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Once Upon a Moon

With over five hundred images and five films, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris pays homage to Sarah Moon’s work and honors her unclassifiable, yet instantly recognizable style.

“Have you seen Loulou?” Thus begins a 1980s’ commercial for Cacharel perfumes that marked a whole generation: over a few seconds, Gabriel Fauré’s haunting music unfolds in a moody visual atmosphere. The commercial ends with an elliptical exchange: “Loulou? Yes, that’s me…”

Sarah Moon
Sarah Moon, The End of Vacation, 2017 © Sarah Moon

The tools to say it right

Whether she is fulfilling a commission or working on a personal project, as a film director or as a photographer, in black-and-white or in color, Sarah Moon cultivates mystery. Mystery is her trademark. Mid-1980s: the former model moves away from fashion and advertising to explore the possibilities of Polaroid. She likes the thickness of the material, the artifacts at the edges of the frame: scratches and other flaws formed in the separation of negative from positive. More than anything else, Polaroid transforms reality. One can call the result fiction, fairy tale, or imagination… Sarah Moon’s intention is always the same: to divert us from reality. “I am not a witness to anything; I invent a story which I am not telling, I imagine a situation that doesn’t exist …,” she said in an Arte documentary in 1994.

Sarah Moon
Sarah Moon, Freewheeling, 2001 © Sarah Moon

Sarah Moon: even her name is an invention. It is clearly not by chance that she prefers Polaroid and, when using another camera, long exposures, which break up the image into grains and blurs. Sarah Moon never uses photography to bear witness. Her every image transports us out of reality, elsewhere, along sideroads: “My photos are a fiction, where I don’t know what comes before or after. They could be stills from a film I wouldn’t have made.”

Sarah Moon
Sarah Moon, For Yohji Yamamoto, 1996 © Sarah Moon
Sarah Moon
Sarah Moon, The Poppy, 1997 © Sarah Moon

Like a spider that conscientiously weaves her web, she does everything possible to ensnare the viewer: her images are seductive, yet disturbing; the women look innocent, yet sometimes terrifying. Or terrified. What do they hide in their hands that often shield their faces? Or beneath their wide-brimmed hats and the strange costumes they wear, more like prostheses than garments? And what about their animals, are they alive or dead? Moon compares the photographic act to the gesture of a taxidermist, inviting ambiguity.

Sarah Moon: The mystery

Even when she works in color, Sarah Moon put us ill at ease with bright tonalities or, conversely, with muted hues: in either case, the colors are evanescent, uncanny. This ambivalence permeates the titles of her projects, such as Alchemies, a 2013 exhibition about nature and animals; her films CircussThe Little Black Riding Hood, or The Fright; and of her books: Vrais semblants [True Pretenses] or Coincidences

Sarah Moon
Sarah Moon, Anatomy, 1997 © Sarah Moon

The exhibition PastPresent, currently at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, is no exception. The pairing of the two words seems meaningless; yet to Sarah Moon it is obvious. There are two sides to everything. Her images are dark, but her voice is soft. “Every photograph is a witness, if only to the memory of a moment that would have otherwise been lost forever. Hence, there is a sense of loss, and association with death,” the artist comments. The monotone voice-over she uses in her films is hypnotizing. Maybe that’s Sarah Moon’s secret.

And so, as soon as we enter the exhibition, we are under a spell: it’s as if were in thrall to the profusion of images snaking across the walls. We are caught in a whirlwind where everything is mixed together: large and small formats, blacks and colors, fashion and fiction, still and moving images, past and present. It is the whirlwind of a lifetime’s worth of creation.

Sarah Moon
Cover: Sarah Moon, The Seagull, 1998 © Sarah Moon

By Sophie Bernard 

Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography. A regular contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and the Quotdien de l’Art, she is also an exhibition curator and a faculty member at the École de Photographie (EFET) in Paris. 

Sarah Moon, PasséPrésent
September 18, 2020 to January 19, 2021
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris 
11, avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris

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