Géraldine Layjuillet from Un mince vernis de réalité series (2006)

A photography teacher introducing Lay to a room of undergrads might talk about the foreign in the familiar or refer to an unassuming eye. Perhaps, accompanied by explication relating the work’s influence to anyone from Stephen Shore to Jeff Wall to Paul Graham.

It’s not that I don’t think these points are extraneous–hardly; it’s that I think instructors need to vary their approach given the materials.

All too frequently, I think we reduce informed analyses to the presumptions of tradition. Painting is compared to painting; photography is compared to painting and cinema. It’s all really more interpenetrative than that.

We’d be better to look at modern art as a confluence of modern media, modes and methodologies–much in the fashion that the medieval cathedral formed the nexus between architecture, sculpture (broadly: masonry, woodwork, etc.), painting and even fiber based arts (liturgical robes, tapestries, etc.).

The best approach to Lay is, in fact, not visual–or only tangentially so; it’s textual.

Looking at the work is enough to justify this premonition, at least as far as in my own case. However, one needs look no further than the statement accompanying Un mince vernis de réalité to solidify this perspective–I understand not one lick of French but I’m guessing from context and Google Translate that it’s a section from Nabokov’s short story Transparent Things.

I’ve tried on at least half a dozen occasions to dive deep into Nabokov. He strikes me as a peculiarly brilliant mind more interested in conveying the form of his ideas than presenting them in a simple straightforward manner. His text is unnecessarily overwrought, at times serpentine and lacks the sort of glittering, glib irreverence of say Perec.

But the jist of the quote is a notion that’s not unfamiliar to me–Martin Buber makes it the singular focus of the second most influential book I’ve ever encountered: I and Thou.

The crux of the book is that there are two flavors of relationships between the individual and the world which surrounds them. There is the world of objects: subways, coffee cups, paper clips and xerox machines. We even see other people as perhaps not objects but ‘other’ in a similar fashion to objects we perceive in the world around us. Buber terms this relationship of our perception of objects in the world as ‘other’: I-It.

There is a second form of relationship. It is far rarer. Imagine: that you are standing on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A dear friend is facing you with their back to the ocean telling you a story–perhaps something to do with their misadventures traveling to Machu Picchu. Behind them the color in the sky shifts and you notice this devastatingly beautiful purple you’ve ever seen. You are utterly speechless at the site. You want to show your friend. But you know as soon as you spake of it, the spell of the wonderment will be broken. All you can do is point and hope that your friend will turn and see what it is you’ve seen in the same way. (And let me tell you, if you find that person who all you need to do is point: hold them close, not having to explain to someone why something is special is one of the greatest gifts you can share with another person.)

Buber terms this wordless wonderment, this transcendent moment of perfect, unmediated awareness: an I-Thou relationship.

Trying to explain it like this: a little like trying to explain to someone who hasn’t ever tasted coffee what coffee tastes like. It’s not something you can accomplish with words. Instead, you boil water, grind the beans and steep a cup for them saying this is warm and good, try it. If you don’t get it, spilling all the ink in the world won’t bridge the gap that you’ll cross once you know that to which you are being pointed.

The other curious thing though is that Buber maintains that there exists within every I-It experience the spark of moment of I-You relationship. I think most good image making centers on trying to document that spark.

What distinguishes Lay is that she’s not interested in the spark, she’s interested in the I-You moment. In effect, her camera is the same as the finger you are pointing so that your friend will see the purple tinged clouds hovering above and reflected in the ocean below.

It’s an unusual approach and while I don’t think it always works out for her, it works enough for one to see what she’s about. I’ll always respect work that attempts the risks failure in pursuit of an ‘impossible’ end. But the work that truly gets me fired up is the work that succeeds in accomplishing what we’ve heretofore accepted as impossible.

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