For a period of two years Tom Callemin photographed the same woman every month, each time in the same pose and the same setting. Portrait (24 months) consists of twelve photographs from that series, and it is among the works shown in the exhibition It‘s a world and not the world. Time and again we see her gazing into the lens as the wind plays with her hair. And yet each image seems to change slightly, until something truly different emerges. The exhibition shows that with ‘photography’s analogue bag of tricks’, as he himself puts it, Callemin creates new worlds. In his studio he constructs entire landscapes, as a secondary reality which parallels our own ‘familiar’ reality. What happens when a ‘body’ – whether it be that of a person, an animal or a plant – is brought into the limelight within a fictional setting?
All of the works in the exhibition raise the issue as to what and who we’re observing. Identity and perception are the themes on which Callemin focuses via his fictional illusions. Our concept of the person, which we link with the idea of identity, comes from the Latin word persona. In ancient times theaters were often so substantial in size that the audience wasn’t able to discern the facial expressions of the players. In order to make these expressions metaphorical, each actor wore a mask, a persona. That mask made it possible for spectators to know, right away, which figure they were looking at. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) regarded the persona as a compromise between the individual and society. The persona was a sublimated image of the self, serving as protection against the vulnerability that arises when the self is exposed. We project an image of ourselves to others; and the persona, what we now call image, is the basis of social interaction.
In these times, when photographic images differ from the reality, when every face gets a filter, Tom Callemin explores the idea of the body and its identity. Not by resorting to digital manipulation himself, but by creating staged images in the studio with analogue techniques. Callemin places people, animals, objects and plants in his artificial landscapes. They embody ‘personae’ in images that challenge the viewer’s perception. The series Traps, for instance, consists of fictional winter landscapes. Hidden beneath a carpet of snow are invisible traps like those that poachers use for rabbits. Here and there, merely a rope protrudes from the snow; or a camouflaged stone is suspended above the ground. The landscape with traps was assembled with material used for producing snow in films. In addition to this, Callemin deployed Front Screen Projection, an obsolete special effects technique in which part of the background is projected. The little animal traps play a visual game with perception.
There is an interesting link between Callemin’s sets and the ‘theater’ built by the poacher in order to mislead animals. In that sense fiction also becomes a danger in which the observer himself can become ‘trapped’. This occurs in Starling (tonic immobility), 2022: we see the close-up image of a young starling lying on its back, its little legs sticking straight upward. Contrary to Traps, involving fictional landscapes, here the registration of reality triggers questions in our perception. The bird is acting out its own death. A form of fiction is being used as a survival strategy: attackers, as well as the viewer, are thus effectively misled.
What are we looking at? What lies hidden in the image? Where does the image not add up? Are we looking, as in Portrait (24 months), at someone adopting a role for the camera or is this the actual person as he or she is? Tom Callemin has made this shape-shifting of identity an important theme in his work. He questions our habits of psychological and anthropocentric projection. When is an image an image, and when does it come ‘alive’? When does reciprocity come about between the image and the viewer? The exhibition is, in fact, an ode to the imagination and reflection: for, as all the works show, images transform before our very eyes. But, we might ask, aren’t these images fiction themselves? The way in which Callemin portrays the notion of perpetual transformation and the tension between reality and fiction makes it clear that Reality doesn’t exist: …it is a world and not the world.
* reference to the poem ‘At Tikal’, by William Bronk
translation: Beth O’Brien