Friday, November 29, 2013

Robert Polidori, La Mémoire des Murs, Karsten Greve

Robert Polidori, Salles d’Afrique, Portrait of Louis XVI by Callet #2, Château de Versailles, 2007

It is such a treat to have this exhibition of a selection of Robert Polidori’s large scale photographs on exhibition in Paris at Karsten Greve. Polidori’s work is rarely shown here, and the photographs from a selection of his series are well hung, creating interesting juxtapositions over three floors of the annex gallery. Included in La Mémoire des Murs are photographs on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, of the school rooms of Pripyat not far from Chernobyl, and the mystical, arcane world of Varanassi on the Ganges.  

Robert Polidori, Salle le sentiment religieux. (7) ANR. 01.007.2008
The most striking photographs, however, are still the images of the Palace of Versailles in the throes of renovation. They are striking because they take us inside a world that we don’t otherwise get to see. It’s true that the images of destruction in New Orleans and the Soviet Union are moving and devastating and powerful. But there is something about seeing Marie Antoinette’s most treasured rooms and paintings, the surfaces of the walls and hallways in a state of disarray, that brings the world of kings and queens alive, makes it human and flawed. Polidori transforms the interiors of the Palace of Versailles into intimate, personality filled spaces.
Robert Polidori, Salle de Crimée Sud, (98) ANR.02.035, Salles de l’Afrique, Aile du Nord – 1er étage, Château de Versailles, 2007
Polidori’s format accentuates the wear and tear, the everydayness of life at Versailles, and the life of the paintings that decorate the walls. Because he is interested in capturing the spaces between frames, the times and places when no one is meant to be looking, as though the walls and the paintings, and the surfaces that the paintings echo, are caught in their changing rooms, unaware that they are on display. A portrait of Louis XVI by Callet on his side, the wall in between two paintings with the internal structures hanging down, or a portrait leaning against a wall in a state of disrepair or transformation, show a world in which there is nothing regal or special about either the spaces or the figures pictured in the images. Polidori reduces the importance of the otherwise proud and privileged, to props on the stage of renovation.
Robert Polidori, Salle la surintendance de Colbert, (6) ANR.01.006, Salles du XVII, Aile du Nord, R..d.c, 2007
Curiously, when we look at them, the surfaces in the photographs become so real, so rich and textured, that we begin to examine the image as if it was the painting itself. The fabric of the clothes worn by royalty, the tactility and sumptuous contours of walls whose paper could well double as a ball gown, it is so gorgeous, are endlessly fascinating, sensuous even. When I was halfway through the exhibition it suddenly occurred to me that there were no people in the images. The realization is surprising —how could I have missed this?— as I noticed how I had been swept up in the richness of the stories told within and on the walls in the photographs. Every image is so animated by colour and texture and time and politics, that we forget we are looking at inanimate places and spaces.
 Robert Polidori, Nurseries in Kindergarten #7, "Golden Key," Pripyat, 2001
The counterpoint between the slick, tightly-composed photographic images and the decay, emotional charge, the unfinishedness of what is represented also make Polidori's photographs captivating. Similarly, the temporality, especially the passing of time, is contradictory when the two worlds meet: the world inside the photograph is timeless, a world in which the past of French royalty and the present of renovation come together with the instantaneity and precise geometry of the photographic image. And everything becomes accentuated when photographs of Versailles are placed side by side with Polidori’s images of New Orleans’ spaces in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the texture and coloured street scenes of Varanassi, the decay and dereliction of a schoolroom in Pripyat, the city scape of bombed out Beirut. The chaos and sadness of worlds ripped apart by natural and man made disasters come to look not so different from the aging treasures of monarchical France.

All images courtesy Karsten Greve