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For years when anyone was looking at the most accurate reproduction of Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826/27) – the earliest in camera photograph in existence –, one was actually looking at a dupe. Kodak had failed in the attempt to reproduce the image accurately, as so many would since, and in order to get closer to the actual image the scholars and collectors Helmut and Alison Gernsheim retouched the reproduction through painstakingly applying pointillist watercolour dots. Kaja Silverman traces the history of this image in her opening chapter to The Miracle of Analogy (2014), revealing how the forgery circulated for decades as an accurate copy of the photograph that to this date evades reproduction.1
It appears that at times forgery can get us closer to an original, if only through the process the forger takes to produce a copy. An approach that chimes with the work of Eric Baudelaire, which can be seen as a form of counterfeit in its own right. Baudelaire however practices not the type of forgery that imitates a work in its minutiae, instead he finds a way of immersing himself in the technique of another, turning it back on his subjects to learn about them.
For Of Signs and Senses (2009), Eric Baudelaire created a series of heliogravures on rag paper, that display extreme close ups of images that have been censored through the Japanese technique called bokashi. A strategy through which genitalia, or other features that could potentially “unnecessarily excite or stimulate sexual desire”,2 are voided through carefully scratching the ink, stroke by stroke, away from the areas on the page to be censored. The prints in the series have been enlarged to what could be called pornographic dimensions. The zooming in process resulted in an obfuscation of the image, rendering only the cautiously placed strokes of the blade clearly legible and reducing everything else to the pixelated offset print pattern. The titles of the series, such as Paradis Magazine #3 p.71 [sic], Yokohama 2008 (2009), refer back to the place of origin of the image. However, as much as these works tell us about illegibility, they also point out the paradoxical process inherent in the technique that as much as it obliterates also raises attention, creating a sexual tension between the exposed subject and the careful touch of the scratching blade that eradicates its existence, but not its context.
The tactile aspects of bokashi are especially stressed in the companion piece to the heliogravures, the video [sic], also from 2009. The narrative follows a woman carefully preparing a set of newly arrived books for bokashi at an art bookshop. She begins the process prepped with a scalpel and a feather brush. From obvious subjects like the genitalia of colourful female nudes in bondage by Nobuyoshi Araki, the process moves on to the anthers of flowers, details in cityscapes, the horizon in a seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto and the day in a date plates from the Today series by On Kawara. The selection process becomes increasingly obscure and leaves the raison d’etre for their removal puzzling. The piece is accompanied by a timeline on the artist’s website that traces the history of censorship in the Japanese legal system from official state decrees to the now more commonly practiced self-censorship.3 The random trajectory assembled in [sic] plays with the subject in question as something that is enhanced and singled out by the hand of the censor while rendered generic in the process. The touch of the person scratching out eradicates the specifics in the images, leaving in its place something broad and common place, removed by the qualities that made it unique. Names, dates, characteristics, matchless signifiers disappear in favour of images without locations, or clear peculiarities. In doing so the video occupies an ambivalent position that appears to criticise the arbitrary and bureaucratic selection process at play in the practice of bokashi while simultaneously admiring its gentle technique that with its touch alone has the power to render a subject a fetish.
In [sic], as in many of Baudelaire’s works a tension is created between context and subject, central figure and surrounding setting. This calls to mind the work of two filmmakers, who prominently feature in Baudelaire’s work, and who both deliberately played with the object ground relationship in their filmmaking, Michaelangelo Antonioni and Masao Adachi. Antonioni, appears most explicitly in Baudelaire’s The Makes (2009), a faux interview reminiscent of Orson Welles’ epic tale of forgery F For Fake (1974). The Makes, or the Re-Makes as it is temporarily titled in the film’s opening credits, is an interview with the film critic Phillippe Azoury, who poses as himself. Set around a selection of photographs, actors headshots, vintage looking portraits, and what could be identified as publicity materials and shots from a film set, Azoury begins to tell the story of Antonioni’s Japanese period. This fictional phase in Antonioni’s career is confabulated by Azoury based on the available image material culled by Baudelaire from antique markets and other sources, and intermixed with accounts taken from Antonioni’s enigmatic autobiographical text That Bowling Alley on the Tiber (1987) in which the director discussed his ideas, and notes for films that were eventually for various reasons abandoned and never produced. Posed in front of a non-descript meeting room table Azoury positions the photographs as de facto ephemera, employing them to tell the story of a series of fictional films and encounters. Despite the rehearsed set up, Baudelaire’s treatment is brittle, and allows room for doubt. Be it Azoury’s occasional awkward smirks, and helpless grimaces, the at times only tangential connection between presented image and the narration or the audible directions from the off, that call the veracity of the interview into suspicion. We learn about a subject not through direct observance of the person or their work, but through the assimilation of a technique, in this case Antonioni’s approach to filmmaking, imagining a period in his life that although not factual still manages to convey the concerns of the filmmaker. Maybe Baudelaire is inferring to Antonioni’s film L’Eclisse (1962) a film in which we learn most about the protagonists in their absences, in the gaps between their words and their actions, be it the many fractures vistas that we see of the protagonists reflected in their surrounding, defined by circumscription rather than description, or the much debated last scene in which the camera bares witness to the arranged get-together of the two protagonists that neither of them meets. Presented with their former suburban meeting point we are left with the things that surrounded them, a devastatingly empty space, time passing amongst the sights of an emergent modern day living that built the backdrop to their romance.
And also Masao Adachi, the screenwriter and filmmaker of the Japanese Avant-Garde cinema who abandoned his filmmaking practice to fully commit to the armed struggle and the Palestinian cause in Lebanon, is another character who Baudelaire attempts to depict through absorption. By tracing the disjointed stories and entangled recollections of May Shigenobu and Masao Adachi, in The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years without Images (2011), Baudelaire retells Adachi’s and Shigenobu’s anabasis through contemporary vistas of Beirut’s and Tokyo’s urban and suburban landscapes interspersed with excerpts from the films of Adachi, archival footage and photographs. The two protagonists of the film are for different reasons denied images as a reminder and corrective of their respective memories. May Shigenobu was raised as the secret daughter of Fusaku Shigenobu, the head of the radical left-wing faction of the Japanese Red Army. Born in exile in Lebanon, May is forced to hide her real identity from the world for 27 years until the arrest of her mother and her return to Tokyo. Similarly Masao Adachi, who went to Lebanon to make a film about the Japanese United Army and eventually joined the cause, is denied the return to Beirut after an extradition order from Japan forces him to leave Lebanon and never to return. In advance of the filming in Beirut, Adachi instructs Baudelaire to revisit and film a selection of places from his time there that are now unattainable for him. Baudelaire obliges and films the locations that Adachi used to frequent before he was forced to leave Beirut. Shot on Super 8, the soft and withered colours of the film stock appear to reinstate the missing images. Without clear distinctions, we see the panoramas of Beirut and Tokyo drift in and out like stations on a long train journey. Location and narration meld together often making it hard to distinguish where one city ends and the other begins. The partiality of landscapes and cityscapes over other footage is a nod to Adachi’s theory of landscape or fukeiron, a cinematic strategy developed by Adachi and a group of Japanese filmmakers in the late sixties that trusts entirely on the depiction of the lived environment to expose underlying causalities of power. The sole example of this strategy ever put to action being Adachi’s AKA Serial Killer (1969), a film that attempts to portray the life of nineteen-year-old serial murderer Norio Nagayama exclusively through the physical environments that formed the backdrop of his existence. In The Anabasis Baudelaire turns Adachi’s method back on him, not to test its validity, but as a way to get closer to its author. Almost akin to something like method acting Baudelaire assimilates an experience to attain a more accurate portrayal.
Much has been written about the parallels of the photographic and filmic processes to casting and printmaking as in all three techniques the image has to go through the indexical process of its own reversal before assuming its final form. The photographic/filmic process is therefore alone through its process intricately linked to the literary figure that has guided so much of Eric Baudelaire’s work, the anabasis – the epic journey into the unknown and the longwinded return home. Although derived from Xenophon’s account of the Greek armies struggle enroute to Persia and their retreat after the unexpected death of their leader Cyrus, the anabasis is not only a literary motive, but also a shape, a process. I like to think of Baudelaire’s films as choreographic shapes, journeys that are undertaken for the return home, to mimic someone else’s journey merely to get closer to them.
Anna Gritz is a curator and writer based in London. She’s the curator for film and performance at the South London Gallery.