ELODIE ANTOINE | Benoit Barbagli – body and water
“Proust, (…) visibly set himself the task of inexorably blurring, through extreme subtlety, the relationship between the writer and his characters: by making the narrator not the one who has seen, nor even the one who writes, but the one who is going to write (the young man in the novel – but, by the way, how old is he and who is he? – wants to write, but he cannot, and the novel ends when writing finally becomes possible), Proust gave modern writing its epic: by a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is often said, he made of his life itself a work of which his own book was like the model.”
Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1967 On Land, Water, Body and Art
From the photographic series Sauts amoureux and Expression d’une émotion amoureuse (2014) to Il y a comme un lien entre l’eau, la musique et la vie (2018) or Révolution naturelle (2020) to the paintings Les jets d’encre d’Ecotopia (2020), Benoit Barbagli’s work embraces the land, the sea and the sky through the prism of the body.
His photographs put in majesty as many naked bodies, faces adorned with flowers, as arms stretched towards the sky. His body leaves it to the elements to do their work and/or his work. This is how painting was born, not without filiation with his elder, Yves Klein, but in contrast to the latter, without any demiurgic will. And if the subjects of his photographs are “guided” and/or accompanied in their acts, they do not replace the brushes of the artist in a modernist logic of pictorial renewal. They are bodies – neither objects of the conductor’s desire, nor pictorial tools, nor models – free bodies to whom the artist proposes collective experiences in the middle of nature – in the middle of the forest and the waters. The shots are pretexts for a collective experience in places most often unknown to these bodies. It is rather a question of discovery of a place and an environment, of a quest for the potentialities of natural spaces.
Through common experiences, the bodies gradually find their natural place in the middle of the elements: sea, lake, mountain, forest. The titles of the photographs (Underwater Mythology, Underwater Ritual, At 90° above the fire) testify to this close relationship to the elements.
Their author also observes an adelphity of the bodies, which he readily associates with the emergence of the sacred. As if these acculturated bodies found by dint of frequenting and practicing the natural environment a pre-cultural state that led them to become one with nature, to curl up in it.
This quest is not unrelated to the one sought at the dawn of the seventies by artists who had decided to make nature their studio: walking, running, tracing, marking, finding, gleaning, collecting, laying, moving.
Benoît Barbagli’s performances revive this privileged relationship with nature. That of those who have sought through their walks, their wanderings, their drifts to experience a relationship with the world outside the modern, arch-modern world. A world, in the eyes of some of them, dehumanized, a world without horizon. The English countryside, the Nevada desert, the hinterland of Nice, then appeared to them as a horizon, a possibility, a territory to explore far from the omnipresence of noise and culture of the cities.
Benoit Barbagli proposes to his fellow travelers an experience that is not solitary, but rather collective – a federative experience to create a common ground, a social body. A social body far from the conventions, the contemporary rites, those of consumption.
From the death of culture to the death of the author
Back in the workshop, what happens to this social body? What is its status, its place in the author’s work?
Who is the young man in the pictures? Is it the subject? Is he the author? Is he the instigator? Who is the eye behind the camera?
Is the alleged perpetrator the subject? What do these photographs tell us? Its author, its history, its body, its juvenility?
Where is the author?
Who are the characters? Where do these immersed bodies that we recognize from the series come from?
Benoit Barbagli inexorably blurs the lines. Like the way Roland Barthes looked at Marcel Proust’s work, Benoît Barbagli, although he sometimes appears in his recent photographs, and although he remains the author of them, willingly steps aside, not behind the camera1, but rather behind a collective body – this collective body that gives meaning to his photographs – a utopian body?
And if this return to nature, this social body, this union with nature, even if it was transitory, fleeting, was in his eyes, the image of a possible relationship to the world to come?
This “next world” that we have been told about for a long time. This radiant future where ecology would become one of the hobbyhorses of the presidential candidates, these air travels which would be limited to a certain mileage in order to preserve our skies, our earth, too.
This sweet dream of conscious citizens – aware of the world they live in, not only their own but also that of others – beyond the Atlantic, the Amazon, the Dead Sea and the Adriatic, the Carpathians, the deserts of Gobi to the Negev.
The forms of freedom: the nest, the jump, the emancipation
The nest, the cocoon
From the bay of Villefranche to the Lake of Saint Cassien, passing by the Cap Ferra, the bodies seem to curl up and move in the recovered freedom of the amniotic liquid.
Gathered members, spread out, symmetrical, dissymmetrical, immersed bodies detaching themselves from the green bottom of water, the alluvium forming more or less regular circles. The bodies themselves drawing a circle in the water, a circle that is not without echoing that of the watermelons in Dead sea (2008) by Sigalit Landau.
The circle – this uninterrupted line, in a closed circuit, is reminiscent of the nest in which birds are born. Nest, cocoon, circle naturally take on protective connotations. They sometimes evoke the desire to be one with nature, like the nests of Nils Udo: Le Nid, 1978; Au jardin du paradis, 1979; Habitat, 2000; Nid d’eau, 2001; and Andy Goldsworthy: Turn Hole, 1986.
Whether it is realized on earth (Noël Dolla: Propos neutre n°2, 1969; Restructuration spatiale n°3, 1970; Restructuration spatiale n°5, 1980; Restructuration spatiale n°12, 2020); Robert Smithson: Spiral Getty, 1970; Spiral Hill, 1971; Amarillo Ramp, 1973; Sod Maze, 1974; Hervert Bayer: Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork, 1979-82; James Turrell: Roden crater (looking northeast), 1977-present; Richard Long: Stone circle, 1976)
in water (Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Surrounded islands, 1980-83) or in the air (Dennis Oppenheim: Wirlpool, Eye of the Storm, 1973), the circular form is at the heart of the artists’ work in nature. The circle is not without echoing ancestral constructions, in particular that of Stonehenge (megalithic monument erected between -2600 and -1000 BC in Great Britain).
Wouldn’t this crown, this circle, also be the image and/or the form of withdrawal? The one experienced by a large part of the world’s population between December 2019 and June 2020.
Among the forms of freedom, we can also count that of jumping. Let’s think about parachute jumping or bungee jumping. If the gravity of a body in a vacuum can frighten some people, for others, on the contrary, it is a guarantee of freedom, a bit like the one known in water, from the amniotic liquid to sea water.
From the jump in the void (Yves Klein and Benoît Barbagli) to the one observed
in the recent images of Barbagli in shallow waters
of the Lake of Saint Cassien, the bodies incarnate a reconquered freedom,
These bodies seem to crystallize a form of recovered freedom. Immersed in water, they no longer suffer from the effects of gravity and can move freely. And yet, these bodies are stopped under the effect of the camera by a fixed image. Barbagli gives to see this hic et nunc of freedom – this furtive, transitory, fleeting moment, to use the terms of Charles Baudelaire qualifying thus the painters of the modern life. The photographer thus tries to offer to this moment, an eternal dimension.
By immersing his images (Double immersion, 2022) in salt baths (boron salt), he not only re-enacts the immersion of bodies but also gives them a concrete surface, a crystallized salt crust. The photographic moment appears as a revelator, whereas the time of the workshop (the immersion in the salt of the photographic prints) on the contrary plays rather on the side of disappearance.
These images crystallize something – appearance, disappearance, momentum.
In 2007, the Invisible Committee – a collective of anonymous authors – published The coming insurrection (Edition La fabrique), a political, economic and social analysis of France at that time, followed by an application manual for mobilization, organization and revolt:
Not to wait any longer is to enter, in one way or another, into the logic of insurrection2.
At the end of 2008, the intellectual and philosopher Julien Coupat was accused of having sabotaged the catenaries of train lines and of being the presumed author of the book mentioned above. At the beginning of December, Coupat was indicted along with nine of his friends and imprisoned in March. Artistic, militant and literary circles are mobilized. In a few weeks, the accused of the Republic becomes a hero in the eyes of a youth without any illusion on the political class of that time.
In 2009, another collective, Tiqqun, published Contributions à la guerre en cours, a collection of three texts previously published in October 2001 in the journal Tiqqun 2. The authors call for a rally. They state in the very first lines of the book:
1. The elementary human unit is not the body-individual, but the form-of-life.
2. The form-of-life is not the beyond of the naked life, it is rather its intimate polarization.
3. Each body is affected by its life-form as by a clinamen, an inclination, an attraction, a taste. What a body leans towards also leans towards it. This is true in every situation again. All inclinations are reciprocal3.
Through this introduction to the text “La guerre-civile, les formes- de-vie”, the authors put the body back at the center of human concerns, especially in its impulse towards revolution.
This praise of the body considered not as a tool or object, but as a “form of life” is not without link with the artistic project of Benoit Barbagli. The body of the performers is not the extension and/or the image of the artist’s body. It is a medium that is embodied, anchored in life.
In 2009, a group of intellectuals, including Jacques Rancière, Slavoj Zizek, Kristine Ross and Alain Badiou, published Democracy in What State? (La fabrique). Inspired by the investigations carried out by the surrealists in the 1920s, the authors had tried to question and bring a new look to the concept of democracy.
The social body staged and implemented by Benoît Barbagli in his latest creations extends in its own way the questioning of the philosophers, suggesting perhaps that the question still remains open today. Works that, like Gestes d’amour, Coup de soleil and La libération, advocate a form of emancipation, a celebration of giving and freedom – an ode to life.
1 It is not the eye behind the camera, the photographs being taken by drone in
2 In invisible committee, The coming insurrection, La fabrique, Paris, 2008, p. 83.
3 In Tiqqun, Contributions à la guerre en cours, La fabrique, Paris, 2009, p.15