Sublimating the body

Laurent Bayly 

This series was born from my personal research but also from a commission by a psychology and personal development event — the Feminine Masculine festival — held in Guadeloupe from November 29th to December 1st, 2019, organized by psychologist Valérie Scala. The exhibition is titled “Feminine-Masculine, Sublimated Beauty”.

Every day we expose our bodies or parts of our body (including our faces) to the eyes of the world. Selfies, videos and photos of us engaged in activities, doing sports, attesting to the swelling of a particular muscle after hours of effort, showing ourselves in special outfits, with carefully manicured hairstyles, makeup, and accessories, showcasing ourselves, enhancing our femininity or our virility. We expose ourselves on social networks thereby giving others  the right to dispose of our image, to modify it as a new voluntary servitude. With the recent popularity of FaceApp we allow individuals deep within Russia to distort the image of our face to imagine our future aged appearance.

Today we offer pictures of ourselves to the worship of ‘likes’, a virtual thumbs up on social networks. What do they reflect if not our inner emptiness? We deceive with filters and software, but it only reflects our laborious obsession with appearance, responding to our lack of self-esteem through external, social validation. In some ways, we conform to stereotypes that can only satisfy ourselves in the short term, just a few hours on Snapchat and a few days at most on Facebook.

This general submission to stereotypes and the fundamental question of self-esteem of course follows a particular declension in the Caribbean. The injunction is global including through the imagery of the tourism industry.  However, we cannot ignore the impact of colonial and slavery trauma in our part of the world. We have been the field of the creation of racist stereotypes: classifications according to the proportion of “black blood”, scientific justifications of races and their hierarchization. In photography, J. T Zealy’s daguerrotypes for Louis Agassiz (1850) aimed to prove the inferiority of blacks. The models posed in the studio, shirtless against a black background, staring at the lens, everything is very clear, as an object of scientific study should be and the humanity of the models is (at least) questioned in a kind of pornographic matrix. The recent book Sex, Race and Colonies shows well the strong link between colonial domination, racism and pornography — pornography that until today has ignored shallow depths of field.

Taking into account these parameters I have attempted to reach some complexity as a response to the stereotypes.

Complexity is not fragmentation or juxtaposition. The Caribbean in many ways is a fragmented space, politically, economically and socially. It has been so since its “invention” by Europeans who have divided the islands and territories, established separations and hierarchies within the indigenous populations and imported others. In many ways there is also a cultural and linguistic fragmentation, of identity in particular, because population flows in the Caribbean are intense and incessant. Saint Martin, where I live and work is a caricature. More than 60 nationalities are present with strong wealth inequalities. In addition, the destruction and psychological consequences of Hurricane Irma in 2017 may have accentuated the sense of fragmentation.

Of course, globalisation is at work too. Therefore, we can see ourselves as fragmented beings.

It is also now proven that trauma can be transmitted from generation to generation through epigenetics. In my view, Caribbean photography and visual arts account for this fragmentation and the importance of historic legacies. I think of the special part played by collage or photo montage (Holly Bynoe of St Vincent, Terry Boddie of Nevis, Ebony G Patterson of Jamaica or Florence Poirier N’kpa of Saint Martin).

My subjective response to this fragmentation and juxtaposition is to complexify the images by aiming for a kind of unity. Complexity for me is the combination or rearrangement into a single artistic object of the elements, legacies, and influences of all the flows that cross the Caribbean. In my work, the diffusions, diffractions and irregularities obtained by the plexiglass screen and the spread water, create a kind of material that unifies the plastic space of the photograph. The differences in focus and the different densities of multiple exposures add to this effect as well as the play of colours, hues, white balance. All this aims to signal a distancing from the visible reality. I would then speak of representing a personal reality as the interaction between the body (mine, the model’s), the spirit (mine, the model’s) and the « activity of the universe ». It is a simultaneous experiment, an intermittent flow of sensations, of perceptions, of thoughts, of experiences. It is impermanent and elusive unless you take a picture. And yet we only catch a moment.

In photography (to photograph means to write with light), the light and therefore the colour unify. The link between colour and the spiritual is well known (Kandinsky, Concerning the spiritual in art, 1910). So I try to integrate a spiritual reality beyond the simple bodies represented by the processes I have already mentioned and the references that can be seen in the figures of angels or Hindu goddesses, animist fetishes and even the Christ.

Finally, I like to think that my photography seeks to achieve complexity through poetry. This quote from the poet Jane Hirshfield comes to my mind:

Poems (and may I add photographs) can bring comfort. They let us know . . . that we are not alone (…) but they also unseat us and make us more susceptible, larger, elastic. They foment revolutions of awareness and allow the complex, uncertain, actual world to enter.

Thus a photograph can make us irreducible to any categorization, any stereotyped simplification.

I am a self taught photographer born in1971 in Kingston upon Thames, UK (French mother , British father). I have been living and working  in Saint Martin since 2008. I have been taking pictures for more than 20 years but started to show them only in  2015. I was a member of St Martin based artists group « Headmade Factory » between 2015 and 2018. I did several exhibitions in Saint Martin and recently in Guadeloupe. I try to remain versatile in my work including subjective pictures from everyday wandering to photo reports for news papers (such as le Monde) and making connections with other visual arts (mainly painting). I also write texts to go with my pictures.My personal web site : www.laurentbayly.com

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