‘Avec la Raison des Ombres et Miroirs’ by Tim Vanheers

On my journey through the Eifel, I made a stop in the small village of Wachendorf. There in its fields lies the Bruder Klaus Chapel, a famous work by the architect Peter Zumthor. A great many pilgrims of architecture wend their way to this chapel every year. I have booked accommodation nearby so as to avoid the masses. At the crack of dawn, I make my way through the fields. In the distance I spot a boxy form that I recognise from the photos. I imagine how the interior of this remarkable place will look. Having arrived, I open the unique triangular door and enter. What follows is a remarkable experience. What I had imagined does not correspond with the reality. The inside of the chapel looks completely different than I had expected: narrower, taller, more organic and more intimate. Light filters in sparsely through the oculus, while a number of candles provide a warm glow. I allow my eyes to feast, my thoughts to roam. Time glides by. Then the door suddenly opens and I hear the voices of other visitors. Daylight floods in abruptly, interrupting my reverie. After what seems like an eternity, I return to the outdoors. I look at my watch. Barely ten minutes have passed since I entered.

In his book Atmospheres, Zumthor writes about architectonic quality. Over the course of his career, he has attempted to ‘design’ experiences such as the one I had in the Bruder Klaus Chapel. He reconstructs an ‘atmosphere’ from his memories, which he attempts to impart on the building through the decisions he makes in the architectural design process. It is this ‘atmosphere’, something fairly elusive and subjective, that touches people when they experience a building by Zumthor.

In his photography, Lieven Lefere is like an architect. He constructs his images from elements such as scale and framing, sculpting with light and shadow. Sometimes his process prompts him to literally start building, reconstructing places as he remembers them. These intermediary constructions rarely remain standing, however. What counts for him is the image, the photo. That is all that remains.

Just like the buildings of Peter Zumthor, Lefere’s photos have an elusive quality to them. And just as Zumthor attempts to (re)construct a certain atmosphere, Lefere (re)constructs situations and places from a memory, idea or mental image. The memory of an objective reality is carefully built up from scratch, acquiring a new layeredness in the process. Lefere is meticulous in this, taking a great, long run-up to the final photo (just as the Swiss architect, who is said to have devoted nine years to his chapel project). Lefere is not so much interested in representing objective reality. His interest lies more in conveying the subjective, which he does by carefully manipulating all the parameters that make the photo what it is.

Take light and shadow, for example. In Lefere’s photographs, light is practically a character in itself. It even seems charged with significance, like the air in a cathedral. And shadow is at least as prominent. Lefere is a master obscurer. He is aware that shadow evokes certain interpretations. As Jun'ichirō Tanizaki describes in his essay In Praise of Shadows, we in the West are obsessed with our quest for ever more light. To us, shadow is somehow suspect. We perceive that which unfolds in the shadows as ambiguous. It is this ambiguity that Lefere plays upon in his work.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium (a text that Zumthor refers to in Thinking Architecture), Italo Calvino describes the connotations of the Italian word vago.

(…) Italian is, I believe, the only language in which the word for ‘vague’ (vago) also means charming, attractive; having originally meant ‘wandering’, it still carries with it a feeling of movement and mutability, which in Italian suggests not only uncertainty and indeterminacy but also grace and pleasure.

If light captures and objectifies, then shadow brings vagueness and thus space for movement and subjective interpretation. In the work of Lieven Lefere, this vagueness seems ever present. The shadows are rich with texture, the light is never absolute. There are obscuring elements that elicit questions from the viewer. The complete overview is limited. Not everything is revealed.

Often there are even elements that the viewer cannot see at all. We don’t know what hides behind the wooden doors in Nothing is more visible than Things hidden. We can only guess at the landscapes in the series I never promised you a horizon. We don’t know the depth of the ditches in the Hollow series, what hides beneath the tarpaulin in Hole or what the objects in the Skulls series contain. And it is precisely this same technique that Zumthor uses in his buildings. In Thinking Architecture he refers to a sculpture in the shape of a house by Per Kirkeby.

The house had no entrance. Its interior was inaccessible and hidden. It remained a secret, which added an aura of mystical depth to the sculpture’s other qualities. I think that the hidden structures and constructions of a house should be organized in such a way that they endow the body of the building with a quality of inner tension and vibration.

Lefere plays masterfully with the tension between inside and outside. The viewer’s gaze is partially locked out, such that the images take on an enormous suspense. The viewer knows that they will never fully fathom the image, but they keep looking. Sometimes this tension between letting in and locking out becomes the subject of the image, as in Nothing is more visible than Things hidden or La Raison des ombres. Both works depict the mausoleum of the communist leader Ho-Chi-Munch in Hanoi. Or, so it seems. What we see in the photo is actually a wooden reconstruction built by Lefere himself, based on his memories and footage from a documentary on the construction of the mausoleum. There are in fact no photos of the interior spaces. Photography is, after all, forbidden in this sanctum sanctorum, where the embalmed remains of Ho-Chi-Minh are kept. Although thousands of visitors visit the mausoleum each day, image-taking of any kind is forbidden. While in Nothing is more visible than Things hidden the building is shown from the outside, La Raison des ombres is photographed from the inside. In one image we stand outside but do not see what is inside, in the other we stand inside and do not see the outside environment. In both works we, as viewers, are locked out. But it is precisely what cannot be seen that gives the photos their ‘inner tension and vibration’, to use the words of Zumthor. In this way, the two photos touch upon the essence of the mausoleum, without showing it explicitly.

Like the buildings of Peter Zumthor, Lefere’s works seem to exist outside of time. There is not a soul to be seen in them, nor are there any artefacts or symbols that would readily allow the viewer to put a date to the image. Time itself is shrouded. Lefere often captures multiple moments in one image or works with a very slow shutter speed. This serves to make the light more tangible and the resulting image more painterly, like a moment that is stretched out endlessly. Yet time is not the subject of his photos so much as it is in, for example, the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto. In Lefere’s work it is more the absence of time that is felt. It is rather the ephemeral that looms from the shadows. The subjects chosen by Lefere are a mausoleum, a mass grave, a Neolithic burial ground: places where death reigns and we are made aware of our mortality. Now consider the Skulls series, made by Lefere in collaboration with Dr. Martin Smith, professor in forensic and biological anthropology at Bournemouth University. In it we see synthetic simulations of skulls, made out of hard polyurethane to resemble bone. These objects are used in archaeology to research the violent impact of crossbows or modern bullets. They are reconstructions of brutalities, as it were: hi-tech imitations based on ancient scenarios but made in a sterile, scientific environment. Lefere photographs them as heavenly bodies set against a dark firmament, a multitude of memento mori hanging in silence, a futuristic take on 17th-century still lifes.

Scale is another of those architectural tools that Lefere uses so deftly. The monumental dimensions of some works allow one to approach them from a distance. Once in front of the photo you almost feel an urge to step into it, to enter the scene. Lefere achieves this effect by presenting his décors at a scale that is as realistic as possible and by photographing them from such a perspective that the image seems an extension of our gaze. This way the viewer can project themselves into the image. In the case of the Skulls, this can be taken quite literally: they are photographed at their true scale. And Lefere places them exactly at skull height. In La Raison des Miroirs, Lefere explores scale and perspective. Based on the doctoral research of architect Patrick Seurinck, he reconstructed the space that is depicted in Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1436). He then took a photo of it. The result evokes a sense of both familiarity and alienation in the viewer. The omission of the characters from the famous painting leaves room for a new reading of the image, while the large scale gives the photo a certain monumentality. In his reconstruction, Lefere was, like an archaeologist, left to interpret and fill in the gaps. The effect of the shadows and the ‘infini’ in the background are a direct nod to van Eyck, as is the subtle touch of glistening varnish painted on the column by Lefere to further enforce the illusion of spatiality. Then there is also his inscription on the steps: ‘Avec la raison des ombres et miroirs’, a reference to the book La perspective, avec la raison des ombres et miroirs (Perspective with the reason of shadows and mirrors, 1916) by Salomon de Caus. It gives a hint of Lefere’s motivations for being so obsessive in the creation of this work.

‘Avec la raison des ombres et miroirs’: it could be the title of a Lieven Lefere retrospective. For his oeuvre reconciles reason and subjectivity in an almost entirely reconstructed illusion. In frankly brilliant compositions in which nothing is what it seems. Compositions into which we enter full of expectations that do not always correspond with what we see. And out of which we step back into reality, an eternity – or some ten minutes – later.

Tim Vanheers, 2021