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Interview with Christian Caujolle "The Idea is to Try to Make Us Perceive What Mysticism is"
Isabel Muñoz, Untitled, from the Mevlevies series, Syria, 2008. Courtesy of the artist © Isabel Muñoz.
MADRID.- Isabel Muñoz studies human forms, which she analyzes in her images of body parts and snapshots of soldiers, bullfighters and dancers. Added to this is her mastery of developing techniques, a process she carries out in a meticulous, artisanal manner. Her motivation to do research has led her to travel the world, portraying movement and bodies to construct a style in which sensuality, pleasure and desire are captured by her snapshots.

Made possible by an artist’s grant from the Community of Madrid Photography Award in 2006, the exhibition addresses two main themes: love and ecstasy in her photographs of Dervishes. The showing portrays the state of ecstasy reached through spiritual dance performed by Nomadic Syrian Dervishes and in the ceremonies of Iranian Dervishes.

Christian Caujolle, co-curator of the exhibition, explains some of its key points at PHE.es

PHE- How did you start out in the world of visual arts? How has your work evolved to where you are today?

Christian Caujolle- I started out as a critic for Libération in 1979, after having finished my studies that didn’t have anything to do with journalism or visual arts, since I studied Spanish and Latin American literature. Aside from writing, they put me in charge of photo editing as chief redactor in 1981. Then in 1986, I created Agence VU and, years later, the gallery by the same name. I left it two years ago to dedicate my time to teaching at the Louis Lumière School, to write more and curate exhibitions and festivals.

During my time at Libération and Agence VU, I curated exhibitions and festivals and published many photography books on both famous photographers (Klein, Lartigue, Peter Beard, Stromhölm, Salgado, Petersen and more) and young photographers (Bernard Faucon, unknown at the time, Engström, Lars Tunbjörk, Laurence Leblanc, Depardon—his first important book…—Hugues de Wurstemberger, Laurence Leblanc, Mathieu Pernot…). And on many Spaniards, from Cristina García Rodero to Chema Madoz, Ouka Lele, Ricard Terré, Joan Fontcuberta, Isabel Muñoz, which is to say I’ve done quite a few…

PHE- Together with Blanca Lleo, you have curated the exhibition Love and Ecstasy by Isabel Muñoz. What works have been selected for this showing?

CC- We’re co-curators for the new exhibition on Isabel Muñoz: Blanca Lleo, who’s an architect, which is very important in a space like Canal de Isabel II, a wonderful space but very difficult, and myself. It’s been a true collective dialog, with each of us contributing our skills.

The exhibit consists of two series related to Sufism, the mystic tradition of Islam. On the one hand, we have the Dervishes, who have been photographed in Turkey and Syria, and on the other, the secret ritual meetings of its Kurdish followers in Iraq and Iran.

PHE- Made possible by an artist’s grant from the Community of Madrid Photography Award in 2006, the exhibition addresses two main themes: love and ecstasy shown in photographs of the Dervishes. What is the main curatorial narrative for this exhibition?

CC- The idea, which is also tied to the characteristics of this space and the fact that the images are very impacting, is to try to make us perceive and understand what mysticism is: the will to ascend towards the divine light. To achieve this, one must free oneself from the body’s burden. The Dervishes do this by dancing in an obsessive manner, twirling with one hand pointed towards the heavens, and the other towards the ground to create a link between both worlds, dreaming that they will be lifted towards the light. The followers of the brotherhood, exclusively men, do this when they mutilate themselves with nails, razors and metallic objects when in a trance, outside themselves.

The exhibition progresses from the followers preparing themselves, praying to the sound of drums as they get ready for their trance, which takes us through the most spectacular moments with images of bloodletting. Then it moves to the Dervishes until we reach a “video” in the upper dome, which has still images taken frame-to-frame to obtain the best possible quality. There are few works: some 45 large format frames, four videos, and two more videos that more so occupy the space than truly form part of the exhibition’s content. We’ve also worked with lighting in a way that evolves from a dark atmosphere to a highly lighted space.

It was also important to underscore the iconographic, painterly quality that relates Isabel’s work to that of the Baroque. There is a “Christ” figure, a foot, a detail of a bloodied chest that look like paintings by Ribera, as well as others that remind us of Zurbarán. An enormous reprint of the most Christ-like image occupies a central role in this space. It was important for us to highlight that mysticism has produced comparable practices (if not the same). For example, some months ago the Vatican revealed that Pope John Paul II wore a penitent haircloth during the last ten years of his life. Practices like fasting, whipping oneself as punishment, as well as its reference to “Saints and Martyrs,” references to the love of God that speaks to the body (St. John of the Cross, for example, and St. Theresa of Avila), and there’s a classic, very violent and bloody iconography that we often don’t want to see in this way.

Beyond appreciating her work and its power, we hope the exhibition proposes a reflection on the themes of mysticism, the Baroque, faith and the body.

PHE- Isabel Muñoz studies human forms, which she analyzes through images of body fragments and snapshots of soldiers, bullfighters and dancers. How would you define the anthropological study that can be seen in Isabel Muñoz’s work?

CC- I don’t believe it offers a truly anthropological perspective. Rather, I think that Isabel, who for years has displayed her work representing Flamenco, tango, Turkish wrestling and bullfighting, is totally fascinated by bodily practices for the beauty of bodies (her photographs of African bodies bear an incredible nobility, beauty, and an impressive eroticism to them), for the multitude of corporeal expressions when moving, dancing, painting themselves, mixing together, making love, caressing, eroticizing, capable of radically transforming themselves. She considers them at once basic and a mystery. And she tries to explore this point. For more than twenty years… She can have very high quality, professional works, as we know, but her profound work continues to be and always will be tied to that mystery for her, the body. And this is something that can even be seen in her most impacting portraits.

PHE- In your opinion, what specific characteristics do her photographs of Dervishes in this exhibition have in relationship to Isabel Muñoz’s prior work?

CC- Well, I think she continues her quest in a very logical manner, and as always, with incredible determination. What she has done in Iraq and Iran, being the first to do so—and also a woman!—was very daring and dangerous. The most “reportage” parts will seem strange to people because it’s not part of her work that’s known or seen. But here, carefully chosen in large format, they take on a force that goes well beyond all the anecdotes they’re based on. Even though it’s highly original for its point of view and manner of focus, its cropping and framing, the subject of Dervishes is more related to her previous work. It’s more aesthetic in a certain way, in search of how to transcribe movement into a still image.

I should note that it’s Isabel’s first exhibition that’s entirely in color, without any platinum prints...

PHE- Could you share with us the projects you are currently working on?

CC- Well, there are many… At the end of June, I have an exhibition from part of my collection of prints in the city of Niort, on the occasion of a very special award organized by the “Pour Voir” Association, which every year invites eight young photographers to a two-week workshop with a photographer. It’s my turn to be the teacher in 2010 (though I won’t take photos…). It’ll take place in the final weeks of August and the first week of September.

I’ll have to go to be a jury member at Vevey School in Switzerland, and then I’ll present an exhibition in Arlés on the photography collection of Martin Karmitz, with a 340-page book published by Actes Sud.

Then, in Sao Paulo (Brazil) there’s a pre-planning meeting for a new festival to begin in Autumn 2011, called Cidade Galeria, with giant photos (between 150 and 300 square meters) on empty advertising billboards. The festival is entirely free and all of it is outdoors (or almost all of it), and not only on photography: there will be other kinds of artists.

At the beginning of November, I have an exhibition on German reporter Kai Wiedenhoefer, who won the Carmignac Photojournalism Prize, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris. It’s about his work on Gaza.

And then I’ll go to Cambodia for the third edition of the Photo Phnom Penh Festival to take place from November 28th to December 7th, with exhibitions until November 20th.

Added to this are some contests, writings for Internazionale in Italy and artnet.fr in France, plus some others for books and exhibitions. And the Ojo de Pez Encounters in Barcelona. And some long-term projects, like one for Fotonovela in 2012, and another on professional studio artists.

Madrid | Christian Caujolle | Isabel Muñoz |


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