Thursday, 19 July 2012

Delphine Balley: the reluctant artist

Lyon's Gadagne Museum is in fact two museums, one of which houses a collection of puppets from around the world. The other, a much larger one, traces the history of Lyon via documents, valuable artifacts, photographs, paintings and other objects.

I was given tour of the latter recently by Laurence Clouet, the museum's Communications and Press director, and whilst in one room I was surprised to see what I thought was a Matisse on a wall, or at least it looked like a Matisse from a fair distance away. But what would a Matisse be doing in a museum which is devoted to Lyon's history? I asked her if it was indeed a Matisse, and she answered "no, it's a photograph by Delphine Balley."

Mme Clouet had informed me earlier that French photographer Delphine Balley, whose work I hadn't seen before, had been offered space in several rooms in the museum to expose some of her photographs, a series called 'Théâtre de l'Esprit'. The photos are in a very large format - about 6 x 4 feet.

I moved up closer and this is what I found myself looking at (click to enlarge);

'La Couture du Milieu', courtesy of the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery, copyright Delphine Balley
It looked more like a finely detailed painting than a photograph, even from close up, and I wondered what this strange, cold, epurated and vaguely threatening mise en scène was supposed to represent. I was struck by how 'normal' the scene seemed to be, despite the improbable nature of its content.

We continued our tour, and after a few minutes we entered another room to contemplate this dreamlike and oppressive scenario, which, for some reason, instantly took me back to the time, long ago, when I experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. There is symbolism galore to be seen here, from the eggs with blood-red whites on the floor to the almost beach-like algai quality of what is strewn over the floor;

'Loirs', courtesy of the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery, copyright Delphine Balley
Those photos, and the others on this page, are all to be seen in the Gadagne museum during summer. More about this later.

So fascinated was I by what I saw of Balley's work that day that I decided to contact her to ask if we could meet in order to discuss it and find out what had inspired her pictures, and so it was that I found myself a couple of weeks later on the sunny terrace of the café at which we had arranged to meet. It's always difficult to picture what people one doesn't know may look like in real life, and pre-conceived ideas are almost always wrong, but I mused nevertheless that I was most likely about to meet a singularly one-off character.

Balley arrived, very casually dressed in an old green T-shirt and blue jeans, accompanied by her young baby, who was strapped to her chest. Baby went on to gurgle and smile away delightfully for the duration of our discussion, except, that is, when it was time for mother's milk.

"I was pleased that my photo reminded you of Matisse" she says, when I thank her for meeting me. "He's one of my favourite artists, along with Goya and Velàzquez. I also like literature and Kubrick." We discuss their work, and it transpires that she is particularly interested in the aspects of composition, grids, lighting and character studies, but when I ask her to to relate what it was about those particular artists which had affected her own work, her voice takes on a slightly nervous and hesitant edge. "People like Dali were and are able to discuss their work and its meaning and influences freely. In fact they even play around with them whilst being interviewed because they're so much at ease with it all. But I find it difficult to discuss my work or have a ready-made explanation at my fingertips."

'Sel', courtesy of the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery, copyright Delphine Balley

Oh dear. Here I am talking to a photographic artist about her work, only to hear that she finds it difficult to do so. Not a promising start. So I try another tack and ask her how and why she became a photographer in the first place, and she instantly becomes much more at ease. Me too of course.

Balley candidly relates that she was bored with her life at 12 years of age, and that she would often spend time alone, daydreaming and looking at the work of famous portrait painters. "From whence the literature, Goya and Velàzquez?" I venture. "Exactly. Then, to keep myself busy, I decided to do a 3-year photography course, without any clear idea of where it would lead me. As it turned out it led nowhere at the time because I dropped photography for the two years which followed it. Then I began to get back into it little by little, and things slowly fell into place from there."

'What things?' I think to myself, but I don't ask the question and we discuss her darkroom techniques, which are thorough, albeit of a classical nature. She says she likes to keep things simple. "In fact I still think I can't take photos. Not easily, anyhow." She laughs. That prompts me to ask her if she considers herself to be a photographer, an artist, or both? "A photographer" she says, without a second's hestitation "Photography is a job."

A job?! So I wonder just what it is that gives her photos their unreal feel, and mention that they remind me of my LSD days. "Have you ever used hallucinogenic drugs?" It turns out that she hasn't, but she adds quickly that "I know what you mean though. It must be a very powerful experience. Reality changes its form every day and so does our perception of it. I like to alter my sense of reality, whatever it may be at the time, in my work, and to shift it slightly. To create a kind of unreal reality. I'm also fascinated by the idea of sensory deprivation and being isolated because they too change perceptions. But I don't like to lose control of it all, that's for sure."

As to the places in which she takes her photographs, she finds abandoned or neglected buildings and spends a lot time in them creating the decor before, once it suits her, beginning to create her unique moods by the complex juxtaposition of natural, artificial, and photographic light. Contrast also plays a role.

'Souliers', courtesy of the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery, copyright Delphine Balley

She explains that the Gadagne 'Théâtre de l'Esprit' exhibition is the fruit of a collaboration between the French penal lawyer Me Frédéric Doyez and herself. She used a combination of a journalistic approach, narrative, the lives of ordinary people and situations to create a series of images which Me Doyez analyses by using his experience in criminal cases to try to explain the crime or other event which may have taken place in the room and which results in what we see. His contribution takes the form of a sound commentary.

The result could be somewhat disturbing to some people, which is why children under 12 are not admitted to the rooms in which the photographs are displayed. Where does the edginess in her work come from? Does it have something to do with her ideas on the changing nature of reality?

For someone who doesn't like talking about her work, Balley suddenly opens up and explains that this collection was preceded by another, called 'L'Album de Famille' (photographs here), which depicts her family and herself in a delirious frenzy of shifting yet apparently ordinary scenes in a surreal atmosphere. Somewhere between fiction and reality.

It was inspired by her mother's opinion that it was more than time that she married, she says, because her mother wanted to see her, if only once in her life, in a beautiful white dress. There is also mention of the fact that her mother does not like to get up to go to the fridge to find a slice of lemon when she is eating fish, even though she likes lemon juice on fish. Balley looks at me as if she thinks I haven't understood what she means, and she's right.

"Everything I photograph makes me scared" she whispers. 'What I do is, I find scary and oppressive places, introduce objects into them, and paint on the wall maybe. The idea is to recreate the secret, the hidden and undergound, lives of real people. The ones we never see."

'Faire la Jeune Fille', courtesy of the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery, copyright Delphine Balley
Now well-known in France, her work has also been exhibited across Europe. I find it tempting to ask her what she has in mind for her next project, and her answer makes it clear that she knows very well where she's going next.

She plans to plunge into the world of film, and to "finish off" the 'Album de Famille' project by making a short film in which will figure not only all those present in the 'Album de Famille' collection, but also those unknown people, hithertoo unseen, who are implicated in the 'Théâtre de l'Esprit'' exhibition.

"Oh", she tacks on, almost off-handedly "and I shall also be present in it, as the bride, assassinated on the very day of her marriage. Maybe I'll burn a pair of rubber boots too. For the fire and the ashes. And the transformation of matter and reality....."

And shortly thereafter it's time for her to leave, and I am left watching this enigmatic photographer walk off down the street, with baby still gurgling away happily. The artist who isn't one, the reluctant artist who is afraid of her work, the photographer who can't take photographs. Delphine Balley. No airs, and no graces. A refreshingly and singularly ordinary woman. Or so it would appear....
'Huitres', courtesy of the Suzanne Tarasieve Gallery, copyright Delphine Balley
(You can visit Delphine Balley's website here.

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