exhibition review

In Between Dreams and Nightmares with Augustin Rebetez

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Augustin Rebetez’s collection of photographs, Poudre de Songes, surges from an eerie world where the shadow of nightmares looms somberly, faintly countered by ethereal notes. References are obscure, esoteric, or made up, evoking, in turns, tribal graphics, folk tales, occult practices, and horror movie parody stereotypes, but are reticent to disclose their origins and their nature. The images partake of a certain do-it-yourself aesthetic, where the photographer builds precarious, as if unfinished or even purposely destroyed, props –  a model’s tights are ripped, a mask has melted, branches threaten to fall. And pictures never disclose their setting: it often feels as if one were trapped in a dark forest, until, in one image, the idea of a landscape is evoked, and then negated by drips of black paint. Nothing is certain, and this partly applies, too, to the vision of Rebetez, whose universe, if tightened, would substantially strengthen.

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Nonetheless, he does know how to elicit instinctive emotional responses. There is, often, a sense of danger and impending agression, evident, first, through the pervasive symbolism of pain: signs of painful pricking, piercing, penetration abound, with tattooed models, tree branches impaling a snow man, many images of knives, and thorns transpiercing a model of a bird. Thorns also grow out of a woman’s mouth, a photograph shown next to one of bruised skin, making for a perhaps too obvious suggestion of cause to effect.

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Then, to the stabbing responds the slime, adding to the unsettling feeling of insecurity through matter that’s neither solid nor liquid. In one of the highlights of the show, black slimy substance, perhaps melted wax, covers a person’s face, preventing breathing and seeing, despite the character’s large round goggles. Elsewhere, another striking character, wearing a melting black mask, shows off his (or her, or its) bright, incisive teeth. A human-animal hybrid, it bears horns or antlers, and menacingly invites – or enlists –  the viewer to join its occult ritual. And an amorphous sculpture reminiscent of a bird, made of congealed black slime, stabbed repeatedly, still feels tentative. In fact, animal, and especially aviary, imagery permeates Rebetez’s body of work, his signature black cutout of birds sprinkled throughout the display. More disquieting, there are fake animal carcasses with antlers, and other imaginary creatures, such as a pseudo-primeval half-bird, half-dinosaur,  gesturing and shouting into the night.

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Rebetez counterbalances darkness with brighter images – a woman bearing tribal tattoos on her face, another whose body is covered in vegetal motifs,  or one androgynous snow queen. Yet, the contrast between the graphic quality of the tattoos and the dark chaos of many of the pictures, while holding remarkable potential, was toned down. The color photographs, like one of a man walking through bare fields, lacked some of the raw energy of his black and whites.

Ultimately, Rebetez makes no statement or commentary. The arrangement of the photographs seems to result from haphazard free associations, but connections involuntarily spring up: when the face of a woman contoured with a system of symmetrical black dotted lines is superimposed over that of an array of knives, it is not farfetched to make a leap to considerations surrounding plastic surgery, mutilation, and sado-masochism.

Augustin Rebetez’s Poudre de Songes is on show at Station Beirut, Jisr-el-Wati, until 10 November 2018.

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