The New York Times
Ravaged Leftovers Of Humanity
A RETROSPECTIVE of Sophie Ristelhueber’s photographs of war-torn landscapes and scarred bodies, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through Jan. 21, treats themes that became terribly relevant to an American audience after Sept. 11 — so relevant that the museum considered canceling the exhibition. (The exhibition and the museum’s Web site carry notices that some viewers may now find the images especially disturbing.)
Ms. Ristelhueber’s work deals with the physical traces humans leave on the earth, the eternal cycle of construction and destruction. The search for these sites often takes her to places ravaged by war — Beirut, Kuwait, Bosnia — but also to Armenia in the aftermath of an earthquake as well as to legendary sites like Waterloo and Sodom.
Though a photographer, Ms. Ristelhueber is not a reporter; the big picture interests her more than an isolated event. She decided to go to Kuwait in 1991, on the day she saw a photo of the desert littered with remnants of the Persian Gulf war in Time magazine. The picture immediately brought to her mind ”Dust Breeding,” by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, a close-up photograph of dust balls gathering on a glass surface.
When Ms. Ristelhueber arrived in Kuwait a few months after the fighting ended, she joined United Nations forces and private companies who were removing land mines and took aerial photographs from their airplanes and helicopters. At the time, photojournalists were focusing on the flaming oil wells. ”Why are you going into the desert?” Ms. Ristelhueber recalled their asking. ”There’s absolutely nothing to see.”
What she saw is the subject of a series titled ”Fait,” a French word meaning both ”done” and ”fact.” Her images are the plain facts of the gulf war, the desert as garbage dump, littered with hunks of metal, shell casings, shoes, tartan blankets and the odd file cabinet and scarred with trenches. The photos were taken straight on, some from the air, others from the ground, but the perspective is as indeterminate as that in the Duchamp-Ray work. ”You don’t know if it’s a child’s game, running fingers through the sand; you don’t know where we are anymore,” Ms. Ristelhueber said.
Ms. Ristelhueber was born in Paris in 1949 and grew up here and in a country home near Fontainebleau. She was an asthmatic child, ”predisposed to become an artist,” she said with a wry laugh. ”If it hadn’t been for this family home with its tortured-looking wallpaper, where I was often sick in bed making up stories, would I fantasize today about ‘Dust Breeding’ and images of Kuwait?”
But first she studied literature at the Sorbonne, especially the French nouveau roman, exemplified by the writings of the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. His style and obsessions have crossed over into Ms. Ristelhueber’s art: minute descriptions, a deconstruction of time and space, and the ambiguity between reality and fiction.
Throughout her 20’s Ms. Ristelhueber worked in publishing, notably at Zoom, a French visual-arts magazine. In 1980, the Belgian artist François Hers asked her to write a text to accompany his photos of a housing project. Unable to find adequate words, she picked up a camera instead and photographed the homes and their inhabitants herself. Suddenly she was an artist, and soon recognized as one: the resulting work, ”Intérieurs” (consisting of her photographs and those of Mr. Hers, whom she later married), was exhibited at the Pompidou Center the following year.
In 1982 she traveled to Beirut, where she worked alongside seasoned photojournalists like Raymond Depardon. It was in Lebanon that she decided she was not a reporter, that she needed neither an agency nor commissions and that she wanted to answer to no one but herself. ”She fascinated me,” Mr. Depardon said. ”She was the opposite of a photojournalist who witnesses and reports. She knows what she wants. She’ll say, ‘No, I don’t photograph that, that doesn’t interest me.’ ”
Humans are conspicuously absent in most of Ms. Ristelhueber’s work. Instead, she focuses on crumbling concrete, bullet-riddled signs, a radiator hanging in midair from the ruins of an apartment. ”I know I’ve shocked people by photographing architecture without people,” she said. ”But from the moment you photograph something that has clearly been inhabited, the human presence is very strong.”
When she did focus on individuals in her 1994 series, ”Every One,” she showed scarred bodies as ravaged landscapes. Taken in Paris hospitals during the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda, it is her illustration of civil war. ”Every morning I was at the hospital at 7:30, in the operating room. I saw horrors and tried to imagine how it would be later when the bodies were sewn up. Now when I look at the contact sheets I wonder how I did it.” The photos, 9 by 5 feet, are startling, particularly one of a young woman, a burn victim, who exhibits a thick scar cleaving her back from neck to tailbone.
Tall and given to dressing stylishly, Ms. Ristelhueber is not someone you would expect to find studying scars or tramping through a minefield. ”She is pretty and feminine, but inside there’s a rebel,” Mr. Depardon said. When she turned 50, she set out to portray herself. She photographed a detail of a painting from another era in her family home showing a severe-looking woman, then enlarged it to nearly 14 feet high. In front of this picture she placed a cluster of photos that she had made of desolate landscapes in Central Asia.
”I received a strict, moral, bourgeois upbringing at a time when everything was certain,” Ms. Ristelhueber said. ”I was programmed to be this woman, and these photos are me today, my search, my wanderings.”
The installation is accompanied by the sound of an American auctioneer putting the year 1999 up for sale, ”getting rid of it,” Ms. Ristelhueber said, ”and moving onto the year 2000.”
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