembling a movie screen seen from the very back of a darkened theatre. They were reminiscent of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s cinema screen series and like Sugimoto’s work, suggested the disappearance of humanity.

This theme of humanity disappeared is evident throughout Le Jardin de l’Ombre, but was not mentioned in the exhibition texts. Gattinoni does mention two concepts in his text, one of visual rhythm of light and dark, the other a mythical obscurity of shadow. For me, the rhythmic undulating pattern of light and shadow made by sunlight passing through gaps in the concrete structure or the brief interplay of a single gash of light in the cave-like setting held the most interest. The light became a presence in human absence and it provided a reverent interplay with the plants growing in the dust and sediment. A sort of proto-spirituality taking root along with the plants in this reclaimed ‘garden’ growing below the concrete sky.

The mythical environment created by shadow and which the French call entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf) relates to what we would call the witching hour, not only because of the quality of light being nearest darkness but also for the strangeness of activity and magical transformation. Gattinoni suggests this mythical atmosphere is created in Sanges’ shadow photographs. I found these works held very little mystery or magic and the introduction of this theme merely diluted and confused the stronger theme of the visual rhythm of light and shadow - except for two images composed of white markings highlighted by a cone of light on darkened concrete. These had a sense of signs made to convey a forgotten meaning. They carried the theme of light and dark visual rhythm (and that of disappeared humanity) of the other works and could have easily taken their place with those photographs.

Viewing this exhibition, I had the feeling the photographer could do with some distinct editing. The twenty seven works on view were somewhat repetitive within their groupings representing the four sessions of photographing. Assuming the artist and curator chose the best of the original sixty one images, I don’t believe I would need or want to see all sixty one of them at once. However, Le Jardin de l’Ombre is a quiet reminder that obliteration is not unknown. We face serious issues from overpopulation and it’s not impossible to imagine our civilization’s own demise. Francois Sanges suggests the consequences of ignoring the issue, and presents a tale of compromised survival in renewed life.


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François Sanges, Jardin de l’Ombre II #17, 2008-2009
4x5 in large format photography, gelatin silver print, 9.6 x 8 in
Courtesy, François Sanges & Arrêt sur l’Image Gallery


Jane Boyer

Jane Boyer is an artist, curator, critic and committed peripatetic. Her formative years, which she believes are still in progress, were spent bouncing back and forth between California and the Southern US and most points in between. In 2005 she became an Irish citizen. She now lives in France, overlooking the Gironde Estuary and travels to London frequently for her practice.

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