Mind Mapping

Hinde Haest


introduction text to Dominique Lambert / Le Pourquoi Pas? exhibition

23.02 - 16.04.17, FOAM, FOtografie museum of AMsterdam

Stéphanie Solinas uses the medium of photography to approach invisible and immaterial concepts such as identity or spirituality. She employs photography as one of many tools – including language, sound and installation – to investigate how the medium translates the physical and the invisible world into tangible form. However ephemeral the subjects, her methodology is thoroughly systematic. Solinas approaches her subjects

with almost scientific precision and typically consults experts in other disciplines such as geneticists, psychologists, forensics, but also psychics and mediums. Her work plays on the paradoxical nature of photography as both a scientific chemical process that reproduces nature, and a magical tool that can show us an alternative reality.

With this she pays tribute to early scientists and photographers who first used the medium to reflect abstractions such as identity. During a residency at the Préfecture de Police in Paris, she worked with the archives of Alphonse Bertillon, the famous nineteenth- century criminologist who once started there as an office clerk. Bertillon developed the first modern system of criminal identification, now known as Bertillonage. It was premised on anthropometric measurement, verbal descriptions of the offenders’ physical characteristics, and standardised photographs of the face that lay at the basis of the contemporary mug shot.

In 2012, Foam showed Solinas’ project Sans titre (M. Bertillon) (2011), for which she subjected Bertillon to his own system. She constructed a mask of his face by feeding mug shots he had made to promote his system into modern facial recognition software. The ‘prototype’ was published in book form, from which the three-dimensional model could be reconstructed. The resulting mask is a composite portrait of the individual based on its various characteristics, that together make up more than the sum of its parts.

Her reformulation of the portrait as a fragmented construct also inspired Dominique Lambert (2004-2010). Solinas spent seven years inventorying the identity of every listed Dominique Lambert in France. She made (or commissioned) a series of portraits that were all based on the previous one, thus establishing a chain of reinterpretation. She is not interested in the truthful representation of the individual, but in what is lost – or gained – in translation. ‘I use tools that have been deemed valid or valuable to represent identity, and I explore their limitations, their success and whatever escapes them as well.’

A similar approach informed her latest series, Le Pourquoi Pas? (2014–2017), for which she mapped a parallel reality of elves and spirits in Iceland. The title (The Why Not? ) refers to her desire to take serious interest in whatever comes her way, even if that happens to be something she cannot see.

‘It is not about proving the existence of elves or the spirits of dead people. I simply wanted to investigate these hidden realities by recording as much factual material as I could.’ Similarly to Dominique Lambert , Solinas attempts to materialise the abstract into words and images; her method is invariably characterised by collating and organising snippets of proof.

However clinical the portrait grids of Dominique Lambert, the physical presentation of Le Pourquoi Pas? is more intuitive and immersive. The well-organised white cube makes way for a darkened room with soft carpet and curious objects. The walls are covered in blueprints of elfin dwellings and pedestals display imaginary maps and objects. A face appears and recounts an encounter with supernatural creatures, while a medium is in session with the deceased. The project was conceived on a residency in Iceland, where the supernatural world is as much part of reality as the physical world.

Le Pourquoi Pas? is haunted by the spirit of French polar explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot. His boat, from which the project takes its title, was shipwrecked off the coast of Iceland in 1936. He was the son of the famous nineteenth- century neurologist Jean-Michel Charcot. Inspired by their attempt to map  the physical and cerebral landscape respectively, Solinas set out to reconcile the two approaches. To do this she consulted with mediums, geneticists, psychics and other experts of the mind. Following their clues, she gradually visualised a world that she herself could not see.

Once again, Solinas’ concern is not so much for an accurate or truthful representation, but rather for the way in which various reproductive techniques mediate the outcome. Her use of early photographic processes such as the cyanotype is therefore no coincidence. The cyanotype does not require the use of a camera and it was famously used by Anna Atkins and Bertha Jaques to document and organise botanical specimens. The process was also used by architects and engineers to make blueprints of their designs. From its very inception it proved the ideal tool to concretise an abstract idea, and therefore the quintessential technique in Solinas’ quest to do exactly that: to make the mind materialise.

Following the directions of a medium, Solinas placed light-sensitive paper within the crevices of a lava landscape where elves are said to live. The resulting inventory of cyanotypes and their coordinates forms an almost scientific chart of the supernatural. By applying reproductive techniques to the invisible, Solinas questions exactly those attributes that lie at the heart of the photographic medium: realism and reproducibility. The project is reminiscent of early spirit photography in the nineteenth century, when the realism of the medium was mobilised to prove the existence of ghosts. But if Solinas’ research proves anything, it is not the existence or non-existence of elves per se, but the fact that photography – whether used by the artist, the scientist or the engineer – is an inherently imaginative medium.

Almost all of Solinas’ projects begin and end with a book. Research for Le Pourquoi Pas? started with the book J.-B. Charcot, le Polar Gentleman  (1945). The photographs that washed ashore after his fatal shipwreck were published as the last tangible remnants of the mission. As Solinas embarked on her own quest to map the invisible Icelandic landscape, she published records of the interviews she had with local informants. She bundled the recounts of paranormal encounters, conversations about the deceased, and interviews about the deCODE genotyping project. She reorganised her data to form fictional encounters that never physically took place.

The 13 chapters of the resulting book correspond to the coordinates of sacred places in Iceland indicated on a map. When turned around, the contours of the land resemble those of a human brain, and the coordinates seem to correspond to the location of various brain functions. Every small detail in the world of Solinas, be it words, images, people or objects, is embedded within an intricate web of connections, and carefully mapped and studied like a rare scientific specimen.

The book, like the photograph, functions as a transmitter of information in which the relation between image and text is pivotal. In the case of M. Bertillon, Le Pourquoi Pas? and Dominique Lambert, text and books do not only serve as an explanation, summary or conclusion of a series, but constitute a vital element to the work: hidden in the cover of the published Dominique Lambert are the passport pictures of each of the 21 ‘real’ Dominique Lamberts. The book is the only container that holds all the pieces of the puzzle.