«BEAUTY IS A SLOW ARROW.»
Text and interview Xavier Girard
Translation Jill Bennett
from 4 to 16 january 2016
Galerie du Tableau, Marseille, France
As day breaks, smoke rises from an ashtray shaped like a fish. At eye level the enormous rocky wall of the creek looms up. The profile of a boy with a lighted cigarette between his lips. Another one turns his chest to face the photographer, but his head is missing. Yet another disappears behind the smoke of his cigarette. Pictures are hung on the gallery wall, lined up like the wagons of a train. If you take them one by one, Marc-Antoine Serra’s photos are, almost, not saying anything. They could be one of those Platitudes examined by Eric de Chassey (Gallimard 2006) by grouping together the most remarkable “frontal, without depth, without duration, without interest, narrative, or symbolism, in the history of photography”. Concerning the last two points, the images shown here are significant. The fish is smoking like the boy, the staircase is going up or tumbling down like the cliffs, and the face fades away behind the smoke. Although the scene gives us no information and is even mute, it is not lacking in perspective or off-stage hints. As for symbols, they are as big as the Maïre and Tiboulin Islands combined. You only have to look at the overhang of the creeks, which appears vertical in another photograph, a cross between a marble cliff and mont analogue, frankly speaking. When Marc-Antoine Serra lines up a corner of an untidy attic with a boy, all twisted up, biting his fingers, the same boy or another one shrouded in a wedding veil, things start to get more complicated. When he adds a view of antique architecture, the profile of a radiantly beautiful black person and the structure of a wailing wall, the photographic phrase becomes an exhibit. The title of the exhibition warns us that “Beauty is a slow arrow”. For it to reach its mark, Marc-Antoine Serra tells us to follow it step by step, in spite of the screens which slow it down, but with no lesser beauty than that which is hindered.
Who are you?
I was born in Arles on the 1st of August under the sign of Leo, which is also the animal which figures on the coat of arms of the town. I never lived there, it is a town I fantasize about because of its ancient history, ruins and remains, but also its geographical and political territory throughout the ages. Genetically I am connected to all of that.
What are you trying to do?
I am searching. I think I am trying to tell stories without words. Stories told in photographs, without literature, completely, which can be read in any order.
What is your basic statement?
I am in a dialogue with reality while trying to slay it, I offer images of instants which contain a story, its mystery (landscapes, bodies, objects). I explore the links between photographic narration and mental imagery.
Who do you feel close to? Thomas Ruff? Walter Pfeiffer? Jack Pierson? Or Philippe Gronon and Lewis Baltz?
They all inspire me, you didn’t mention them by accident. I worked with Walter and Jack. I feel closer to Walter Pfeiffer because when I am an old man I would like to be like him. He still has his creative freshness. His work is much funnier and more colourful than mine. Could I be a sort of sad and melancholic Walter Pfeiffer?
How do you explain the many references to be found in your pictures? And more generally speaking, the years you spent in the world of fashion, music, advertising and contemporary art while working for a magazine?
During the nineties, I was a passionate reader of mainly anglo-saxon publications (The Face, i-D, Interview, Details, as well as others which were more underground, all of them part of the pop culture). They no longer exist or have evolved in a different way.
How do you go from being the art director of a french magazine (Têtu, no longer published) to being an artist?
They are two very different things. When I was the art director of a magazine, I was asked why I didn’t take the pictures myself. I replied that I didn’t know what I wanted to say, or to show, above all I didn’t want to photograph young, sexy people… When I left Têtu I had spent ten years in advertising, and ten more in the press. That was enough for me, I had seen it all and wanted to do something else. Perhaps by chance, but encouraged by a young photographer friend, I started taking pictures with my iPhone: very short videos with a still frame, somewhere between a photo and a cartoon. I liked it a lot, the action of capturing moments… so I continued.
After having spent years judging other people’s work, how do you now appraise your own?
I never felt I was a judge of other people’s work. When it comes to my own photos, I am very critical, rarely satisfied, I need to finish the development before I can be sure of the quality of my picture. My collaboration with many press photographers helped me to understand the act of photography. And to confront it.
It seems as though the boys that you portray are advancing masked, absent, rather closed, even in pieces and dissimulated. Why is this? What are they hiding from? From their own reflection, like Narcissus?
It’s funny that you see them as dissimulated and masked, because they are usually naked, or half-naked. For me they are not hiding, on the contrary. I have always been fascinated by antique Greek and Roman art, the statues, paintings and architecture. You will notice that I very rarely photograph my models in a setting, they are all there is, with practically no mise en scène. Yes, I do “frame” a lot. As a child and a teenager I read lots of cartoons, I liked the little boxes, the close-ups, the picture which could come out of the page, the different formats. I can convey much more by framing and cutting, and I like to foster a part of the mystery: that which is not shown, out of the picture.
Why is beauty a slow arrow, and not a small flash? Does it mean that to follow it is a hunt? Is the photographer a sniper, waiting patiently? And is the meeting a homicide?
“Beauty is a slow arrow” is a quotation from Nietzsche that I found in an article by Denis Roche on photography. Part of my work is to find the models, which takes me a long time, I am really searching, or hunting if you like, but the hunt is long and difficult. Sometimes I am mistaken, I think a boy is interesting but in the end it doesn’t work out, it’s not what I’m looking for, I throw a lot of pictures away. When it works out, it’s great, but generally speaking I never re-photograph the same models, even if they were good. Once is enough. In that case it might be a homicide of the act of photographing a model. A “murder” without a body. The question is then “What is being killed”?