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DOCUMENTS     About : Le jardin d'enfants, François Delvoye

About : Le jardin d'enfants, François Delvoye

December 10th 2007

Translated from French by Elaine Briggs

“The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf.

This varied gallery of intensely expressive faces that display differing attitudes during childhood and in life, is a concerted but also subtly disturbing attempt to muddy the waters between innocence and adulthood, between candour and anguish for the world. The series of photos occupies a special position in the long tradition of photographic portraiture as well as within Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s own work.

Society behind the portrait
The photographs present laughing, seductive eyes looking straight at the camera; or a strangely adult, thoughtful attitude, showing that the relationship with the photographer is fully understood; or playful attitudes, hands before eyes, either coy or artless. All, however, dispel any preconceived notion we might have of childhood candour and inexperience. Visible confrontations and emotions show us that any carefreeness has already been substantially altered by the life process and the models’ personality, which is subtly imprinted with their own form of maturity.
We are reminded that this period of life is not what it’s usually purported to be, it’s not what some convenient label tells us, i.e. future life consumers are unable to make choices or shape the world to their own liking. These faces are all about possibilities for self-expression, for change, for the future. But there is also a degree of hesitation that shows in the tension between laughter and anguish.

No colour or décor is permitted, nothing that might steal a march on the importance of the faces and characters, and so these astonishing black and white portraits attain almost immediate universality. The image is frontal, centered on the face, going no lower than the shoulders. The backgrounds are identical giving no clue as to any social, temporal or spatial environment. With their ordinariness, a certain lack of stigmata, these photographs bear no relationship to those of Diane Arbus; neither is their spontaneity, or lack of pose and provocative sense of unease in any way reminiscent of Rineke Dijkstra or Loretta Lux. Only facial expressions, or maybe gestures, mimetic of attitudes in future life, are given any importance. The first point to become apparent is the link between face and camera lens, not context or outline, which are non-existent here.

Non-existent ? Maybe this is in fact the major achievement. The odd feeling that is aroused on looking at these portraits very likely comes from the stifling, blatant discrepancy between the facial expressions as they have been caught and all that they project. By way of contrast, they leave everything to the imagination, which envisions the opposite of what they are and what they will no longer be, because the whole of planet earth seems intent on ignoring them. These faces make an anguishing historical statement as well as embodying a wager on the future. They also inescapably invite questions about the nature of violence. As a function of the ‘individualism’ inherent in portraiture, these photographs inexorably intuit (and this aspect is not what is least original about the work) the rest of humankind.

Behind the smiles and the seriousness, behind the bogus blandness offering no other landmark for the spectator’s eye to catch on to than the compelling facial expressions, the issue seems to be that of our future, living and breathing, over the coming decades. There are other faces behind these faces, and far from being a comprehensive inventory, or reductively singular, they should rather be seen as a vital sample. Not unlike August Sander whose portraits attempted to capture an entire social group (his method was obviously more typological in keeping with his time), Marie-Jo Lafontaine goes beyond childhood portraiture by wondering what the future holds: by questioning its implicit uncertainties and challenges, she makes a statement about the nature of humankind. Photography is a “mirror that remembers” Robert de Montesquiou wrote, but in this case its value is prospective. In an almost ghostly way, the mirror has captured more than the original image.

With these children, these new arrivals, a new age is broached in Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s individual approach to portraiture (Liquid Crystals, 1999 ; Babylon Babies, 2001), that yet again succeeds in lending a philosophical dimension to her photography as seen within the context of her entire body of work. Further, a political and ecological sense of awareness imbues these faces, already concerned, whether they like it or not, by what they have inherited from us, our acts, our past and our present. This awareness speaks beyond individual cultures: it knows that the power to change the course of history is limited, and will be frustrated. Yet it resists, central to the modern world, the computer age, where the best and worst forms of technology, chemistry and genetics manipulate, standardise, atomize wars and people.

The Faces of Laughter

“Children can be our guides ; see how quickly laughter follows tears with them.”, Karl Otto Schmidt.

On close examination, the Jardin d’Enfants series is also meaningful as part of a more general study of laughter, a subject frequently evoked in Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s work. Laughter, just like childhood, can be ambiguous, expressing a whole range of emotions: nervous, refreshing, without hope, cynical, innocent, full of drama, mocking or shy. Like laughter, childood can serve as an alibi, be evasive, a front; it can shake off the past in order to start afresh, or admit failure. Laughter obviously has a visual dimension, but sound is also paramount: one little girl in one photo might cover her mouth with her hands, which is echoed in the way another little girl puts her hands over her ears, thus making our own ears buzz. Implicitly, themes such as the circus and the grimace are explored. Even though it can be said that children know no artifice, in Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s work, there is nonetheless a feeling of play-acting, of some mystery that cannot be defined. And there is always music, either muted or delicate according to the photo, which even so manages to reach our ears.

These large-format photographs speak; they create a real ‘children’s garden’. Fertile gardens grow wild, in all directions at first, but this is only to size things up, take stock of the real world. Our world divides the different ages of man into rigid categories: being a child is the same as being childish, generations are isolated, memories and heritages are erased, with the effect that these portraits seem almost unreal. They shatter our masks, our definitions of what childhood is supposed to be, according to a certain kind of logic. True, they show us the tips of growing shoots, but which are already rooted in the language of the future, in new mythologies, new ways of living. They invite us to look at the past in order to ensure the future: reconciliation through retrospection. Yet, alongside thoughts for the future, the free promise of spontaneous fertility, this children’s garden is also about the extinction of our planet, the need for some modesty on the part of the human species, which may yet only be another form of plant life. I cannot say exactly why, but to my mind these photos seem to contain a warning. No moral indignation or high-minded finger-wagging, but a warning. These children are to some extent Hiroshima’s children. A collective unconscious stirs in them, ashes and dust, and all the inevitable ambiguities of life. Maybe we should reverse the trend and let ourselves be guided by them?

Through the Eyes of Generations
Whether Marie-Jo Lafontaine is working on photography, sound installation or video, whether her work is destined for a museum or will be projected over Frankfurt skyscrapers, she always presents us with a portrait of the planet, an awareness of the world, that incites us to philosophical commitment. Her Jardin d’Enfants series is a further step in this direction. After the Babylon Babies series of portraits of teenagers and young adults, and after I Love the World, an immense allegory on current and future issues for those generations caught up in spiralling technology and media, she pursues her exploration of youth, pushing far beyond the usual categories and stereotypes, creating an unsettling atmosphere for her models to inhabit.

Marie-Jo Lafontaine uses a contemporary artist’s full arsenal: she mixes techniques, genres, skills, pursuing questions and doubts that go beyond her own creative act in order to present us with a vision of the world as we have made it. From amidst our interminably chattering egos and our reckless headlong flight into the future, she gives us her knowingly naive smiles and laughter and her universal language. The strength of these portraits perhaps lies in the fact that the faces, which seem to be so close to us, speak of youth and not naivety. Awareness and not guilt. They speak to us directly, no holds barred, saying: “No, we aren’t robots yet”.

Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s work engages with notions of age, generation, language and culture, always on a knife-edge between candour and violence that can even be seen in her own expression. She is provocative, but does not seek the high moral ground. Her thinking is vital, her images real and unavoidable. She explores the ages of life, inducing reflection on the progressive stages in the development of humankind, the issue of evolution. These thoughts may ultimately open up on to a dialogue between ages and generations, the different times that make up the realities of yesterday, today, and certainly tomorrow, and also on to the necessary evidencing of human paradoxes and vanity.