A ball of energy: that’s how the art critic Régis Durand (1941–2022) once described Valérie Belin, whom he exhibited very early, at the Printemps de Cahors in 1995, and whose career he followed for a long time, amazed by her fearlessness. What caught his eye wasn’t jumping through fire, slaying vampires, or meditating in the desert, but rather Belin’s multiple ways of playing with photography, and questioning it, not in order to exhaust its possibilities but rather to find a new springboard. Jumping always a little higher, a little farther. A trampoline effect, if you will, which allowed Belin to imagine a total of some fifty series, sometimes extending them, from the very first, Cristal I in 1993 to the very last, Heroes in 2013.
Not everyone might be receptive to Belin’s work as a whole, but the book published Atelier EXB and the exhibition at the MUba in Tourcoing offer excellent points of entry. Belin does not intend to win over her audience; it’s never about catering to others’ desires. Rather, she forges her way alone. She is an adventuress. She has her finger in all the pies. She’s an original who loves counterfeits. And, as she puts it, she “is afraid of the void.” Hence the pressing need she feels to link up her series in a meticulously constructed dynamic, centered, first, around the object, then on the human figure, while allowing herself, from time to time, to cross boundaries between still life and more-or-less living matter.
Much more than a confrontation with the medium, which would offer no more than dissipation, Belin studies the potential of photography, never letting go of her subject until she is fully satisfied. She is herself unsettled by her unsettling subjects, such as the Michael Jackson lookalikes (2003), one of her most famous experiments, a poignant face-to-face.
She places herself a meter away from her model, in clear view of the fake nose, the wig, the smoky eyes: there is no deception; this is not the real Jackson, and yet is this Jackson a fake? What is she aiming at? To muddle the iconography of Michael Jackson? “What I was interested in was not finding a perfect lookalike, who would have mimicked the surgical transformations of his model. Rather, I wanted characters who were transformed through artifice that would be visually legible in the photograph.”
From the start, Belin has enriched the dialogue with the art of reproduction that is photography, pushing the boundaries of illusion and seduction. She immobilizes flesh-and-blood models to make them look like shop window mannequins, then exhibits mannequins as if they were humans holding their breath. She follows a Lido dancer who flits from one gala outfit to the next without batting an eyelid. She catches magicians in the act, unveils cubist heroines, organic engines, and solarized interiors jam-packed with treasure troves of collectibles.
Behind each series, there is also the pleasure of the digital tool, which lends itself to meticulous attention as well as easy-going flirtation with customized, jubilant pop art.
Valérie Belin’s website
Valérie Belin, The Uncertain Beauty of the World, Atelier EXB / MUba Eugène Leroy, 192 pp., €39. Bilingual edition. Texts by Mélanie Lerat and Sébastien Gokalp.
Retrospective at MUba Eugène Leroy, in Tourcoing, France, until August 27.
About Valérie Belin’s exhibition in Tourcoing:
When you enter the large gallery overhung by an Art Deco glass roof, the effect is immediate. The 500 square meters of floor space and the high ceiling transform the visit into an experience. Seen from the center of the room, Valérie Belin’s portraits and still lifes surround the viewer, inciting contemplation. Once the viewer is gripped, the visit can begin, where the eye is drawn to because the tour is not chronological. The photographer was personally involved in the selection and hanging of this concentrated retrospective. The large, even very large prints, presented in a line or grouped in two rows, are perfectly adapted to the monumental dimensions of this atypical exhibition space.
The density impresses, leaving no respite for the viewer. The journey brings together images from thirty series produced from the 1990s to today and ends with a 30-minute video entitled I could never be a dancer, in the intimacy of a nearby living room. This film made from a 3-hour performance given at the Centre Pompidou in 2013 features six Michael Jackson lookalikes and echoes recurring themes in Valérie Belin’s work. Between the series “Dresses” created at the Musée de la Dentelle de Calais in 1996 and “Heroes”, her latest heroines designed with a make-up artist in 2022, Valérie Belin has come a long way. But she has never lost her thread: to represent “the uncertain beauty of the world”, or “the uncertainty of the world” as Sébastien Gokalp writes in the book that accompanies the exhibition.