BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Valerie Belin

BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

The subject of Valerie Belin's recent large-format photographs of Moroccan brides are vacuous, hieratic, immobile: the women sit like still lifes (in French the term is nature morte, literally 'dead nature') before a vacant white background, and appear to be disappearing beneath their cumbersome, ornamental wedding gowns. With harsh, black and white contrast, Belin focuses on the patterns of intricate embroidery that cover these heavy robes. Rather than accentuating, or even just revealing, the bride's beauty, they envelop her body and disguise it, like a massive coat of armour. With their close cropping, emphasis on sumptuous detail and exploration of the relationship between affluence, spirituality and abstention, these photographs might be defined as contemporary Vanitas.

Isolated, frontal and detached from their cultural context, these austere images represent the brides as inert things. While strongly formalistic, they can also be read as explorations of the treatment of women in Moroccan culture, an objectification that is further revealed by the wedding ritual, during which the bride often replaces her outfit up to a dozen times during the evening. This overabundance of decoration is so overwhelming it's as if the gowns are the focus of attention, not the woman.

This negation of humanness also figured strongly in Belin's previous series, 'Bodybuilders' (1999), which depicted naked figures flexing their oiled-up, swollen, glistening beefcake against a stark white background. With their artificial smiles or macho grimaces, these women are transformed into sculptural objects, and reveal the extent to which a slavish devotion to the body can be dehumanizing and alienating.

Belin's earlier series depict accumulated fragments of fetish subjects - close-ups of elaborate Murano-glass mirrors, carafes, silver platters, cars demolished in accidents, reflective robots, drooping blossoms, dresses wrinkled and faded, hanging slabs of marbled meat. Coldly beautiful, confrontational and violent, these images explore the moment of collapse - the crushed metal of a car wreck, its shattered windscreen glittering like a diamond; the eerie magnificence of suspended animal flesh, its veins like fissures in the earth; languid, overripe flowers on the verge of decay.

As with her brides and body-builders, Belin isolates these objects against barren backdrops, emphasizing the baroque richness of their superficial details. Many of the images, in particular her haunting series of empty Venetian mirrors, explore ideas surrounding excess and beauty. Shot at oblique angles, unearthly in their reflections of flat, black emptiness, they are utterly devoid of human presence. Common objects, they might also verge on kitsch, but instead transcend the idea of prettiness to present a sublime, chaotic beauty.

Reduced to their black and white contours, the Venetian mirrors also suggest Ray-o-grams or X-rays. Beautifully employing photography itself as a metaphor, they are the flat, luminous, negative traces of something concrete - as if Belin was photographing the object's hollow ghost rather than its substance. They explore absence, but in so doing, speak of the lost or missing presence, one hinted at or already gone from her other pictures.