SABINE MIRLESSE 

LITHOPHANES



Jean-Pierre Criqui




“It’s very simple, albeit impossible to understand.”
Auguste Blanqui, Eternity by the Stars





The interior of the Earth is a vast darkroom. To venture inside invariably sparks the premonition of a revelation as well as a longing for the image, both integral motifs to photography, and that Sabine Mirlesse’s book intertwines in a thousand ways. In this journey, which feigns to drive us towards the light only to return us, back again, into the night, remains something of the previous yet very different book As if it should have been a quarry. The quarry the title alludes to (in words borrowed from a Robert Frost poem), certainly speaks to a firm penchant for a type of geological, mineralogical reverie which at that time found its form in Icelandic volcanoes and their ruins; but also to the choice to not only be a photographer, expressed through the parallel production of graphite drawings and imprints of volcanic ash. In the present case, Dante’s subterranean is punctuated here and there by Pasolini’s fireflies (geographical references as much as cultural ones), and the reverie follows course, albeit more abstractly. In certain instances, the images’ referent eludes unequivocal identification. It seems “de-situated” or “un-situated” and leaves us uncertain about what we’re looking at, which may well be an attempt at rendering the feeling of disorientation sustained by whoever voyages to those depths.

A “lithophane” is the term used for an image created through a process where it is first inscribed onto a glass plate coated in wax and then etched or moulded on to very thin porcelain. Lit from behind, the image fully appears. This technique, which has secular antecedents in China, was refined in Europe around 1820 shortly before the invention of photography which also fused the use of light to the logic of the index. Moderately metaphoric in inflection, I use the term here to describe the Pietra di Luce project, which exposes matter destined for darkness or seclusion. The embossing in this book, in its serpentine interlacements, further associates other imaging methods with the photographic act. The whole thus plays ceaselessly with the potential reversibility of the positive and the negative, of top and bottom, of earth and sky. The dust the artist carries in her steps is tantamount to the milky way.

Stone of Light : this expression boldly joining two opposing forces serves as more than a title for this book. It defines it. By taking us from black to white finally returning to our point of departure, Sabine Mirlesse inverses the path she took to carry out her endeavour. However, she also replicates the route of the hermeneut, just as the simple observer, who stands before an image – from initial obscurity to a moment of progressive and partial elucidation, to which the inevitable conclusion could only be a return to the fundamental opacity of the object offered to their view. Her book allows us to enter the camera obscura of the mountain in order to discover the stellar light of stones, yet holds fast to an enigmatic spirit.





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LITHOPHANIES



Jean-Pierre Criqui




« C’est fort simple, bien qu’incompréhensible. »

Auguste Blanqui, L’Éternité par les astres





L’intérieur de la Terre est une vaste chambre noire. S’y risquer suscite immanquablement le pressentiment d’une révélation, en même temps qu’un désir d’image, deux motifs que l’on retrouve au principe de la photographie et que le livre de Sabine Mirlesse entrecroise de mille manières. Au fil de ce voyage qui feint de nous conduire vers la lumière pour nous ramener au bout du compte de nouveau dans la nuit, quelque chose persiste d’un livre antérieur, pourtant très différent, As if it should have been a quarry (mots repris à un poème de Robert Frost) : la carrière auquel ce titre fait allusion, bien sûr, qui témoigne d’un penchant ancien pour une forme de rêverie géologique, minéralogique, laquelle s’exerçait alors à partir de volcans islandais et leurs ruines ; mais aussi la volonté de n’être pas seulement photographe, en produisant en parallèle des dessins et des empreintes de cendre volcanique. Dans le cas présent, où les lucioles de Pasolini viennent ponctuer çà et là l’Enfer de Dante (contexte géographique autant que culturel), la rêverie suit un cours plus détaché des apparences. En bien des occasions, le référent de ces images échappe à toute identification certaine. Il semble « désitué », ou « insitué », et nous laisse dans l’incertitude quant à ce que nous regardons, ce qui n’est peut-être qu’une tentative pour rendre la désorientation subie par quiconque s’aventure en sous-sol.

On appelle « lithophanie » une image créée selon un procédé par lequel à l’origine celle-ci, tout d’abord incisée sur une plaque de verre enduite de cire, était ensuite gravée ou moulée en porcelaine très fine, puis devait être rétro-éclairée afin d’apparaître parfaitement. Cette technique, qui a des antécédents séculaires en Chine, fut mise au point en Europe autour de 1820, peu avant l’invention de la photographie qui combina elle aussi l’usage de la lumière à la logique de l’index. Moyennant une inflexion métaphorique, j’emploie ici ce terme pour qualifier le projet de Pietra di Luce, qui consiste à faire accéder à la visibilité une matière vouée aux ténèbres ou au retrait. L’embossage qui donne corps dans ce livre à un entrelacs serpentin poursuit par ailleurs l’idée d’associer d’autres méthodes imageantes à l’opération photographique. L’ensemble joue ainsi d’une incessante réversibilité potentielle du positif et du négatif, du haut et du bas, de la terre et du ciel. La poussière que l’artiste emporte sous ses pas équivaut à la voie lactée.

Pierre de lumière : cette expression, où s’affrontent deux forces contraires, ne sert pas seulement de titre à ce livre. Elle le désigne. En nous faisant passer du noir au blanc pour revenir finalement à notre point de départ, Sabine Mirlesse inverse le trajet qui fut le sien en vue de mener à bien son entreprise. Elle reproduit en revanche le parcours de l’herméneute comme du simple observateur face à une image — de l’obscurité initiale jusqu’à un moment d’élucidation progressive et partielle dont le terme ne saurait être qu’un retour à l’opacité fondamentale de l’objet offert à notre vue. Son livre nous laisse entrer dans la camera obscura de la montagne afin d’y découvrir la lumière stellaire des pierres, mais il conserve à jamais le caractère d’une énigme.




           

                 
ED ENTRAMMO A VEDER LE STELLE
by Federica Soletta




Lettor, tu vedi ben com’ io innalzo
la mia matera, e però con più arte
non ti maravigliar s’io la rincalzo



Reader, you can see clearly how I lift
my matter; do not wonder, therefore, if
I have to call on more art to sustain it.



Purgatorio, IX, 70-72



In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears, at this bright comet which, having traveled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through immeasurable space, seemed suddenly- like an arrow piercing the earth- to remain fixed in a chosen spot (…).
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace




Reader, have you ever taken the stars for granted?
In a letter to his fiancée, dated February 13, 1832, the famous geologist Charles Lyell refers to a friend “who was bothered with people wondering at the comet in 1811 and talking of nothing else.” Citing his friend, Lyell asks: “Why have these people thought of the heavens for the first time? Have they always taken the stars for granted?” From his point of view as a man of science, stars cannot be taken for granted, as they are a matter of science, a matter of “deep mathematics.” But for most of us, they are a matter of metaphors and blessing, of hope and desire. Stars have always occupied a special place in the world of heavens and in that of wishes, in the world of Gods and in that of lovers. They belong to the imagery of the ethereal and weightless sky, but, as we all know, lightness is not their property. Objects of immense mass, they belong to the lexicon of physics rather than dreams, to the language of astronomy rather than clouds.

Sabine Mirlesse’s pietre, or as I like to think of them, stelle, reflect this millenary ambiguity: they insist on multiple geographies, textures, and materialities, using visual vocabularies and poetic grammars.  Themselves appearing like stars, her images are made of both mass and dreams. While they inform us about their materia, their weight, shape, and chemistry, they can also be transparent, ethereal and invisible, vulnerable and undecipherable. A multifaceted portrait through stones, Mirlesse’s project comes to us with several dimensions, strata, and depths, giving to what may seem just a photographic journey in the quarries of the Apuan Alps an ambitious meaning: the marble, its stars, its traces, their colors, their thickness, their scars, their history are solely one side of the mirror, one side of the mountain. Beyond their materiality, they tell us, like a kind of family album, our own history. They offer us a vivisection of our mountains, our scars, our desires, our stars.

Pietra di Luce is the title of Mirlesse's project. Just like its visual characteristics, its grammar also carries multiple meanings. The word “di,” which allows the closeness of Pietra and Luce, creating their relationship, is a preposition that has the power of changing the meaning of a sentence. It is mostly used as a genitive or possessive case (The Stone belongs to the Light), but it also indicates the provenience of an object (The Stone comes from the Light), or a complement of materiality (The Stone is made of Light). In this latter case, we might even interpret it as an oxymoron, for the materiality of the pietra is not – cannot be – that of the luce. Or, with some imagination, we might think of it as a linguistic interaction between science and poetry, between the material and ephemeral worlds.

If Mirlesse were inspired by Dante’s stelle and his incredible journey through the cone of the Inferno, the mountain of Purgatorio, and the ascent to Paradise, we could imagine that the stelle would be especially present in her journey, and indeed they are. As in the Divina Commedia, the stars are the aim: the fact that each cantica ends with the word stelle, the critic Attilio Momigliano suggests, is not just a matter of “pure symmetry, but the expression of the ideal reason which runs through the entire poem, which constantly lifts it toward the final purpose.” In mineralogical terms, lucciche, or Luz’ke in Carrarian dialect, are a type of rock found in marble with a special petrographic characteristic that makes them sparkle, “luccicare.” These markings were considered an impurity in the marble, an unfortunate event for its seller.  But it is perhaps this imperfection, this contamination that is the real subject of Mirlesse’s project.

Viewer, here is your journey.

See it. You should enter the images through the eyes of a bird. If you encounter them from above, you may think of them as covered by snow, a softness that melts in one’s hands. You may traverse them as maps of uncharted lands. Dark coastlines, white deserted landscapes, obscure roads, as drawings sketched by the hand of an invisible God. You might feel them as the result of  a telescopic zoom — an impossible view— on a newly observed comet. A comet is a celestial body, a rock, which has a luminous trail, from the Greek komētēs, literally “long-haired.” Quick and rare, just a trail of light, in ancient times it was perceived as an obscure omen of terrible deeds. Under its trail, gigantic panoramas, views of lunar landscapes, or microscopic analysis, become magnified so that it is impossible to understand any quality of the object, its shape, its consistency, or its substance..




Mirlesse’s journey does not tell us only about the whiteness and surprising smoothness of the marble, which remind us of Michelangelo and Canova. It does not present us with just a ragged landscape or the archaeology of a cave; although these geographies offer a special lens for reading this kind of map. It is not, I sense, simply about the geological nature, structure, and material of the mountain, although such a reading allows us to think stratigraphically, to scratch the surface of things. And it does not just show us the photographs, although it is their serial nature that teaches us how we might archive ourselves. Indeed, imagine this journey as a solitary one, a journey that is about nothing less nor nothing more than your own archaeology, your own archives. It is here that the resonance of Dante’s immense project comes to light. The journey Mirlesse invites us to make is projected, like Dante’s own wildly errant, itinerant book, toward our own interior, toward the intimacy of our desires. Ultimately, desires are made of stars: to desire indeed comes from the Latin de and sidere; which carries the powerful meaning of looking eagerly at the stars, the things that move us and attract us toward them, the beloved things. In accordance with this journey through ambiguities, the particle de may be interpreted in two different ways: a de-sire could be the joyful act of hoping something (from the stars) or the painful act of moving your look away from your loved ones. And our desire, made of the same matter as the stars, lies beyond the folds of our flesh, within the pages of our books, within the hearth of our mountains.

Enter in the mountain, our own darkroom. Then, hear it: an explosion. The explosion is the theme of the universe par excellence, of the formation of stars, of the invention of stars. It is the beginning of a different landscape, another set of lives. Mirlesse’s explosions rhythmically offer us the literature of discovery and exploration, which is also the literature of photography, geology, and archaeology; a literature of contrasts, of light and darkness. No discovery comes without the destruction of something else, and if there is light on one side, the other side is left obscure. Mirlesse’s stellar explosions perform like the lava of a volcano, a theme dear to her: even as they destroy, they preserve intact bodies and objects, crystallizing and hiding them. These explosions create two worlds, the exterior and the interior, and the threshold between the two may take the shape, literally and metaphorically, of a ladder. The ladder gives you a metric, the possibility of measuring your thoughts and comparing them with the size of the world. But it also gives access, the possibility of descending (and ascending) the depths of one's quarry. It is an instrument of geology as well as poetry. On the frontispiece of “Old Stones,” the geologist William S. Symonds depicts a ladder leaning on a precipice of a mountain, with each step representing a specific geologic era. At one end, there is the foundation of lava and plutonic rocks, on which the ladder stands; at the other end, a faraway land made of trees and rocks, the “recent surface” according to the author of the drawing. Dante traversed his own ladder at the entrance of the Purgatorio, each step made with a different stone: the first step a polished and clear marble, a kind of mirror that permits us to look inside ourselves; the second step a dark and cracked stone, signaling a fatigued and repentant soul; the last step a red-as-blood porphyry, symbolizing the effort and strain necessary to redeem oneself. The intention of Mirlesse’s recognizable image with a ladder, appears to be both scientific and personal - a metonymy for her and our journey -- showing us the dimension of our own landscapes, the immensity of the mountain, and the hope for a door, a passage, a threshold. This image, one of a few in which her lens zooms out, allows us to read the geographical scale and to perceive—but not to see, not even once—a human presence.

Inside, experience it. We could – I did — imagine the mountain as a section, one of the beautiful diagrams of the Alps sketched by John Ruskin. We could – and I did — invent an internal outline of this very mountain, a kind of geological graph of an emotion. Here, you will find an enormous space, a sacred hole. Passing through the tunnel of Fantiscritti, the emptiness created by the labor of the cavatori (the quarry workers), the hole formed by centuries of their labor, is called La Cattedrale. As an architectural space, a cattedrale is a place devoted to the cult of God, but here that sense of the sacred is not given by religion: La Cattedrale is sacred because of its terrestrial impossibility, its belonging to a celestial world, its power to displace you. For those of us who have not travelled inside the magnificence of the quarry except through Mirlesse’s images, however, the center of her project, her own Cattedrale, appears to be a star whose whiteness is almost blinding. You should look at it with the precise eye of a microscope. Try to imagine, to invent the history of every particle, every little star, understanding its time and space. Traveler, have you ever looked at the stars so closely?  Mirlesse’s star, like every star, is synonymous with memory and history, for the light we see now belongs to a time we have not possessed (and can never possess). The temporal and spatial displacement is materialized in the fragmented, scattered, and multiplied series of images, a constellation of lights, explosions, and pietre that seem to have their own identities. But the power of this project is to simultaneously point in the opposite direction: Mirlesse seems to whisper that the lucciche, minuscule particles different from one another, can only exist in relation to one another, in relation to their geological, geographical, and human landscape, in relation to their history, which is the history of their marble, their mountain, and their inhabitants.

In 1811, if you happened to live in the Northern hemisphere, you would have seen the comet for 260 days in a row. For this exceptional reason, the comet became an event, a subject of scientific and spiritual debates and lectures, remembered in several books and numerous poems. In 1811, each night, for more than two hundred days, most of the dreamers, as Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, while gazing at the sky, witnessed a fusion of rock and gas and, utterly unscientifically, imagined seeing, through  “eyes moist with tears,” a star, a shelter for their own desires. Through Mirlesse's pietre, I like to think, we can imagine doing the same.


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ED ENTRAMMO A VEDER LE STELLE
par Federica Soletta




Lettor, tu vedi ben com’ io innalzo
la mia matera, e però con più arte
non ti maravigliar s’io la rincalzo



Lecteur, mon sujet, comme tu le vois, s’élève et si d’un art plus raffiné
je le pare, ne t’en étonne pas



Purgatorio, IX, 70-72



Cette claire étoile à la longue chevelure lumineuse n'éveillait chez Pierre aucune sensation de peur. Au contraire, il regardait avec joie de ses yeux humides de larmes cet astre éclatant qui, après avoir parcouru d'incommensurables espaces à une vitesse infinie suivant une ligne parabolique, semblait s'être soudain, comme une flèche qui s'enfonce dans la terre, planté à la place qu'il avait choisie (…).
Léon Tolstoï, Guerre et Paix








Lecteur, as-tu déjà tenu les étoiles pour acquises ?

Dans une lettre à sa fiancée, datée du 13 février 1832, le célèbre géologue Charles Lyell fait allusion à un ami « las de voir des gens s’interroger sur la comète en 1811 et ne plus parler de rien d'autre » . Le citant, Lyell demande : « Pourquoi ces gens semblent-ils penser aux cieux pour la première fois ? Ont-ils toujours tenu les étoiles pour acquises ? » De son point de vue d'homme de science, les étoiles ne peuvent être tenues pour acquises, car il s'agit d’un sujet scientifique, un sujet de mathématiques profondes ». Pour la plupart d'entre nous, il est davantage question de métaphores et de bénédiction, d'espoir et de désir. Les étoiles ont toujours occupé une place particulière dans le monde des cieux et dea souhaits, dans le monde des dieux et celui des amoureux. Elles rejoignent l'imagerie du ciel éthéré et en apesanteur bien que, nous le savons tous, la légèreté ne soit pas une de leurs propriétés. Objets d'une masse immense, elles appartiennent au champ lexical de la physique plutôt qu’à celui des rêves, au langage de l’astronomie, et cela bien davantage que les nuages.  


Les pietre de Sabine Mirlesse ou, comme j'aime à le penser, les stelle, reflètent cette ambiguïté millénaire : elles témoignent de la multiplicité des géographies, des textures, des matières, usant de vocabulaires visuels et de grammaires poétiques.  Apparaissant elles-mêmes comme des étoiles, ses images sont faites de masse et de rêves. Tout en nous parlant de leur materia, de leur poids, de leur forme et de leur composition, elles peuvent aussi devenir transparentes, éthérées et invisibles, vulnérables et indéchiffrables. Comme un portrait dont les multiples facettes seraient faites de pierres, le projet de Sabine Mirlesse révèle plusieurs dimensions, strates et profondeurs. Il confère un sens profond à ce qui peut d’abord sembler un simple voyage photographique dans les carrières des Alpes apuanes : le marbre, ses étoiles, ses marques, ses couleurs, son épaisseur, ses cicatrices, leur histoire ne sont qu’un côté du miroir, une face de la montagne. Au-delà de leur matérialité, comme une sorte d'album de famille, c’est notre propre histoire qu’ils nous racontent. Ils offrent une coupe au travers de nos montagnes, nos cicatrices, nos désirs, nos étoiles.

Pietra di Luce est le titre du projet. Tout comme ses caractéristiques visuelles, ce titre comporte des significations multiples. Le mot « di », qui permet la proximité de Pietra et de Luce, créant leur relation, est une préposition qui a le pouvoir de changer le sens d'une phrase. Elle est surtout utilisée comme un génitif ou un possessif (La pierre appartient à la lumière), mais elle indique aussi la provenance d'un objet (La pierre vient de la lumière), ou un complément de matérialité (La pierre est faite de lumière). Dans ce dernier cas, on pourrait même lire ce titre comme un oxymore, car la matérialité de la pietra n'est pas — ne peut pas être — celle de la luce. Avec un peu d'imagination, on pourrait toutefois penser à une interaction linguistique entre la science et la poésie, entre le monde matériel et le monde éphémère.

Si Sabine Mirlesse s'est inspirée des stelle de Dante et de son incroyable voyage à travers le cône de l'Enfer, la montagne du Purgatorio et l'ascension vers le Paradis, on pourrait imaginer les stelle particulièrement présentes dans son voyage, et elles le sont en effet. Comme dans la Divina Commedia, les étoiles sont le but du voyage : si chacun des canticas se termine par le mot stelle, comme le suggère le critique Attilio Momigliano, ce n'est pas seulement une question de « pure symétrie, mais l'expression de la raison idéale qui parcourt tout le poème, et qui l'élève constamment vers son intention finale ». En termes minéralogiques, le lucciche, ou Luz'ke dans le dialecte de Carrare, est un type de roche que l'on trouve dans le marbre et qui comporte une caractéristique pétrographique particulière qui le fait briller, « luccicare ». Ces traces étaient considérés comme des impuretés dans le marbre, un hasard malheureux pour le vendeur.  Mais c'est peut-être cette imperfection, cette contamination, qui est le véritable sujet du projet de Sabine Mirlesse.




Spectateur, votre voyage commence ici.




Regardez. Vous devriez parcourir ces images avec les yeux d'un oiseau. Si vous les observez d'en haut, vous pouvez penser qu'elles sont couvertes de neige, une douceur qui fond dans vos mains. Vous pouvez les traverser comme les cartes de terres inexplorées. Des côtes sombres, des paysages blancs désertés, des routes obscures, comme les dessins dessinés par la main d'un Dieu invisible. Vous pourriez penser qu’elles ont été faites au zoom télescopique — offrant une vue impossible sur une comète nouvellement observée. Une comète est un corps céleste, un rocher au sillage lumineux. Le mot vient du grec komētēs, littéralement « cheveux longs ». Rapide et rare — une simple traînée de lumière —  elle était perçue dans l'Antiquité comme un terrible présage. Sous son sillage, vous rencontrerez des panoramas gigantesques ressemblant à des paysages lunaires, ou des analyses microscopiques magnifiant l'objet à un point tel qu'il est impossible d'en déchiffrer la forme, la consistance ou la substance.




Le voyage de Sabine Mirlesse ne témoigne pas seulement de la blancheur et de la douceur surprenante du marbre, qui rappelle Michel-Ange et Canova. Il ne cherche pas non plus à rendre compte d’un paysage déchiqueté ou de l'archéologie d'une grotte, bien qu'une telle géographie offre un objectif spécial pour la lecture de ce genre de carte. Ce n’est pas non plus une étude de la nature géologique, de la structure et du matériau de la montagne, bien qu'une telle lecture nous permette de penser stratigraphiquement, de gratter la surface des choses. Elle ne se contente pas de nous montrer les photographies, même si leur nature sérielle nous apprend à nous archiver nous-mêmes. Imaginez plutôt ce voyage comme un voyage solitaire, un voyage qui ne concerne rien de moins ni de plus que votre propre archéologie, vos propres archives. C'est là qu'apparaît la résonance avec l'immense projet de Dante. Le voyage que Sabine Mirlesse nous invite à faire est, comme le livre errant et itinérant de Dante, projeté vers notre intérieur, vers l'intimité de nos désirs. En fin de compte, les désirs sont faits d'étoiles : le désir n’est-il pas en effet l'union du de et du sire? Le mot vient du latin de et sidere; il porte le sens puissant d’un regard ardent en direction des étoiles, des choses qui nous touchent et nous attirent, des choses aimées. En accord avec ce voyage au travers des ambiguïtés, la particule de peut être interprétée de deux manières : un dé-sir peut être l'acte joyeux d'espérer quelque chose (des étoiles) ou l'acte douloureux de détourner le regard des êtres chers. Notre désir, fait de la même matière que les étoiles, repose au-delà des plis de notre chair, dans les pages de nos livres, au cœur de nos montagnes.

Entrez dans la montagne, notre propre chambre noire. Puis, écoutez : une explosion. L'explosion est le thème de l'univers par excellence, de la formation des étoiles, de l'invention des étoiles. Il marque l’origine d'un paysage différent, d'un nouvel ensemble de vies. Les explosions de Sabine Mirlesse renvoient à la rythmique propre à la littérature de la découverte et de l'exploration, qui est aussi la littérature de la photographie, de la géologie et de l'archéologie ; une littérature de contrastes, de lumière et d'ombres. Toute découverte s’accompagne de la destruction de quelque chose, et s'il y a de la lumière d'un côté, l'autre côté reste obscur. Les explosions stellaires de Sabine Mirlesse agissent comme la lave d'un volcan — un thème qui lui est cher : même si elles détruisent, elles préservent des corps et des objets, les cachent et les cristallisent. Ces explosions créent deux mondes, un extérieur et un intérieur, et le seuil entre les deux peut prendre la forme, littéralement et métaphoriquement, d'une échelle. L'échelle donne une métrique, la possibilité de mesurer vos pensées et de les comparer avec la taille du monde. Mais elle offre aussi un accès, la possibilité de descendre (et de remonter) des profondeurs de la carrière de chacun. Elle est un instrument de géologie, mais aussi de poésie. Sur le frontispice d’Old Stones, le géologue William S. Symonds a représenté une échelle appuyée sur le versant d'une montagne, dont chaque marche représente une époque géologique spécifique. À une extrémité, il y a la formation de la lave et des roches plutoniques, c’est là que repose l'échelle ; à l'autre extrémité, c’est une terre lointaine faite d'arbres et de roches, la « surface récente » selon l'auteur du dessin. De même, Dante dispose sa propre échelle à l'entrée du Purgatorio, chaque niveau est fait d'une pierre différente : la première marche est d’un marbre poli et clair, une sorte de miroir qui nous permet de regarder en nous ; la seconde marche est une pierre sombre et fissurée, témoin d’une âme fatiguée et repentie ; la dernière est un porphyre rouge sang, symbole des efforts et des tensions nécessaires pour se sauver soi-même. L'intention de l'image sur laquelle on reconnaît une échelle semble à la fois scientifique et personnelle — une métonymie de son voyage et du nôtre —, nous montrant l’échelle de nos propres paysages, l'immensité de la montagne, et l'espoir d'une porte, d'un passage, d'un seuil. Cette image, l'une des rares où son objectif zoome en arrière, nous permet de lire l'échelle géographique et de percevoir — mais pas de voir, pas même une seule fois — la présence humaine.

À l'intérieur, faites-en l'expérience. Nous pourrions — je l'ai fait — imaginer la montagne comme une section, tel l'un des magnifiques diagrammes des Alpes dessinés par John Ruskin. Nous pourrions — et je l'ai fait — inventer le contour interne de cette montagne, comme le dessin géologique d'une émotion. Là, vous trouverez un énorme espace, un trou sacré. En passant par le tunnel de Fantiscritti, le vide créé par le travail des cavatori (les ouvriers des carrières), le trou formé par des siècles de leur travail, est appelé la Cattedrale. En tant qu'espace architectural, une cattedrale est un lieu dédié au culte de Dieu, mais ici ce sens du sacré n'est pas donné par la religion : la cattedrale est sacrée en raison de son impossibilité terrestre, de son appartenance à un monde céleste, de sa capacité à nous enlever. Pour ceux d'entre nous qui n'ont pas cheminé dans le paysage splendide de la carrière, sauf à travers cette série d’images, le centre du projet, sa propre cattedrale, semble être une étoile dont la blancheur est presque aveuglante. Vous devriez la regarder avec l'œil précis d'un microscope. Essayez d'imaginer, d'inventer l'histoire de chaque particule, de chaque petite étoile, de comprendre son temps et son espace. Voyageur, avez-vous déjà regardé les étoiles d’aussi près ? L'étoile de Sabine Mirlesse, comme toute étoile, est synonyme de mémoire et d'histoire, car la lumière que nous voyons maintenant appartient à un temps que nous n'avons pas éprouvé (et ne pourrons jamais éprouver). Le déplacement temporel et spatial se matérialise dans ces séries d'images fragmentées, dispersées et multipliées, constellations de lumières, d'explosions et de pierres qui semblent avoir leur identité propre. Mais le pouvoir de ce projet est de pointer simultanément dans la direction opposée : Sabine Mirlesse semble chuchoter que les lucciche, ces particules toutes différentes les unes des autres, ne peuvent exister qu'en relation entre elles, en relation avec leur paysage géologique, géographique et humain, avec leur histoire, qui est l'histoire de ce marbre, de cette montagne et de ses habitants.  


Si vous aviez vécu en 1811 dans l'hémisphère Nord, vous auriez pu voir la comète pendant 260 jours de suite. Dans ces conditions exceptionnelles, la comète est devenue un événement, un sujet de débats et de conférences scientifiques et spirituelles, et elle est mentionnée dans plusieurs livres et de nombreux poèmes. En 1811, chaque nuit, pendant plus de deux cents jours, la plupart des rêveurs — comme Pierre dans Guerre et Paix — ont assisté à cette fusion de roche et de gaz et, même en l’absence de point de vue scientifique, ils ont imaginé voir, avec « des yeux humides de larmes », une étoile, un abri pour leurs propres désirs. À travers les pietre de Sabine Mirlesse, il me plaît de penser que l’on peut faire de même.












Introduction for Oblations "Nuit Blanche" exhibition, 7/8 October 2017 Paris
Written by Marina Seretti

« Œil vivant », la caméra de Sabine Mirlesse recueille le tremblement des formes, au bord du désastre : nues déchirées par le vent, vert des pâtis gorgés de pluie, mains tachetées d’âge et de lumière, étoilement du marbre en son point de brisure… D’une vidéo à l’autre, le regard se fait arpenteur du son, guérisseur par la lumière, et fossoyeur d’étoile. Une esthétique de la faille et du fragment, qu’accompagnent dessins, gestes, marches – coups de pioche et ciselures du marbre. Des Bucoliques de Virgile à l’Enfer de Dante, un rituel s’instaure qui relie un à un les éléments du monde – nuages, troupeaux, ombres et reflets – au rythme de l’œil, au mouvement de la main. Sans cesse, quelque chose commence et s’achève ici, dans le battement du ciel et de la terre.


Out of Eden, by Marc Feustel for The British Journal of Photography

With her latest series Song of Fruit and Contention, which focuses on modern-day Armenia, the Franco-American photographer Sabine Mirlesse looks beyond the genocide to explore the foundational role of myth in the Armenian people’s powerful sense of collective identity.

Before she first visited Armenia, Sabine Mirlesse had no connections in the country and knew little about it beyond a few stories she had heard from friends. When I asked her what drew her there in the first place, she explained, “I think everyone has a list of places they want to go to for some reason. Sometimes it can be because you heard a song or read a novel, or because someone told you a story about that place. Armenia has always been on that list for me.”

Shortly after completing an artist residency in Iceland, a “very positive experience” that led to her first book, As if it should have been a quarry (Damiani, 2013), Mirlesse decided to look into residencies in Armenia. After having been accepted to what appeared to be the only Armenian artist residency, she made her first trip to the country for a period of six weeks in late 2012.

Beyond her instinctive attraction to the region, Mirlesse was intrigued to discover that Armenia is said to be the hypothesized location of the Garden of Eden. Having completed an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and English Literature at McGill University in Montreal, she was fascinated by this idea. “This story raised so many questions. Do the Armenians really believe it? And what if it’s true? Who am I to say that it isn’t?” While she didn’t yet know that it would later become the spine of her project, Mirlesse was curious to see just how that myth would manifest itself on the ground.

Arriving at the airport in the capital, Yerevan, Mirlesse remembers being immediately struck by the overwhelming presence of Mount Ararat, the mountain that overlooks Yerevan. “When you get there, the first thing you see is Ararat. The mountain is even on the passport stamp: that mythology is present from the moment you get off the plane.”

Although it is located in neighbouring Turkey, the Armenians see Mount Ararat as their own, a powerful symbol of their national identity. The potency of the symbol stems from the fact that Ararat is said to be the place where Noah’s Ark landed after the flood. In fact, in the Armenian language, the country not is not referred to as Armenia but as Hayastan or land of Hayk — Noah’s great-great-grandson, according to legend.

Over the course of the next six weeks Mirlesse travelled across the country, visiting sites of national importance, from UNESCO World Heritage sites to those that were in some way related to biblical times. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” she says. “I was curious about these biblical references, but I wasn’t sure how present they would be.”

Mirlesse compares her photographic approach during this time to that of a “travel diary.” Rather than a studied documentation of the locations she visited, her images are more like a collection of fragments of her experiences, moments gathered along the way that appeared significant to her.

Having returned to New York at the end of the residency, Mirlesse felt concerned that the trip would have been an interesting cultural experience but that she “was going to come out of it with nothing.” While she was unsure of what shape the project would take, she recognized that, “In my process, I need some distance to figure out what it is that interests me.”

Back in New York, she decided to visit the New York Public Library (NYPL) Picture Collection, a pre-Internet image archive founded in 1915 that has provided creative inspiration to many artists, from the Mexican painter Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol. Most recently, the archive became the basis for the eponymous project Picture Collection by the American photographer Taryn Simon, a series of composite pieces in which multiple overlapping images question the ways in which we catalogue and hierarchize images and culture.

The archive is made up of over 1 million items, including photographic prints, postcards, posters, illustrations and printed images, many of which have been cut or torn from magazines, books or encyclopaedias. These items are organized according to a complex system made up of over 12,000 folders, each on a given theme or subject.

While the archive cannot hope to compete with the accessibility and scope of online image libraries like Google Images, it has been able to differentiate itself in another way. Unusually for a picture library, it has allowed library-goers to contribute items to its collections over time, and so its folders often stray beyond the realm of the visual encyclopaedia to present a far more subjective take.

Wanting to further explore the question of Armenia’s hypothetical links to the Garden of Eden, Mirlesse decided to explore the Collection’s folders relating to the Bible. She remembers being “delighted to see that there were folders for each of the Bible stories: the Flood, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, etc.” Going through the contents of these folders, she was intrigued to see that in many of the pictures there were details that were reminiscent of the things she had seen in Armenia.

As the resonances piled up between the archival images and her own photographs, Mirlesse began to question the relationship between myth and reality. She recalls asking herself, “Did I shoot what I already had in my head, because these are stories that we all know, or are these things just part of the fabric of Armenian culture?” By combining these representations of biblical stories with her own photographs, the photographer felt that she could explore “the grey area between what is truth and what is fiction, what is real and what’s not. That is when I felt that the magic started to happen.”

As the Picture Collection allows users to borrow up to 60 items at a time, Mirlesse began to bring pictures home to scan them. Focusing around the story of the Garden of Eden due to its mythological relationship with Armenia, her scans not only show the biblical representations themselves, but also the annotations surrounding each item, which might include the author, the title of the work, a reference number, and often the stamp of the NYPL. By doing this Mirlesse is not only inviting us to consider the visual similarities between these illustrations and her photographs, but also to question how we develop a collective understanding of myth and other foundational stories through iconography.

Mirlesse arrived at a new edit which made equal use of the scanned items from the Picture Collection and her own photographs. Wary of this dual approach becoming “a visual game or gimmick,” rather than compiling a series of juxtapositions, she focused on creating a “natural flow” which helped to bring these biblical stories to life and explore their relationship with contemporary Armenian life. In doing so, Mirlesse projects the questions she began to ask herself onto the viewer. Seeing her images alongside representations of the Garden of Eden, the viewer is struck by the presence of recurring subjects or motifs, from potent symbols such as Mount Ararat itself or the mythical serpent of the book of Genesis, to subtler manifestations such as a young girl’s arms stretched by her side echoing a scene from the Expulsion from Eden, or the simple structure of a birdcage which resembles an illustration of Noah’s Ark.

As with her previous Icelandic work (featured in the British Journal of Photography in April 2012), whose title, As if it should have been a quarry, was drawn from a Robert Frost poem, the title of this Armenian series also has literary origins. Song of Fruit and Contention is drawn from a book of poems by the Armenian poet and essayist Gevorg Emin that has been translated into English. In his poetry, Emin describes his country as a “lyrical nation” and as having been an “apple of contention,” a phrase which both encapsulates the country’s biblical mythology and its hard-fought history.

Mirlesse explains, “Armenia has always been Armenia. The country stretches back to the age of Mesopotamia, Assyria or Babylon. There are very few places like that and that is very important to the Armenian people. Historically they have been taken over many, many times. They have a ‘we’re still here’ attitude that is obvious in the pride they take in their heritage.”

In fact, she believes that the country’s struggle to fend off outside influence, is one of the “reasons why a lot of photographers are drawn to that part of the world. Armenia is a crossroads between so many different influences: the ‘Orient,’ the Arab world, the Ottoman Empire, Soviet Russia. It can also feel quite European at times, and there are even American influences” due to the significant Armenian-American presence there.

Naturally, the story that remains the biggest draw for those photographers that visit the country is the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians during and after the First World War. While Mirlesse recognizes the importance of the genocide to Armenian history and identity — she visited the country again for the centennial of the genocide in 2015 — she did not want her project to focus on that issue. “If you tell a photo editor or a gallery that you have done a project on Armenia, they immediately expect it to be about the genocide. I think that is unfortunate, because Armenia is so much more than that.”

As with her previous series As if it should have been a quarry, Mirlesse seems to be using photography to go beyond the surface of the contemporary world to explore its deepest roots. When I asked her about this interest in the pre-historical, she told me that as a child she remembers dreaming of becoming an archaeologist. “Growing up in Los Angeles, I used to sit in the yard at school in Los Angeles and dig up rocks, thinking that I was going to find pieces of Egyptian mummies.”

Whether she is exploring the local relationship to the land in an Icelandic village that was rebuilt in the wake of a volcanic eruption, or the broader collective understanding of myth in defining the Armenian national identity, Mirlesse’s photographs of the contemporary world act primarily as windows onto the past.

While she still intends to return to Armenia once more to finish photographing certain locations, Mirlesse has already started thinking about how the project could become a book. She told me, “I think this project is really suited to the form of the book, not only because of the rhythm that I am trying to create between my images and those I collected from the New York Public Library archive,” but also because the book is the form both for the Bible and for the travel diary that she sees as representing the approach she took to photographing this series.

With Song of Fruit and Contention, Mirlesse hopes not only to tell an Armenian story that is not that of the genocide, but also to achieve something more universal. “While it is a very Armenian story that I’m working on, the idea of this legend giving you a sense of strength to keep going as a people, is also a microcosm of the human condition. There is something universal about this idea that the story of who we are is what keeps us going.”

VOLCANO TIME, essay by Eduardo Cadava for As if it should have been a quarry

Toward the end of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, the protagonist Geryon—a red-winged monster who has learned during the course of his life to express himself by taking photographs, what he calls “memory burns”—is told about a village called Jucu in the volcanic region in the mountains north of Huarez. He is told that, in ancient times, the inhabitants of this village worshipped the volcano as a god and even threw people into it, not as a form of sacrifice but as a test to see who could go, see, and come back as an eyewitness of the inside of the volcano, an eyewitness to a catastrophe survived. He is told that the ones who returned would return as red people with wings, “with their weaknesses burned away—and their mortality.” The book closes with a series of sections that appear as “photographs” in verse, with the last one describing a photograph that was nev- er taken, but which remains as the last photograph presented: a photograph in which Geryon takes flight toward the crater of Icchantikas and, once over it, peers down into the volcano’s “earth heart” from the “icy possibles” of its cold exterior and sees it “dumping all its photons out her ancient eye.” At that moment, he smiles for the camera and remembers “The Only Secret People Keep,” a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem in which the secret people keep is revealed to be “immortality.” That Geryon recalls Dickinson’s line without its reference to immortality makes it unclear if he survives the volcano’s shot, an ambiguity that already had appeared in the story he had been told, since it is not clear if the ones who return to bear witness to their survival return with “their mortality” or if this mortality is itself “burned away.” Identifying the aperture of a camera with that of a volcano, mortality with immortality, and destruction with survival, Geryon here associates photography with geology. The shutter clicks and, freezing time, captures Geryon onto a kind of film negative that brings Geryon to recognize himself in the image and leads to the final chapter of the book, which is entitled “The Flashes in Which A Man Possesses Himself.” If Geryon possesses himself in this flash of red light, it is because he comes to view himself as a photographic being, as a being that exists between life and death, memory and forgetting, and presence and absence. The red-winged monster’s photographic existence is confirmed by the fact that it shares the color of the darkroom light under which the photograph emerges from its chemical bath to be printed on paper, and the color of a volca- no’s fiery lava, the “earthly liquid glow emanating from below
the solid black fragments of rock” which break apart in the force of the volcano’s eruption. In Geryon’s world, volcanic eruptions are associated with the eruption of the image onto photo-sensi- tized paper, or even onto the pages of Carson’s book.

I wanted to begin with this story, and with this identification between photography and volcanoes, because the details that enable them are at the heart of Sabine Mirlesse’s beautiful pro- ject, As if it should have been a quarry. Juxtaposing scenes of Ice- land’s remarkable and heterogeneous landscape with portraits of Icelanders, many of whom bear the traces of the earth on their faces, Mirlesse’s camera returns to Heimaey (whose name literally means “home-island”), the only inhabited isle in the Vestmannaeyar volcanic archipelago and the site of one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions in the history of Iceland on the morning of January 23, 1973. If Mirlesse takes her title from Robert Frost’s late, lyrical poem “Directive,” it is because, for her, this poem touches on the loss and transformation effect- ed on the Icelandic landscape by this violent volcanic eruption. The poem tells us about the erosion that results from time and the weather, about the glacier’s force of writing, as it chisels and writes its way to the southeast and northwest, leaving its traces on the landscape as a kind of archive of its movement, a move- ment that later might be mined as if it were a quarry in which we could read the history sealed within the landscape. It suggests that we have to experience loss, and even the loss of ourselves, if we are ever to find ourselves—as the ones who learn that living means living with loss and ruin. And, finally, it tells us about the relation between persons and nature, the most legible rela- tion explored in Mirlesse’s photographs, and one that is already confirmed by the play between the poet’s first and last names.

Indeed, in returning to Heimaey, Mirlesse seeks to capture the traces of the volcano’s devastation but also the acknowledgment among the inhabitants of the area—many of whom lost their homes and, most poignantly, their photographs—of the essen- tial relation between the wildness of Iceland’s climate and seismic activities and their capacity to endure, to exist in relation to this always-possible destruction. What these photographs record, then, is the desire to preserve but also to survive, and even in the face of the most life-threatening circumstances. The strength these photographs capture—the strength and force of nature as well as that of the Icelanders who live on after this catastrophe—gives them their moving beauty.

Mirlesse’s photographs show us steam emerging from the earth in Iceland’s Rekyjanes region, abandoned homes near Ísafjörður whose now skeletal frames reveal windows that in turn offer a kind of framed photograph of the landscape sur- rounding them (as if the ruined house were able to become a lens through which we might view the ruin inscribed inside the landscape itself), geysers and bubbling earth in seismic regions, obscured by clouds of steam that seem to remind us of our incapacity to see things clearly, or to see what is not visible to the eye, whether it be the history that is sealed in the ground, or the almost illegible movement in the interior of the earth that can rise to the surface at any moment, waterfalls falling from glaciers that touch against volcanoes, lava fields covered in moss, aban- doned excavation sites, images of the sunken holes that punctuate the ground in the Snæfellsnes peninsula (the legendary site of the volcano on which Jules Verne based his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth), most likely a consequence of the in- teraction between lava and sea water, the shifting traces of the weather as it mediates what we can see or not see, glacier formations and lagoons, often alongside the volcanic mountains, and the more than thirty facial imprints that, formed by pressing clay-covered faces on canvas, look like so many aerial shots of geothermal, seismic areas. This visual echolalia between visages and the many faces of Iceland’s geography confirms the ines- capable interplay between the landscape and the people who live in it that motivates Mirlesse’s project. She and her camera understand that there is something strange and uncanny about landscape, and perhaps because, among so many other things, landscape is always a space in which disappearance takes place. Indeed, Iceland’s landscapes perhaps tell us what is true of all landscapes: that they are never the same from one moment to the next, that there is nothing fixed about them except for their constant transformation. This is perhaps particularly the case in a landscape that experiences all sorts of natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the slow movement and dissolution of glacier formations, and rapid changes in meteorological and climatic phenomena.

Mirlesse’s photographs seek to respond to the history that is commemorated, displaced, and ciphered in this landscape—a history that includes not only the history of the destruction and preservation of Heimaey but also, as a kind of secret, the his- tory of photography itself. In a perversion of temporality made possible by these photographs, the history of Heimaey, and in- deed the history of Iceland, tells us something about the es- sence and history of photography. This series of photographs begins to cast an interpretive light on these questions and, in doing so, tells us that the geological and seismic phenomena that define Iceland’s landscapes are themselves photographic
apparatuses. We need only recall the most significant details of a story that became a common reference for the eruption at Heimaey, the story of Pompeii—a story whose details resonate with the volcanic eruption around which Mirlesse’s project is organized, and that led Heimaey to be called the “Pompeii of the North.” Built on the shores of the Bay of Naples—on an area of prehistoric lava flow called the “burnt fields”—Pompeii was raised on the site of the fabled battle between the Giants and the Gods, in which the Giants were cast down and destroyed by Zeus’s thunderbolts. A site whose history is entangled with that of fire and light—and of a light that, cast down from the heavens, left its flashing and burning signature in the land as a kind of memorial—Pompeii could be said to have been born on the soil of photography: or, perhaps more precisely, to have been one of the several birthplaces of photography.The photographic dimension of Pompeii’s history—a history traversed by the play of light and darkness that defines the photographic space—be- comes even more palpable as we remember that, when Vesuvius erupted in August 79 A.D., the city was buried in volcanic debris and ash. The ash and fire that burst forth during the violent eruption of Vesuvius was said to have overshadowed the air and, like an eclipse, to have hidden the sun. Contemporary accounts tell us that the day turned into night and light was transformed into darkness. “Clouds of fearful blackness overtook the skies, pierced through and through with flashes of lightning,” writes Pliny the Younger (our chief sources of information on this event are the two letters that he wrote to Tacitus), and “it became dark, not as on a cloudy night when there is no moon, but as in a room which has been completely closed.” Transforming the en- tire landscape into a gigantic dark room, the cinders that came forth from the eruption of Vesuvius worked to both destroy and preserve this city that, becoming in its own cataclysmic turn a kind of museum, to this day still bears the traces of this massive photographic event. Like the photograph that is so often said to be a force of destruction and preservation, the ashes of Vesuvius became a means of forgetting and remembering the death and ruin that took place within Pompeii’s walls. This story of the fire and light that made Pompeii what it is, the Vesuvian fire and ash that destroyed and preserved the buried city, erases as much as it shows, blinds as much as it enlightens, separates as much as it gathers.This delirious history tells us that photography involves the burning of its contents, even as it seeks to preserve them, a fact that Mirlesse sees inscribed everywhere in Iceland.

The landscape of Iceland is fabulously heterogeneous, wild, and, as its name suggests, irreducibly linked to ice, and to the glaciers that punctuate, and often form, its terrain. If Mirlesse evokes Iceland’s glaciers throughout her project, though, it also is to suggest another form that photography has taken, and one that even preceded photography itself, since the glaciers— themselves staging the relation between ruin and survival, be- tween the frozen layers of compacted soil and the decaying and living vegetation around them—appear as a kind of allegory for the relation between the interruptive force of the climate, on the one hand, and that of photography, on the other. Indeed, the glaciers are structured by a play of freezing and unfreezing that evokes the immobilization and displacement that characterize the photographic act. The glacier also reminds us that the most important work occurs in what we do not see and cannot be seen, that, like the photograph, the traces and vestiges of a glob- al ecological history carries life beyond present life or actual
being-there not toward death but toward a living-on, a trace in which life and death come together. The glacier is, like the vol- cano, a kind of templum for the photographematic project that Mirlesse has so beautifully created and realized, for this glimpse into what Carson calls “volcano time.”

Bringing together the past and the present, the history of Pompeii with that of Heimaey, and, like Carson, photography with geology, Mirlesse’s Iceland tells us that “now” does not name a present, just as “then” cannot be reduced to the past. Every effort to read the image therefore must expose it there where the image does not exist. It must displace it, and this because the truth of the image is, in the wording of Walter Benjamin, “loaded to the bursting point with time.” It is because the traces carried by the image include reference to the past, the present, and the future, and in such a way that none of these can be isolated from the other, that the image cannot present the traces of the explosion it recalls—without at the same time exploding, or bursting, its capacity to (be) present. Mirlesse’s photographs tell us that history is something to which we can never be present because it is sealed and encrypted in the plural faces of persons and geographies as if they were a kind of quarry. With her and her photographs, however, we are at least given the glorious chance of mining them.

© sabine mirlesse 2008 - 2019 all rights reserved