Posface - Valérie Douniaux - 2017

Sylvie Tubiana, is an artist open to the world; naturally enough she has formed deep personal links with varied cultures from as far as Japan and Ethiopia. Adopting an original approach to perspective, consisting in a development in space, in order to liberate the photographic image from the boundaries of two-dimensional space, she constructs silent dialogues with the places her travels take her to, thereby abolishing the limits of time or space and so covering her tracks and blurring the ideas and contourswith which we tend to delineate so precisely beings and objects, and nations too.

The artist thus takes us into the world of Japanese prints, a world which we had hitherto thought quite familar; but by creating a new kind of Japaneseism from which the folklore is missing, her intervention leads us to apprehend the prints in an original way, both direct and distant. Sylvie Tubiana superposes projections of photographs of nudes and of engravings from the Edo period, that is graphic works from the past; on the latter she superposes a contemporary image taken by a camera in order to constitute a single image. On the back of the engraving carefully chosen by the artist it is even possible to make out the shadows cast by the scenes, ghostly figures that hint at a hidden world, offering yet another stratum for us to read.

In particular cases Sylvie Tubiana will single out in the prints a particular figure, who will lie along the naked back of the model, for example the young man lying curled up languidly on the back of the artist. On other occasions the photographer will want to concentrate on the empty space in between the figures, which is simply suggested by particular details, like the outline of a hand. From a Japanese point of view this is by no means abnormal, as Japanese classical art generally incorporates the concepts of emptiness and asymmetry. However in terms of the codes of the Western tradition, which require the main element of the composition to occupy a central position it comes more of a surprise. The figures are on their knees, in a squatting attitude, the habitual posture for sitting and posing in the traditional compositions with a tatami floor. This perception of space naturally differs from the one prevailing in the West, where any position in direct contact with the ground has been banned for centuries. However one may see it among children and teenagers, who are still unconstrained by social convention.

Through the image the spectators are invited to let themselves be drawn into and enveloped in the restful half-light in which the figures evolve, for the dialogue between shadow and light proves to be yet another essential element of the creative language of Sylvie Tubiana, serving both as an instrument and as the subject of experiment. The light filtering through wooden partitions and paper walls shines on the bodies without detracting from their mystery. The projections veil the model's face in the manner of the masks of the Noh theater, simultaneously disclosing and concealing it. There comes to mind the insistance in Japanese culture on drawing a distinction between personal and social presence, between honne and tatemae. It is no longer possible to tell what is reverse and obverse, a state of confusion that produces a special sense of magic and a sensation both of freedom and confinement. 

Neither does Sylvie Tubiana set out to attempt to experiment with self-portraiture, for, even though she poses in her own photographs, her face hardly ever appears. By superposing the facial features and silhouettes of the photographer-cum-model with figures straight out of a geographically and historically distant past, she hides her tracks and creates new beings, somewhere between reality and imagination, hybrid creations that draw together the feminine and the masculine, the West and the Orient, that is the visions of two artists.

Sylvie Tubiana has accordingly chosen to play down her own identity, lying somewhere between presence and absence. In her rôle simultaneously as the object and the conceptualizer of the image, the artist figures in it twice, like an echo or en abyme, by means of the projection. Looking at such complex works that the presence of the nude model opens up, the spectators cannot however find their customary bearings. We have not the least idea whether the nudes are male or female; they are just beings in the absolute. But they are disconcerting by the way they redefine space and the place of the human element in the composition. The eye, at first lost, is initially overwhelmed by the superpositions and fusions of images, images that appear both directly and indirectly, that are at once flat and three-dimensional, that are photographs taken of photographs… before it can distinguish and recompose them. This is not unlike the manner in which the eye suddenly finds itself submerged in darkness and must gradually accustom itself and redefine the contours of the objects  which thereby take on a new existence, even appearing different from when they are exposed in full light.

The same applies to the series Geisha or Regards, where the slight discrepancy of overlap between the superposed images opens wide the doors of the imagination, offering an empty space in which a further level of consciousness, a sort of waking dream, emerges. The same sensation is experienced in the series in which the artist experiments with the integration of the images of the body in the frame of the composition, when fragmenting the planes, with the aim of recomposing them from different angles like a whole series of anamorphoses. Sylvie Tubiana does not seek a point of view from which the original image can be reconstructed, undistorted by the projection and the angle. Rather, the modification of the image lies at the heart of her project and she experiments with the use of transparency and gazes, while covering over both her tracks and the faces. Making very specific artistic choices Sylvie Tubiana succeeds in taking us beyond the purely conceptual stage and bringing us into a universe that lies beyond the usual contingencies, a universe filled with sensitivity and sensuality, in every sense of the term, for her art appeals to all our senses; it is a universe of emotion into which one tiptoes, feeling one’s way in and gradually discovering its depth and richness. One becomes imbued with its atmosphere, which is not without recalling the particular atmosphere of Japanese baths (to which the artist has devoted a series), the mixture of cotton-like warmth, of floating in silence, and of jovial energy …

Whatever the theme she turns to, Sylvie Tubiana always knows how to instill sensitivity and life in her compositions, by her unexpected use of the body, by her presence and sensuality, and by her sense of colour and of the play of shadow and light. Her photographs indeed display a degree of pictoriality, which places them more in the tradition of the masters of painting than among the trends of contemporary photography. Working in the manner of a painter using a brush and pigments, Sylvie Tubiana uses light in a quite personal fashion that sets her at a parting of the ways: for either light will clearly delineate the subjects or alternately it will bathe them in a golden softness that calls to mind Venetian or post-Caravaggian painting. However Sylvie Tubiana does not use technique for its own sake: she does not apply aesthetic principles in some slavish fashion, for this would quickly prove to be sterile. Her aim is rather to question the photographic medium, its potentialities, and ask how photographer and viewer relate to it.

Sylvie Tubiana thus proves to be a truly multidisciplinary artist, whose expressive vocabulary has enriched itself with a multiplicity of artistic experiences. For her, photography is merely one tool out of a whole palette available to her. Her works prove to be sensory, sensual and conceptual experiences that challenge us to think and to question our relationship to space and to the visible or invisible universe that surrounds us in order to better explore its unsuspected riches.

Note: Since 1994, I have been projecting images of bodies in spaces, and in this series, for the first time, on a flat document, a drawing,. Actually the Japanese prints have not been projected on the body. I take a different position regarding light (absence of shadow, very soft patterning, and a distortion of the body through perspective) as well as the history of photography, especially nude photography. I prefer to talk of incarnation rather than tattooing, the latter a major trend nowadays; the photographic projection and the superposition of two images give flesh to the drawing. In essence I am also talking about perception. As our minds are unaccustomed to this kind of art work, they are at first incapable of making sense of it; for we only see what we are already familiar with. S.T