First published: Aesthetica magazine blog, 7 Jan 2011
Marcel Dinahet: Domobaal Gallery, London, 5 Nov 2010–end of Jan 2011
In a world saturated with images; with photographs, films and video art, Marcel Dinahet’s work is a welcome reprieve. Now in his sixties, Dinahet has been working almost exclusively in video since he abandoned sculpture in the early 1980s. Exploiting the intimacy and transportability of the video camera, Dinahet’s work is characterised by a quiet ambiguity which resists any straightforward narrative logic.
At first glance his work might seem a little presumptuous; at Domobaal gallery he shows three looped video works and little by way of explanation. There are no titles in the gallery, and although the exhibition pamphlet is illuminating, it is general, and does not make specific mention of the works in the show. Because of this aspect, Marcel Dinahet, which is available to view by appointment throughout January, requires patience and the desire to find meaning.
For regular gallery-goers, this isn’t too much to ask. In fact, it is rather refreshing. A respite from overwrought concepts and closed, artistic narratives, Dinahet’s work is more about experience than epistemological gain. Exploring terrestrial and submarine landscapes, Dinahet works from a visual, and deliberately non-political, perspective. Borders, territories and frontiers are evoked, not explained, by an ethereal, liminal aesthetic.
In practical terms, his video works can be loosely distinguished by one of two fundamental methods. In the first instance, Dinahet adopts an idiosyncratic approach to documentary video. Shaped by an interest in the particularity of a place, he carries his camera through towns, villages and coastal areas, recording at close range the faces of the people he meets. A fascination with ports, seaside communities and peripheral coastal areas permeates Dinahet’s work; a theme which is regularly attributed to his birthplace – Finistère in western-most Brittany (the name Finistère comes from the Latin ‘finis terrae’ meaning ‘the end of the earth’).
When it isn’t traversing remote geographical areas, Dinahet’s camera can often be found underwater. Dragged along sea beds, submerged in rivers or skimming the surface of a high tide; it is occasionally accompanied by a cameraman, but more often than not, it is literally thrown overboard. By relinquishing control, Dinahet allows nature and chance to replace the bodily presence of the artist. The resulting videoworks wilfully combine unplanned visual footage with images of everyday interfaces, such as the borders between countries, or the limits between air, water and sky.
This technique is seen to great effect in the piece Underwater sky (2010). Projected onto the ceiling of Domobaal’s ornate Georgian stairwell, this subtle, site specific work depicts the view from a seabed looking up to the sky. The liquescent fluidity of the water merges ambiguously with a light coloured sky to create a dislocatory sense of freedom and movement. Detached from any specific sense of place, Underwater sky has an otherworldliness which separates it from the other works in the exhibition.
It is significant that Dinahet chooses not to explore the epicentres of capital, trade and tourism, but the world’s cultural and geographical peripheries. A seeming obsession with the more marginal communities of Europe is typified by works such as Portraits habitants de Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône (2010). The piece is a series of close-ups of randomly chosen inhabitants who live in a small French town. Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, famous for the historic Abbaye de Maubuisson, is an area charged with social and cultural friction. In its contemporary setting, the 13th century abbey’s architectural peripheries provide a hang-out for local gangs and idle youths – an aspect unseen in the Dinahet’s video.
Merely disclosing the faces of anonymous individuals, Portraits habitants de Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône has no discernable context or topical urgency. As Celia Cretien explains, Dinahet has ‘no intention to comment on a social situation.’ By deliberately withholding contextual information, Dinahet detaches the visual from its point of political or geographical interest. In turn, he proffers a neutral perspective, which reveals as much about video itself as it does about the people of Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône.
It is in this sense that Dinahet’s work is frequently compared to early Structuralist films where narrativity was abandoned in favour of exploring the inherent qualities of the moving image. Bearing in mind the proportions of a portable video camera, the claustrophobic proximity of these brief inter-human encounters is a test for both artist and subject. In effect, the ‘face-to-face’ encounter, as theorised by writers such as Emmanuel Levinas, is mediated by Dinahet’s videocamera, providing a mise-en-scène which is both visually and theoretically productive.
The final piece in the show Figures (2) (2008) is equally rife with critical possibility. Split between two screens (a large central screen and a smaller screen to the right hand side of a viewing bench), an unseen cameraman circles the face of a young woman submerged in a turquoise coloured swimming pool. The floor of the pool is striped with lines of black paint, creating a strong visual contrast between its rigid, architectural structure and the supple movement of the chlorinated water.
In Figures (2), Dinahet deliberately casts a ballet dancer to hold her breath underwater. The fact that this aspect is not disclosed in the exhibition literature allows her poise and relaxed self containment to exude a peaceful, unexplained eloquence. The effect, both calming and captivating, is an interesting contrast to the intensity of Portraits habitants de Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône. Stripped from conclusion, context and conventional narrative structure, Figures (2) provides a rich visual arena from which to contemplate abstract notions such as time, space and being. More metaphorical, and perhaps philosophical, then the other works at domobaal, it allows for period of peaceful suspension with no call for explanation.