'Simularities' by Liesbeth Decan

Simulacra squared. About the images of Lieven Lefere.

The images of Lieven Lefere have an alienating quality. What they show seems unreal, abstract and consequently utterly pointless: a framework that hangs off the ceiling in an otherwise empty room, for example; or a partly open wooden construction in a sand-filled basement; a slope with a series of stone roads that seem to be cut off promptly after a few meters of reaching towards the horizon; a cobbled forest road so bumpy that every vehicle will definitely break down on it; or buildings with hermetically sealed windows and doors. And still the photos are in essence nothing more than excisions from the observable reality. The photographed places and objects really exist. Although some nuancing is in order: they really exist, but are – in a way – unreal. What binds the different locations and objects to each other is that they are all constructed as simulations of reality to be able to exercise upon this reality. There where we suspected an absolute pointlessness, the opposite seems to be the case. Their only reason for existence is the human search for a better – read: more controlled – functioning of society.

One of the objects to be distinguished in the series of photos is the so-called fire house or practice building for firemen. Dark images show blackened facades and interiors, only visible because of the diffuse light present there. They are made in colour, although they seem to be in black-and-white. That is why – amongst other things – they are different from the Incident-series (2008) of the British photographer Sarah Pickering, with whom Lefere shares his fascination for fire houses – and their photographic representation. Both photographers emphasize the unheimliche (eerie, sinister) character of these places, but use different strategies to do so. By portraying the concrete and steel spaces of the British Fire Service College, filled with household appliances, furniture and human dummies, in black-and-white, Pickering dramatizes the scenes. The almost ‘dirty’ black-and-white of the matte barite print lends her images an obscure atmosphere that reminds of police photographs of crime scenes. The focus on certain utensils – such as washing machines, office chairs or chests of drawers and certainly the corpse dummies stacked on top of each other – further heightens the narrative character of Pickering’s work. Compared to that Lieven Lefere’s images – stripped of anecdotism as much as possible – are almost anti-emotional, lifeless. Here a persistent abstraction towards alienation and confusion about what one is seeing prevails. We find ourselves in a dreary confrontation with inanimate domesticity. The extreme ‘actionlessness’ marks another thorough distinction from Pickering’s photo series Fire scene (2007), which portrayed artificially created fire scenes as fictitious case studies for judicial investigators.

Where Pickering mainly focuses on drill centers for firemen, police corps and forensic investigators, Lefere broadens his photographic investigation to spaces for scientific research. While the fire houses and other practicing facilities, such as those where the power of water is attempted to be mastered, originated from a conservative attitude (“How do we preserve our existence?”), the photographer is mainly interested in the idea of progress that is at the basis of the scientific test. Extremely clean images show functioning labs, which are focusing on the functioning of light and hydraulics, or artefacts, which form the residue of scientific testing. The striking thing is that these objects – in Lefere’s photographic representation – show a remarkable amount of similarities with exhibited artworks. This way, a screen hung up in an acoustic lab evokes the image of a canvas, or a long glass plate – split in the middle during a pressure test – that of a modernist sculpture. A framework with motion detectors in its turn makes us think of a painter’s easel. Just like the pictures of the fire houses the emptiness, and its resulting abstraction, forms the style and method to produce alienating images. The photos seem to show that the more things are occupied with the essence of the world and our existence (how the forces of nature work for example), the more unrecognizable and unreal they appear to us.

Abstraction forms the core method of a series of images of elements from reality that have been recreated by the photographer him- or herself. Integrity Protecting the Works of Man (2009) for example, is a photographical image of a model of one of the polygon modules on which the stock-exchange listings of the New York stock exchange appear. The simplified representation – by the isolating of one tower and the reducing to elementary shapes – contrasts sharply with the image we all have of the stock exchange as a nervous and busy place that controls the world economy. Integrity Protecting the Works of Man is the title of the alto-relievo that can be seen on the pediment of the classical façade of the New York stock exchange building is a symbolic representation of “the stock exchange as a reflection of national wealth”. To give the same title to a ‘hollowed-out’ representation of the stock exchange as the picture is an undisguised ironic and criticising statement. We suddenly look at the sacrifice altar of the national, and international, wealth. The wooden, ‘non-functioning’ model is a metaphor for the global economic crisis.

The same strategy can be seen in an earlier work, titled General Assembly (2006), which Lieven Lefere realized together with Charles Verraest. The scene is immediately recognizable as the pulpit of the United Nations. But the stage of power is deserted and destroyed. Through a 1/1 reconstruction the artists have created an image that represents the – in their eyes – failure of the UN as a forum for a global cooperation in the field of economy, law and security. The method of abstractly rebuilding an existing place and subsequently photographing it, involuntarily reminds us of the work of the German photographer Thomas Demand. A remarkable difference is however that Demand usually starts from pictures that have appeared in the media for constructing his model, while the New York stock exchange and the UN on the other hand are places that cannot be photographed freely. Each photo of these buildings that is sent into the world is submitted to a rigorous control. Integrity Protecting the Works of Man and General Assembly are not documentary photos, but photographic ‘referral images’ that might even transcend the expressiveness of the photo as a document. They refer to known images, but especially to images that cannot be constructed.

Photography is in a way always only a limited, artificial copy of reality, a ‘simulacrum’ . The images of Lieven Lefere expose this mechanism by being representations of representations of reality, or ‘simulacra squared’. Through this evident unmasking of the medium the question of the ‘true image’ is made explicit. It is in the abstracting reconstruction of the reconstruction, in documenting the simulation that the photographer finds the key to make latent aspects, such as the control apparatus present in all social layers, visible.

Liesbeth Decan

Brussels, October 2012