Jeu de Paume, Paris, France
The Paris art world is gearing up for some heated religious talk. In May, the Centre Pompidou will host ‘Traces of the Sacred’, a much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition that will trace the relations between art and spirituality from the 19th century on. In tandem, France’s preeminent journal art press will release a special edition gathering 30 years’ worth of irreverent articles about art and spirituality. (Catholicism and the ‘B.V.M.’ – blessed Virgin Mary – take some serious hits.)
In this fiery climate, Alec Soth’s photographic series at the Jeu de Paume are a more temperate reflection on spirituality in art and life. The series ‘Dog Days, Bogotá’ is his 2003 hymn to the hometown of his newly adopted daughter. In the first image, a baby girl sprawls on the grass, bathed in strips of light. From the biblical infant onwards, the barely-there iconography that threads through Soth’s work only reveals itself when his prints are viewed in a chain, each transferring its ecclesiastical echoes to the next.
While ‘Dog Days’ does not explicitly follow a linear narrative, image sequences stand out intermittently, like smaller chapters of a larger whole. A portrait of a beloved dog is hung in a niche reminiscent of a holy shrine, after which comes the Virgin herself, in an actual shrine. An oval-faced adolescent girl in blue tilts her head piously as she seems to float towards an apotheosis on a net of suspended stuffed animals. In the final scene, a single, halo-like street lamp foregrounds a sun bursting dramatically through dark clouds. Deification complete.
The ‘Fashion Magazine’ (2007) and ‘Portraits’ (1999-2007) series – which do not benefit from being viewed jointly, their subjects simply less complex as a whole – feel schematic in comparison. But Soth regains his footing with ‘Niagara’ (2004-5) and ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ (1999-2002), when he shifts his view to the ‘traces of the sacred’ in the daily life of residents of low-income areas of the American South and upstate New York. Soth’s Niagara travels were driven by a hunt for love letters – from husbands, wives, and lovers past and present – and resulted in a number of couples’ portraits framed simultaneously by the majestic nearby waterfall, and the shoddy motels where many of them live.
One Niagara resident writes, ‘To the love of my life. I believe that you were sent from the heavons [sic]. You are my angel. I found the one thing that people spend their whole life looking for.’ What emerges is a picture of tranquil absolutism where worldly, as well as Godly, love is understood in formulaic terms which can encapsulate even the vastest mysteries of love and faith. Whether this gives peace of mind, as it is meant to, is less certain.
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