The Anatomy of Domestic Life

for the exhibition Genre paintings, 2003

Gilles Godmer, art historian

(Translated by Susan Le Pan)

Dramas are equally psychological and plastic.

Michelangelo Antonioni

With his exhibition Liquidation Niko & Cie at the Centre des arts actuels Skol in 1999, Nicolas Baier revealed a new tone. Intimist and autobiographical, the subject of the work was a startling exploded-view inventory of his everyday environment (studio, apartment and all that could possibly be found there, including the oblique presence of friends). The exhibition—the impact of which is even clearer today—inaugurated a creative cycle that includes all of Baier’s subsequent works. These pieces pursue the same explorations on a yet deeper level.

A Mirror-Environment

In fact, since that pivotal exhibition exhibition in 1999, Nicolas Baier has in his own way documented—with fantasy and, at times, with gravity—the sites where most of his life has been spent (selected details of these sites, fragments, as well as what is found in them); where he goes (including, always, the homes of friends, and the objects that belong to them); and those places through which he passes, along with anything that captures his interest there. We can easily imagine him in the midst of his world, scrutinizing, observing everything around him with great acuity, more or less taking inventory, rather like Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, stuck in her mound of earth and reduced to considering only her very immediate environs. From this point of view, the exercise has more to do with self-portrait than with autobiography, and is closer to contemplation than to a form of cartography: it is much more a way of looking at things that we are offered, and what that looking expresses, than a banal inventory of the reality in which the author lives and works.

With the work entitled Petits riens, one of the first and major works of the 2003 corpus, Nicolas Baier takes us directly into the heart of his private life 1.Every object in the tiny apartment where he lived and worked was scanned, then spread out and superimposed across the entire surface of the photographic space. The floor and wall of the room, left scarcely readable, act as a frame from which the objects seem to have detached themselves: they now hang as if suspended in midair. Hard, thus, not to think of the final spectacular scene of Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point where, in a high-angle shot (or that’s how I remember it, thirty years later), an explosion propels a myriad of domestic objects of every possible colour and form, in eloquent slow motion, into the sky 2.

The Absent

Prior to this astonishing piece showing a corner of an apartment engulfed in the array of the thousand and one objects found in it, photographs in previous exhibitions exploited other rooms of the house: a kitchen, a snippet of bathroom, a bedroom, a few details of a living room, etc. The series of photographs shown at the museum follows suit, taking up the process once more, though this time Baier’s interest seems to zero in on selected objects, on specific details: a table, its surface battered, time-worn; a bit of counter; a few ceramic tiles in a bathroom, etc. The whole piece becomes, by sheer weight of accumulation, a kind of impressionist self-portrait where, though the body is eloquently absent, some of its qualities persist. For here, matter—its colour, sensuality, even its tactility— is omnipresent. Furthermore, despite the sophisticated technology used by the artist, his tinkering has resulted in obvious, deliberate imperfections, more linked to man than to machine (which, as we well know, can easily produce perfection). Above all, there is the enigmatic presence of someone whose looking, we notice, is intense and sensitive, infusing all of these photographic works with the utmost colour and density, even an aura.

This approach, as we have seen, at times takes on the look of a dense enumeration, yet, at the other extreme of the spectrum, results in works that are stripped-down, almost abstract, where even the absence of any object—the rather dusty surface of one of the artist’s working tools, the scanner—becomes a no less interesting subject for electronic reproduction (Cinémascope). Here the “void,” with its formidable cosmographic qualities, turns out to be as rich and fascinating as the proliferations of Petits riens. It is as if, ultimately, the image of one (superabundance) were equivalent to that of the other (emptiness); as if, finally, there were just as much to observe (in fact, so much that it seems that one could lose oneself in the process) in one work as there is in the other.

Between these two extremes lies a photographic chronicle that reveals a bit more each time about its author and his metaphysical concerns and interrogations: “The outside is a mirror upon which the inside comes to be reflected 3.”  It’s a bit like the novel that Virginia Woolf constructed entirely around a lack, an absence, from which we are able to make out only slowly, by small strokes, by allusions, a portrait that, in the end, quite accurately depicts the one who had vanished; and which does so through characters who knew him to different extents, descriptions of the place where he lived (his room), and the mediation of objects that were his and that speak eloquently and incessantly of him 4.

The Presence of Painting

Nicolas Baier started out as a painter, and only later turned to photography. Yet, more often than not, it’s as a painter that he approaches his adopted means of expression. In any case, it would be hard not to recognize how much, in diverse ways, his photography inevitably steers us back to painting. First, there is his attitude toward the photographic medium, his personal approach to the construction of his works. Working mostly with the computer, Baier proceeds by accreting elements or fragments. It is a way of creating that, incidentally, meets the classic definition of painting: per via di porre, by means of adding on 5. As almost each photograph is reworked (usually at length) and somewhat altered by the use of the artist’s indispensable electronic tools, the photographic jettisons a once intrinsic quality that defined part of its nature (the recording of reality: the so-called objective image), while taking on another quality directly linked with painting’s “workings”: “The “constative” nature of photography is opposed to the “performative” nature of painting 6.”

From another angle, the way the artist looks at certain objects clearly highlights pictorial characteristics that most observers would not otherwise notice. The corner of a counter, appropriately framed, suddenly takes on the look of an authentic abstract painting. The battered surface of a round table, whose wear-and-tear and different coats of paint, revealed by the passage of time, evoke the lunar motifs of a Paterson Ewen (Planète)—with, to top it off, a scarcely discernable scene that, for some visitors, might be perceived as a reference to a diminutive woodcutter, that figure who, in our childhood, was said to live on the moon.

And again, we have Petits riens, which, with its dense accumulation of found objects tightly interlocked and spread over the entire photographic surface, recalls certain attributes of the paintings of Riopelle or even Pollock. This is particularly the case on giving this photograph a second reading, when the multitude of objects on view tend to be reduced to form or colour, inscribing an organization of the image that relies as much on one as on the other.

But because of the very nature of these strongly elliptical works, their more or less surrealist, or even—at moment —fantastical, character, and the way that some are constructed almost as enigmas or, better yet, as poems, the photographs of Nicolas Baier tend to lean toward Sartre’s definition of painting: “(It) does not reflect the world but projects an imagination 7.” In this optic, their relation with painting is perhaps even more convincing. For this is very precisely what these photographs do. Not only is their attachment to reality more or less in the order of fantasy, but the photographs are, as well, each in its own way, adept launching pads for our imagination: a response that lives up to Baier’s way of projecting his own imagination. Thus, this photography has more to do with dream than with reality; at times, the fact that the artist looks at a particular object is enough to render the object itself somewhat dubious, even leading us to consider it as another of the artist’s “fabrications” (Sujet bas).

A World in Pieces

“I see the objects around me as an atomization of a mysterious all, the sense of which escapes me 8.” If this declaration is a fair translation of the aesthetic Nicolas Baier develops in his recent work, it also reveals the metaphysical foundation and tenor of his restless investigations. As it is with his feeling about the complexity of reality, so it is with each of the photographic works that stem directly from this feeling, and that perhaps most clearly constitute an ensemble in the current exhibition, wherein the artist “sees no relation between the works, no codes, and no apparent ties 9.” What is brought to the fore is simply the gaping space that separates these photos: “The world is in a state of continual disintegration 10.”

This sensibility of Nicolas Baier’s, becoming more familiar to us with each work, echoes in the cinematography of Antonioni, an emblematic figure in the Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s who grapples, above all, with vast existential questions. The filmmaker’s world, Pascal Bonitzer says, is “presented plastically, narratively and ontologically as a world in pieces 11.” In the work of this director of emptiness, lack, disintegration, disaffection, and disappearance, “the protagonists resemble, morally speaking, the places through which they pass in their disenchantment…. Disoriented, the characters are pictured in settings that offer them no point of reference, nothing but the blind reflection of their disintegrating mental universe 12.” In reading these words, a recent image of Baier’s comes to mind in which the anonymous, fragile figure of a young woman, seen from behind, is overcome by the scale and overwhelming geometry of her environment (Janvier). But they also evoke the entire range of recent work in this exhibition: piece by piece, they sketch the portrait of an exacerbated consciousness.

Finally, both director and photographer, being adept painters, are interested in the informal, in blemishes, in forms born from chance that, in Baier, seem to confirm the primacy of the gaze in artistic endeavour 13. Between chaos and cosmos, destruction and creation, these emblems of the misshapen and of every possible ambiguity become sites where any glimmer of creative drive is annihilated, even while they are the source and crucible for all creation.

Of Proximity and Distance

Within this photographic work which blithely mingles every code, including—as we’ve seen— those of painting and photography, Nicolas Baier adds an interrogation, if not an additional loss of references, by exploring the variations of scale that his interest in detail and in tight framing regularly tend to favour. With a sensibility that prompts him to closely observe those things in our everyday surroundings that could easily be perceived as negligible or even uninteresting (because our gaze tends to wear itself out on the surface of things), Baier, out of the little nothings he sees and captures, has the power to project us into the infinitely large. Becoming moons or cosmos, these insignificant details suddenly acquire an unexpected dimension. And because they take on the image of a star or a portion of the universe situated light-years away and far beyond our experience (yet call directly out to us), these same little nothings, abruptly transformed by the quality of looking, nonetheless exercise, through the images created by the artist, an irresistible attraction, and lead us to dream.

We are not just transported from a negligible detail to the image of an infinitely huge object, or from what is derisory to what has forever aroused human interest and curiosity : in this surprising substitution, we undergo a sort of dislocation of time as a direct result of the transformation. From finite time, and from lowly or unworthy material (dust, an old table) we accede to a sort of eternity… or almost (moon and cosmos). And this “paradoxical conjunction of the close and the distant is what defines, above all, the aura 14.” Curiously, the notion of cosmos brings us back, irrevocably, to chaos. And it’s chaos that Nicolas Baier, in his way, attempts courageously to confront with his work, which proposes to install a “semblance of order 15.”

Dust and Time

Dust, a neglected, poor material, is for Baier, who rejects any hierarchy in this domain, absolutely worthy of interes —even more so, perhaps, in light of the notion of absence that invests its very presence 16. Implicitly visited by the time it can also symbolize, dust leads us to an obvious metaphysical reflection that, in passing, comes to short-circuit the remarkable material qualities displayed in the photographic works of the artist: “I work with dust as something that reveals the flight of time 17.”

Paradoxically, in this sincere and relatively new interest in such a material, one thing that emerges is the idea (quite laughable) of slowing the course of things, of stopping the flow of time. For, as we might have sensed, if not firmly felt, there is a sudden febrility, an urgency even, in the artist—an urgency to which the work of recent years bears witness, both in the sustained and applied rhythm of its making and in the variety and number of works that have directly resulted from it. In this fever of his, a real driving force for the tireless pursuit of his domestic investigation, Nicolas Baier persists, through the freedom and audacity of his looking, in not wanting to “discriminate” in the field of the visible; or better, he persists in removing from it all hierarchy, all preconceived ideas, so that any form of border becomes porous. His general attitude surely constitutes a model of one “who places his life in the studio on the same level as his private life 18.”

1 The intimate framing becomes an endless source of interest for the photographer, in a somewhat zen way, like fullyrealized or nomadic spirits who posses the power of discovery amid the multitude of details or events in their immediate environment.

2 Time has altered my memory here; in fact, the scene involved a low-angle shot.

3 Witold Gombrowicz, Bakakaï (Paris: Denöel, 1984), p.98.

4 Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room.

5 Using the definition of Michelangelo.

6 Patrick Vaudray, La peinture et l’image (Paris: Éditions Pleins Feux, 2002), p. 71.

7 Vaudray, op. cit., p. 18.

8 Taken from a short text by the artist on his own work.

9 Ibid.

10 Hannah Holmes, The Secret Life of Dust (New York, Chichester, Weinheim, Brisbane, Singapore, Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2001), p. 2.

11 Pascal Bonitzer, Décadrages (Paris: Éditions de l’Étoile, Les Cahiers du Cinéma, 1995), p. 99.

12 Ibid. p. 97-98.

13 Régis Durand, Le temps et l’image (Paris: La Différence, 1995), p. 170-171. On Robert Smithson and the act of looking as a work of art; on disappearance as interminable process (linked to the photograph); on fractures, ruptures, on emptiness…

14 Ibid. p. 161.

15 These are the artist’s words.

16 Hanna Holmes, op. cit. It’s really surprising what these analyses of today’s dust can reveal of past life.

17 Quote from Nicolas Baier.

18 Emmanuel Galland, “Nicolas Baier. De la peinture par téléphone” CV photo, n° 52, (automne 2000), p. 14.