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The addictive force of the internet is real, and no one knows this better than Aurélie Bayad. In a post-internet world, where IRL increasingly merges with URL, new possibilities of being are creeping into our daily lives. In her versatile art practice, Bayad uses video, photography and performance to confront us with the messy, dirty thoughts and desires of our hyperreal (what is real?), cultivated identities, as we try to live up to the new rules and standards set by the digital sphere of fake likes and dark web eroticism. Bayad uses her camera, her own and other bodies, and texts she wrote to create a fresh aesthetic language for the new desires of contemporary culture. In slimy and gooey, ugly and disgusting, cheap and glittery settings, we watch her unfold the personae of her filmed and photographed subjects. She hides her models behind the soft, nostalgic hues of the kitschy eighties and nineties; includes erratic and ecstatic sequences in her films, with heart-pounding soundtracks; and fearlessly looks back into the lens, as if asking us: ‘What is your real personality? What is real beauty? What is your true desire, your fetish? Who do you want me to see?’ With her otherworldly beauty standards, her visceral and vomitous but lively encounters with food and other quotidian objects, and her frank interrogations of intimacy, giving and receiving, love and abuse—so pertinent that they can make you tremble with self-doubt—Aurélie Bayad shares with us her search for personal grounding in this confusing, networked world.
- Zeynep Kubat
What does reality look like when it is photographed from its own perimeter, in the uncanny zone between certainty, objectivity and dreams, where an idealised version of the world has infiltrated? Sébastien Cuvelier’s photography may well provide the answer.
In his images, what is real always seems larger than it actually is. The photographs appear to have passed through a fantasy filter, to be projected from a dimension where other rules apply. The sensation is similar to the one felt in the twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, when ambiguous landscapes are crossed in what is not quite a dream.
It is not unusual to feel a little uncomfortable when looking at his photographs. To have the sense that one is intruding on someone else’s secret, imaginary territory. Perhaps it’s because the people, places and objects are made unfamiliar by certain details, yet seem a part of daily life. A superficial mundanity, one filled with residential blocks, interiors decorated with ostentatious luxury, ordinary streets and gardens. And yet, our usual references are rendered obsolete.
The colours, the blurring, the inconsistencies: everything conspires to make us doubt that these photographs portray what really exists.
Sébastien Cuvelier appears to have found the way to an observation room that provides a mysterious and disturbing view of the human desire to become a utopian incarnation of itself.
- Philippe Marczewksi
Michiel De Cleene
M.D.C. always starts a conversation about Reference Guide with the last photo in the book, and this time is no exception. He took the photograph in question in the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands.
He enjoys telling the story of the Würzburger Lügensteine, a collection of 18th-century fake fossils—known in English as Beringer’s Lying Stones—of which some can be found at the abovementioned museum. In 2017, H.V., who was in charge of managing the science collection, gave M.D.C. and L.K. a guided tour of the museum and told them of all kinds of curiosities to be found there, including the famous Lügensteine. In the early 18th century, two palaeontologists were keen to play a trick on an arrogant colleague, a certain Johann Beringer. They buried a large part of around 2,000 fake fossils—featuring suns, stars, snails, shells and even Hebrew inscriptions—and sent a beautiful young woman, who pretended to be a doctorate student, to visit Beringer with the rest of the stones. He fell into the trap and went in search of the fossils. He found them, believed the hand of God to be the only explanation for these—what were referred to back then as—"figure stones”, and wrote a scientific article about them. Things ended badly for everyone. Beringer realised too late that he had been tricked. He took his colleagues to court and won the case; however, his own name will always be associated with the Lügensteine. M.D.C. grins as he tells the story but is no longer sure whether the young lady’s role in it is true.
We read about the entries in Reference Guide at the back of the publication: “The collection demonstrates a surprisingly high interest in characters and phenomena along the sidelines of these episodes and displays a severe tendency to digress”. A few days later, L.K. calls H.V. just to check the story of the Würzburger Lügensteine. It was most likely two small boys who first brought the stones to Johann Beringer.
- Lars Kwakkenbos
The Land of Promises is an invitation to explore transnational and transracial adoption in China and Belgium, both in the present day and in the past. One can imagine that during China’s one-child policy era Belgium represented “the promised land” for baby girls whose parents had to give them up. And yet, as Youqine Lefèvre’s work unfolds, and she moves from her parents’ archives to her own images, the perspective shifts. When she visits her birth country, China becomes the land of promises—of finding her roots? Her birth family? Herself?
Such an ambitious promise is easy to break, which explains the palpable melancholy in Youqine Lefèvre’s pictures. Her work also conveys the ambiguity of her position: as an adult adoptee visiting her birth country, she is “an outsider within”, so close to her photographic subjects and yet so far away. From this perspective, art is the new land of promises for Lefèvre, who uses multiple supports (film, paper, etc.) in her photographic practice to create a world where she can live her truths. The work produced by the artist thus generates the artist. Youqine Lefèvre is not only reclaiming her own narrative, but challenging the status of archives that in her hands become both art and a political statement.
Ultimately, The Land of Promises is an invitation to decentre whiteness and the Global North in the visual narrative surrounding transnational and transracial adoption.
- Amandine Gay
Lucas Leffler revisits the past. Starting with stories rooted in reality, his projects focus on silver as a source of inspiration and discovery.
Zilverbeek (or Silver Stream) (2017-2020) is a dreamlike investigation of a man who collects mud from a stream in order to extract the precious white metal from it. The silver was the result of years of photosensitive emulsions being discharged into the water from the Agfa-Gevaert factory. The artist documents, deconstructs then reconstructs, history, brilliantly reshaping time and our perception of it to give us an oblique look at photographic materials.
His second work, Crescent (2019-2020), is a speculative study of the scientific and esoteric significance of silver. Here, the artist delves into something that fascinates him: the moon’s influence on the metal. His attempts to synthesise it result in photograms of sculptural objects and the sky—as though the heavens were being radiographed.
For Lucas Leffler, the shoot provides tangible evidence that a fantastical story—the pretext and context for his journeys—is true. He subjects this evidence to an experimental process involving chemicals and manipulation of the film and the subjects, thus creating a synthetic version of reality: one that transcends facts, muddies the path, and allows viewers to come to their own conclusions.
- Emilia Genuardi
Over the past fifteen years, bodies have been washing up on the Tunisian beaches of Zarzis, along with the detritus expelled daily by the sea. The bodies are those of men, women and children who, just before they drowned, still believed that this shoreline would be the first step towards their European Eldorado. In 2011, a local man decided to create a burial site for each one of these anonymous people. Chemseddine Marzoug set to work on his own initiative, building what is now known as the Graveyard for the Anonymous.
While taking photographs of Chemseddine carrying out his charitable work, Kamel Moussa—who is also from Zarzis—learned that in addition to taking care of those who died as they crossed the water, this fisherman fights for the survivors. Together with local organisations, Chemseddine helps the migrants who reached Tunisian soil and have been unable to move on, find accommodation, and, if possible, work.
During the project, the photographer was reminded of the situation that he recorded in 2018 in his book Unstable Balance, which captured the humiliating and desperate experience of young Tunisians who, disillusioned with the revolution and having bravely attempted to leave the country, were repatriated to Tunisia by force. Like them, many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are now condemned to live in the purgatory of globalisation: neither in hell nor paradise, nor in a cemetery, yet all infinitely removed from their hopes and dreams.
- Jean-Marc Bodson
Joud Toamah is an interdisciplinary graphic designer and visual researcher based in Antwerp, Belgium. Archive of Traveling Images, an Image Amidst the Heart (2018-ongoing) is an archive of digitised images of family albums that the artist sources from acquaintances, friends and family members in Syria and the diaspora. Toamah collects pictures that have undergone processes of scanning, uploading, searching, cutting, pasting, renaming, compressing, downloading, forwarding, etc. As such, she is creating digital archives of private and intimate images. But her research highlights something more interesting than the photographs themselves: the way that this digital circulation within personal networks becomes reflected in the image itself. Digital reproduction and circulation—the conditions of recreating bonds after displacement—leave their traces. In its digital journey of relocation, the image acquires consecutive layers of relationality.
Toamah's art and research are deeply relatable despite the fact that her archive of travelling images is not publicly accessible. Although she chooses to share only the project’s conditions and context, her approach is poetic rather than analytical. We are invited to see how she secures the invisible, the inaccessible, the untranslatable.
The artist’s research suggests that to safeguard one’s humanity, one must retain agency over one’s images—and protect them from the othering gaze. Yet her project moves beyond this aspect: through the recollection of private and personal images, she creates personal bonds based on reciprocity, generosity, care and feedback. Photography becomes an interaction between people, a tool to talk and share. A tool for knowledge production, for telling and retelling, for activating each other’s stories and memories.
The digitised images reveal their unique materiality: the fading of the paper, the despair that one will forget certain places, the writing scribbled on the backs of photographs to remind us across generations and distances that to remember is to relate. Toamah’s research moves beyond the binary oppositions between digital and material, here and there, past and present. She establishes a relational archive and an aesthetics of care: the archive of travelling images creates simultaneously belonging and protection.
- Petra Van Brabandt
Josephina Van de Water
The lost paracosmist is an animated short film by multimedia artist Josephina van de Water. Using digital photography, printed celluloid film, paint, digital scans, video montage, cardboard and extreme patience, she brings a fictitious world to life in fascinating detail. The film was made in the traditional, time-consuming way that requires particular dedication, with each frame individually hand coloured as was done in the first colour movies.
The imaginary island of Paperland is inhabited by a colourful collection of talking animals. Josephina van de Water wrote and narrated the dialogue, giving each animal its own voice, tone and place in her universe. The chronicle guides us through a logical, yet fictitious, tale, in which we learn about Paperland’s geography, history, language, culture and religion.
As in every good fable, imagination is closely accompanied by reflection. While The lost paracosmist focuses on the irresistible charms of storytelling, it also warns the audience to beware of stories. They have the power to contort our perception of the world and disturb our relationship with reality.
The endearing cardboard animals in their warm, glowing colours, and the gentle, motherly voice of the narrator, are reminiscent of children’s programmes. However, the topics covered in this allegory are anything but childish: territorial disputes, political and religious authority and mechanisms of exclusion and esteem all make an appearance, allowing inequality and frustration to creep into this seemingly safe cosmos.
- Geert Goiris
In 2020 Erien Withouck’s fascination for overlooked figures and myths led her to the Shetland Isles. Several islanders told her of the mythical “Selkie”, a hybrid creature which has the ability to remove its seal skin and take on human form. On Midsummer’s eve, a female Selkie emerges from a foaming sea and sheds her seal skin. A man sees her on the shore: he carelessly steals her skin and makes her his wife. Always longing for the ocean, the Selkie prefers the freedom as a seal to her expected role as a good mother and housewife, she eventually reclaims her skin and returns to her former home.
This myth is the sort of transient tale that chimes with Withouck’s aesthetic and sensibility. The antagonism between the fleeting nature of oral history and the desire to capture things permanently on film raises an important question: what do we wish to remember, and what would we rather forget? A literal reconstruction of the past is neither useful nor appropriate. The camera offers the chance to play, to intersect the paths of history and imagination.
Her photographs illuminate the traces of these unknown figures and mythical creatures which escaped the pages of history books, subtly capturing the unwritten habits, routines and cultures that still slumber on in remote communities. In scenes that beautifully evoke the fisherman’s world of pounding waves and craggy cliffs, the sea – with its continuous ebb and flow between eternity and fluidity – is clearly the protagonist. This ambiguity is exposed in the imagery of Erien Withouck.
- Dagmar Dirkx
Ugo Woatzi’s photographs reference real and imagined spaces caught between the worlds of freedom and constraint. He reveals and yet conceals, as a chameleon changes colour to blend in and survive.
Ugo’s collaborative process is a reflection of the desires and struggles of his community. Together they create a more sensitive and accepting world, one that both escapes from and confronts the harsh realities of divisive heteronormative structures. The images, tender yet defiant, transmute feelings of love and of conflict, a relatable and universal sense of longing. His sensuous, quietly intimate gaze taps into subtler aspects of human desire—and yet these seemingly accessible emotions are simultaneously blocked in an act of obfuscation. His concealment of faces and identities evokes the fear, censorship and stifling experienced by queer communities across the globe.
Ugo invites us to consider and celebrate a range of masculinities, performative bodies, psyches, and experiences, as he explores the idea of “visibility” as one fraught with both fear and excitement. This duality is embodied powerfully in Ugo’s work, which is both a performance and a lived reality, the speaking of truths and the creating of fictions. That is the nature of photography: to create new worlds from fragments of previous ones. It is in this new world, in the sensitivity of Ugo’s gaze, that we finally access a space of acceptance.
- Michelle Harris