Wednesday, 8 June 2011

“Rose, c'est Paris” – A Journey

(This blogpage contains controversial materials on
sex and religion some people might find offensive.)

The missing Rose in the personas of  an opium eater, oriental beauty, a mistress, nun, socialite, femme fatale, vagabond, etc.

 Clips related to the feature-length film by Serge Bramly.  
The film is narrated by a third person that incites
 a sense of detachment.

The Angling of A Female Photographer

The extraordinary duality on its form of expressions combining photography and feature-length film, “Rose, c’est Paris” makes a unique exhibition.  The summation of the continual oeuvre over 10 years on the subject of the female gender by Bettina Rheims (1952 - ) garners true plaudits.

Although the project is a collaborative effort between Serge Bramly (1949 - ) and her, this is a review on Rheims as an artist-cum-photographer, a title that befits her expressive and painterly style of works.  Of her 10 year span on the subject involving femininity of young girls, Chinese women amidst cultural changes, portraits of celebrity women, fashionistas and monograph on the wife of a Russian millionaire, this work is arguably the magnum opus of her work so far (see list of her works at bottom).

The display walls are offset to create vistas that toy with
the idea of “now you see it, now you don’t”.

The subtle grey tones on the black and white images
set in taut with dashes of baby pink and velvet colours at
the exhibition venue of Hong Kong.

Voyeuristic drifts are hinted through the openings
on the walls.

The temporarily built enclosure screening the feature-length film of the same title.  Upon entering, it reminds Sundial of the seedy peep-shows in Amsterdam and London.

Analysing on the Project

‘Rose, c’est Paris’ offers more complex and enduring layering than most reviews had described of – a storyline of a girl named “B” in search of the missing twin sister “R or Rose”, in a Paris with quasi-Film Noir sub-plots shot in silver gelatin prints or cinematographic montages (depending whether you are talking about the photographs or the film).  Through the segmented narratives of 12 chapters, Rose has varnished under the plausible circumstances of abduction, tormented love, degradation, bride selling, masonic involvements etc – all of these unthinkable circumstances that were imbued with strong overtones of risqué, taboos and obsessions .  To grind down to essence and classify using socio-cultural parameters, there exists a cohesive triangular nexus of femininity, decency and space-time that crossbreeds and recreates an entity of its own kind.  We also quote from Rheims in her interviews as points of references (hightlighted in blue grey).

The twin sisters “B” and “R” have the same initials as Bramly and Rheims, incidentally an ex-husband and wife team; and Rheims has freely admitted that the project has autobiographical connotations.

The voyeur in Sundial finds more thrill by looking at these
behind-the-scene photographs.


1. Femininity

Rheims has stressed in many occasions that she, as a female photographer, understands her woman “sitters” better and they feel more comfortable with her.  Hence to view her photographs is like reading the subjects in their most natural expressions and postures, a key to the “in-depth” personal studies.  This is the most engaging aspect of experiencing her photographs; and through the manifolds of Rose’s personas, these images may perhaps shed better lights on the contemporary identities of the fairer sex.

"I am a Mrs., I am also Feministin. I make photos with women and for women. Never will I mean models to something to force, from which I did not want that one would do it with me. My view of women is voyeuristisch and not male. There are by the way above all women, who like my pictures. Probably, because on them the sexual is connected gladly and not with pain as usual often in the art."
Bettina Rheims (BR) interviewed on Berliner Zeitung on 27 November, 1999.

“Rose is a story that came to us (Rheims and Bramly) separately but the same one. It is somewhat of a Alice – not in Wonderland – but Lost in Paris. The main character, Rose, is searching for her missing twin sister and, in order to find her, she has to cross the different worlds and in order to pass through them, she has to become all sorts of different characters.” 
BR in two part interview in Artinfo on 13 and 15 October, 2010.

2. Decency

There is no absolute right or wrong, nor is there pure reality and imagination in what Rose might have experienced.  Rose as a fictional character, if you believe she ever exists according to her sister, passing through her journey in the streets of Paris is analogous to the rites of passage everyone might go through.  It is a sort of innocence lost the viewer witnesses during the course of inspecting the images.  The revelations are at times seductive and vile, while at other times virtuous and gruesome.  They are meant to challenge our very percepts and mindsets.

“Yes, it is (referring to the photographic images as ‘over the top’).  I try to walk on the thin line which would be the top of the mountain or something, and try not to trip over. I don’t think I trip over.  But I stand on the dangerous side.  Yes I do.  That is an artist, an artist is not here to be safe.  We are here to open doors and show things in a different way and shape people’s imaginations, fantasies.” 
BR on Radio Television Hong Kong interview on 27 May, 2011.

“He (Serge) said that people don’t read writings in photo books anyway and he decided to do a film, instead. His writing studio is just across the street from mine. We began to work by creating a list: list of our memories; why we loved Paris; our desires, our obsessions, our nightmares… And, it turned out that much of our list was pretty similar.” 
BR in Artinfo interview.

Marcel Duchamp and his alter ego of Rrose Selavy photographed by Man Ray.  Rheims confessed that the photo is the most important inspiration and has an enormous influence on this project.

3. Space-Time

The Paris at inter-war period is the reference point most people can identify with: the city as the capital of high culture.  It is the embodiment of the most sophisticated city in the world, the metropolis where Rose would encounter the most cultured, the most deviant but also the most sinister…  It is in this context of dramatic backdrops that all of us may find our alter egos of some kind among Rose’s circle of friends and foes.

“We figured that in every city’s life, there was a moment of glory. For Paris, it was definitely the time between the two World Wars.  Surrealism, artists living here, you could have ideas and do everything and nothing was too much.  Picasso doing costumes for theatre.  Marcel Duchamp playing chess.  Such a high concentration of talent, of genius.”  BR in Artinfo interview.

 “I always do bits and pieces of architecture but never show them. I like to do still lives but not in the Irving Penn tradition. I just don’t have the patience to spend six hours on a set of object, etc…  but I love architecture and I love to put people in places; I love watching the collaboration between people and architecture. So, for Rose c’est Paris”, we started using these hidden places where I did not know anyone. I would ring door bells of houses I had never been to, because, for example, I thought that I would have the best view of a particular site. I would give the people my name and website and have them to look at it and hope that they would let me in. Some did and some did not. I basically forced my way into people’s homes.” 
BR in Artinfo interview.

The familiar architecture of Paris with its larger-than-life inhabitants.

In Summary

The project as a series of multi-layered imagery is a riposte to hardcore feminist culture, a challenge to taboo conventionality, and a revelation on contemporary femininity.  It is a progression on the school of French photography following Henri Lartigue, Guy Boudin and Jeanloup Sieff to portrait haunting eroticas with the artistic languages of Dada, Surrealism and Fauvism.

On one hand, the photographs are powerful images penetrate the personal realm of the reader.  It can be equated with what Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida argues between the concept of stadium (what the photograph represents) and punctum (that which hits the spectator and ‘punctures’ like a wound).  On the other hand, with the enigmatic narratives of the photographs, the images are engaging enough for the reader, and yet restrianed adequately to leave room for open and reflexive dialogues with the readers.

Through the fermentation amid the complex interplay of femininity, decency and space-time, the reader may find his/her untold story from the images.  In this process, he/she  enters the safe zone of mental role-play among the many guises of Rose and may cross paths with her company of characters in the streets of Paris.

The end piece: ‘Our lady of the roses’ concludes the exhibition in the enigmatic language of Magritte.

The exhibition “Rose, c’est Paris” is on show at the City Hall of Hong Kong, 27 May – 21 June, 2011. 

Previously, the same exhibition was open from 8 April to 11 July, 2010 at Bibliothèque Nationale de France , Paris and will be moved to Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York by the end of 2011.

Major Works by Bettina Rheims:

1995 - Jacques Chirac, President of the French Republic : the official portrait photographs.

1998 - I.N.R.I. : retracing the life of Jesus in contemporary settings.  Published with Serge Bramly.

2000 - X’Mas : a series of photographs of young girls discovering their femininity.

2003 – Shanghai : portrayal on the images of women of different backgrounds in the city.  Also realized with Serge Bramly.

2004 - More Trouble : retracing ten years of her photography, mostly of famous women.

2007 - Heroines. Bettina Rheims' 2005 : photo series of 50 women sporting the newest Parisian haute couture designs.

2008 - The Book Of Olga : realized on behalf of the Russian millionaire Sergey Rodionov, which portrayed his wife Olga Rodionova.

2010 – Rose, c’est Paris : Fictional story of a twin sister in search of the other in Paris during the inter-war period.  Photographic exhibition, feature-length film and book realized with Serge Bramly.

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