(Image: Black Pyramid, 2019, from the series Passage © René Clement)
Exhibition essay for photographer René Clement’s solo exhibition at TINTERA
17 Bahgat Ali Street, Zamalek, Cairo
December 19, 2020–February 20, 2021
In the words of the co-founding directors of TINTERA, Heba Farid and Zein Khalifa, “TINTERA is delighted to present I Feel The Earth Move, the first solo exhibition by artist René Clement. The selection of thirty-six black and white photographs on display draw from three different series Clement has worked on since relocating to Egypt from New York in 2018: Passage, Maadi Nights and Transformer.
“Clement describes his approach as “capturing the energy in the sea of movement surrounding the buildings, and transferring that frenetic, churning energy onto a planar surface, using time as the fourth dimension, creating multiple layers of [simultaneous] reality”. Clement uses this approach when looking at Egypt through the ritualistic landscapes of pyramid fields at Giza and Sakkara, the pulsating dense garden-like neighbourhood of Maadi at night, or the everyday houseplant transformed into intimate ‘portrait sitters’ during periods of confinement due to the lockdown.
“Clement creates ‘landscapes’ that pulsate with an energy that is palpable. The spatial and physical dimensions of this work vibrate with an insistence to discover the underlying meaning of what it is to ‘be here’. These extraordinary photographs act as gateways to a ‘meta-physical’ exploration beneath the surface of seemingly familiar sites, spaces and objects.”
In Search of the Metaphysical
One evening in New York City, René Clement spotted a large, symmetrical holiday ornament suspended high over a busy intersection. Its serene presence above the traffic was captivating. He photographed the decoration from each of the four streets converging below, keeping the larger context of the cityscape in the background. The artist then meticulously layered all these black-and-white images he had captured in Photoshop, with that compelling ornament holding court as the essential vanishing point of the strangely manipulated world he was creating. The peripheral cars and shops and people and skyscrapers coalesced into a visual cacophony that made that central ornament seem all the more meditative in its stillness.
Clement was astonished by this collapsing of multiple dimensions of space and time into one single picture, and decided to refine the technique by shooting even more images, over an even longer period of time, and to layer them in even more complex ways. He embarked on a long-term project focusing on New York City’s oldest trees, taking their portraits through distinct seasonal changes, capturing everything from lush summer foliage to barren branches bearing tufts of gleaming snow. The majestic trees dwarfed the pedestrians who occasionally made it into the picture, but their clothing—whether sundresses or winter coats—also formed faint visual coordinates within the completed artworks. These laboriously assembled manipulations managed to capture deep pockets of time in a way that renders existence itself bittersweet in its triviality, something so small and fleeting in the grand scheme of things; and yet the opposite also seems true, because every liminal moment captured by Clement, if seemingly insignificant, is a crucial part of the larger whole.
This project was fresh in mind when Clement relocated to Cairo in 2018. Despite this abrupt transition to an entirely new context (or perhaps because of it), he picked up where he’d left off, this time turning his attention from centuries-old trees to millennia-old buildings. Clement took to the deserts on the outskirts of the city, where he contemplated a string of incomplete pyramids leading from north of Saqqara toward the great pyramids of Giza—early, failed attempts at the ideal pyramid form abandoned by their vexed builders some 4,500 years ago. Today, these now-collapsed pyramids are not easily recognizable as such—it’s a matter of time before wind and weather completely reclaim the cast-away piles of stones in the name of the desert. But until then, these oddly shaped remnants can still be found in the sands between two heritage sites. These forms, along with others Clement encountered on his forays around Cairo and Upper Egypt, are the point of departure for Passage, the first of three series of works in his exhibition I Feel The Earth Move. If Passage marks Clement’s journey from the city outward into the country, what follows in the next series, Maadi Nights, is his retreat upwards, away from the ground, shifting now to a soaring perspective looking down upon the city. And Transformer, the third, most recent series in the exhibition, registers yet another turn: an inward one this time, a retreat from the material world in search of the metaphysical.
The title of the exhibition is rooted in the idea that despite the appearance of stasis, everything is always in perpetual movement through infinite layers of space and time, and everything becomes interconnected through that movement. It’s this very interconnectedness that the artist explored in his New York work, but here adapted for Cairo, where the scale of constant growth and erosion is so dramatically expansive, a 4,500 year-old pile of stones can feel as alive and vibrant as a tree in full summer bloom. Sometimes all it takes is a small shift in perspective to feel the earth move.
Pyramids, palm trees, deserts, obelisks, grand buildings, all in shades of dark grey, stand out against a backdrop of billowing clouds or silvery sky, nearly all of them locations for honouring the dead. At first glance, the silhouettes of these structures seem both blurred and sharply focused. Some of the photographs in the series could even be mistaken for pencil drawings. A closer inspection reveals that these are, in fact, composite images made up of whisper-thin layers. Clement says that through this layering, he tries to create a sense of energy that might lead to a passage between past and present, a connection between the living and the afterlife, the opening of a “space” in the image that could allow a shift between locations in time and perspective.
The shapes captured by Clement in these pictures seem to fray at the edges, as if they were vibrating. So interwoven are their delimiting lines that it would be futile to pinpoint where one layer ends and the next one begins. Recalling artist Idris Khan’s black-and-white composite photography, each work forms a complex and harmonious whole that appears both completely still and restlessly dynamic. The natural world here becomes an impossible dreamscape, a supernatural afterimage.
The exterior world that inspired the Passage series would soon evaporate out of Clement’s work. Even before officials began enforcing the nationwide lockdown triggered by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clement found himself shifting to an art of retreat: a retreat prompted by his mounting frustration at trying to exist in public space as a photographer.
Prior in his career, Clement was almost always working outdoors, freely going where he wanted and freely approaching people with his camera. He brought with him to Egypt this uninhibited way of being in the world, but as he tried to explore Cairo, the mere sight of a camera hanging from his shoulder was enough to spark incessant harassment in the streets. He was met with suspicion and aggression from passers-by and officials alike; it felt like there was no escaping the social control that was being imposed on him as a person and as an artist. Even at the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the most photographed monuments in the world, Clement was approached by a plain-clothed official who wanted to know who and what, exactly, he was, because he had been photographing the “wrong way.” “I’m just taking pictures,” he countered at the interrogation. “Is one no longer allowed to be creative?”
His mobility suddenly constrained in a way he had never before experienced, Clement withdrew to his apartment and recalibrated. His way forward would be to take his ambitions to explore the city and scale them down to the confines of his balcony. Alone at night, he stood high above the metropolis and searched through the sea of lights illuminating the buildings sprawling before him, hunting for a face in a window, or a mechanical grin in an industrial facade. Like the works comprising Passage, these mirrored images, too, share a kinship with other modes of contemporary image-making, evoking in particular Michael Shainblum’s short film Mirrorcity, a kaleidoscopic time lapse portrait of a cityscape. Clement, who could no longer photograph people, turned to a cityscape of his own to find the faces there-in. He searched the man-made structures for humanoid shapes and began to extract organic forms out of the geometry of the urban environment, which now, from his elevated vantage point, seemed to offer itself up to him. During these long Maadi Nights, Clement found himself exploring the capital in a way he could not have anticipated.
Clement’s most recent project is also his most introspective. If in Maadi Nights the artist retreated to his balcony, now he would withdraw even further, inspired by his experience of double isolation: the isolation of having to curb his photography practice, which then seamlessly blended into a different kind of lockdown, one mandated by external forces, due to the pandemic. The physical world he had explored in Passage, and then peered at from a remove in Maadi Nights, would now shrink almost into nonexistence. Instead, Clement began examining his own home in near-obsessive detail as he attempted to rediscover what photography meant in the context of a life shutdown. As Clement photographed the potted plants on his balcony, he found that the longer he was stuck at home, the more his mind played tricks on him: he began noticing anthropomorphic features in the stems and leaves, as if the plants were shape-shifting. In this new series, Transformer, he examined and re-examined this trickster botany in his mirrored, black-and-white photographs, which increasingly began to resemble Rorschach tests, with symmetrical ink blotches made of leaves, stems, and blossoms. It was as if through these, Clement was seeking to look right through matter and approach the metaphysical—as if his subject was no longer the solid form, but its component atoms and particles.
The most abstract of the three portfolios, Transformer might also have the firmest grounding in art historical visual references. The clearest reference is Bernd & Hilla Becher’s visual typologies of “specimens,” photographs that the aforementioned Khan has appropriated in his work, as well. Going back even further into the history of image-making, Clement also seems to be tipping his hat to Karl Blossfeldt’s nineteenth-century botanical photography, published in Art Forms in Plants (Urformen der Kunst), and to Blossfeldt’s contemporary Ernst Haeckel, with his meticulous scientific illustrations in Artforms of Nature (Kunstformen der Natur). Clement may work with very contemporary technology to produce his images, but the images themselves are timeless.
Seen in its totality, this is an exhibition that tells a story about being a photographer in Egypt. The work in it is evidence of a particular, idiosyncratic artistic journey: from Clement’s transition from photojournalism to fine art photography, to his cycling through the frustrations and limitations of attempting to be openly creative in Egypt, to finally finding himself confronted by the even more imposing restraints of a global pandemic. Passage seems to illustrate a grace period of innocence before Clement began to understand the acute dangers of working as a photographer in Cairo. But this untainted perspective, this view that is unburdened by harsh realities, is afforded to you only once; once you see it, you can’t un-see it. Hence the fundamental shift in perspective from the historical and physical permanence of Passage, to views of a city in flux captured from the confines of a small balcony witnessed by Maadi Nights, and then finally, and even more dramatically, to the ethereal abstractions based on little fragments of plant life in Transformer. But these shifts ultimately reveal a progression, not any sort of decline; they bear testimony to Clement’s on-going and optimistic struggle to learn a new visual language, one that is responsive to the unique conditions of being an artist living in Egypt, and that is in harmony with that perpetual movement through space and time he has always sought to capture. Each of these bodies of work is meant to change our perspective, too, the better to help us feel the earth move.
Cairo, December 2020