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Talks & Interviews

Into Eden: A Conversation with Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques

Ahead of his commission for Aperture, the French photographer previews a new project exploring the mythologies of real estate.

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, Untitled 02, 2013, from the series Standards & Poors

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, Untitled 02, 2013, from the series Standards & Poors

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, the first artist recipient of Immersion: A French American Photography Commission, created by the Hermès Foundation and the Aperture Foundation, has found himself a piece of Eden—specifically, a little red schoolhouse located in Eden, North Carolina (population 15,527). Having purchased the house with funds from the award, granted in 2015, Couzinet-Jacques has used it to initiate a series of explorations of small-town USA and the mythologies of the American dream. The work he is producing incorporates photographs made in Eden, research materials from the local historical archives, and scans of items found on-site or of portions of the house itself, as well as the work of invited artists such as Ugo Schiavi, Thomas Hauser, and Fred Cave, each of whom visited the schoolhouse in Eden for brief working stints over the past six months—mini residencies within Couzinet-Jacques’s own residency.

In this way, the schoolhouse has become a site for making and showcasing work, as well as the putative subject of the work itself. Each activity may help uncover or express a new facet of the house, its history, and that of the community in which it’s located. Couzinet-Jacques maintains that his interest is in exploring these issues, while simultaneously looking at photography as one means among many of imprinting and translating reality into visual form. Abstaining from the classic American road trip, Couzinet-Jacques has instead embedded in one place. As he puts it, “I prefer to see the landscape moving through the windows of the living room rather than just from the windows of the car.” The work created during this manifold experience will be exhibited at Aperture Gallery in New York in November 2016. Couzinet-Jacques recently sat down with Lesley A. Martin, Creative Director of the Aperture Foundation, to offer a sneak peek at the project.

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, The Little Red Schoolhouse, c. 1905. Courtesy the artist and Eden Historical Museum

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, The Little Red Schoolhouse, ca. 1905. Courtesy the artist and Eden Historical Museum

Lesley A. Martin: Sylvain, tell us a little bit about your background as an artist and as a photographer. You first graduated from the master’s program at the art school in Marseille, ESADMM (2010), and subsequently from the L’École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles (2012). Your work is decidedly interdisciplinary, drawing on different methods of presentation and image making. Where did you begin?

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques: I used to be a painter—or to be more precise, I guess I used to paint, almost fifteen years ago, and I had a studio at that time. It was a gift—somebody lent me a studio to work and paint. After two years, the person took back the studio. I was like, “Okay, where I can paint?” I bought a camera to photograph nudes for my next paintings. At first it was just for taking notes, but then photography became more central. I have always considered the photographic act to exist at the intersection of figurative ways of being in the world and poetic and abstract ones.

Martin: The Eden project seems to be a continuation of some ideas you explored in your series Standards & Poors, both in the topics you’re focusing on, and in a multidisciplinary approach to those topics.

Couzinet-Jacques: Standards & Poors is a series I made in 2013, in Spain. It’s about the financial crisis, which of course was directly linked to the housing market and real estate crisis. My new project, Eden, is also linked to real estate. I wanted to invest in a cheap house, possibly a foreclosed house, to change the way one might consider it. I want to change an object that is linked to “bad things”—bad, recent history—and make it something very new and different. I’m interested in real estate as it modifies a way of living.

Martin: Meaning, how we construct our lives through the landscape?

Couzinet-Jacques: Absolutely. It’s more than just an observation. I try to totally involve myself in a project as a way of living. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a text that has haunted me for years and I wanted a similar experience—to live someplace for several months and to try to document it from inside. I wanted to talk about a house from inside the house, like a circle. So I bought a house. It’s the first public school of Eden—the classic little red schoolhouse. I wanted to work in a house in order to give some dimensionality to my photography, and then I discovered that the house was built in 1884, the same year that Kodak received its first patent on photographic film, a way to put the real world into a single, flat dimension. I’m going to use the house as a walk-in art space, a lab for pictures, screen-printing, and sculpture. I’m interested in the subject of the house itself, its materials. And I’m very interested in how life can be close to art, directly part of art.

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, Untitled 04, 2013, from the series Standards & Poors

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, Untitled 04, 2013, from the series Standards & Poors

Martin: Is that also why, for example, in your installation of Standards & Poors, you used UV light, which has a direct impact on skin?

Couzinet-Jacques: Yes. I wanted the public to be a witness, exactly as I had been on those sites. It was a way to allow the viewer to feel this light that is quite beautiful and very magical in a way, but also unsafe.

I had been invited by Le Bal, in Paris, to create a body of work that would talk about what is happening in Spain, and also reflect on what contemporary documentary photography is. At Le Bal, there were two types of pictures: “normal” images, and those that required viewing through tinted glass. The prints were almost entirely black-and-white, but colors were introduced during the framing via tinted glass. During the exhibition, the UV lights destroyed some of the prints I had made; but at the same time, other images were protected by the coloration. One part of the exhibition was destroyed, and one part was resistant to the light and the environment. (Viewers were also warned that prolonged exposure to the exhibition could cause burns.) This was a somewhat ironic way to talk about the crisis in Spain—a landscape in crisis. Ghost cities. Buildings that were new and old at the same time. Future ruins.

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, The Little Red Schoolhouse (Red version), 2015

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, The Little Red Schoolhouse (Red version), 2015

Martin: You have an unusual way of working with color as an overlay or as an added element to the picture.

Couzinet-Jacques: I think about a picture as a pictorial process. That’s why I use layers and weird colors sometimes, although I start out with traditional film. The layering is also a link to a conceptual part. Pictures themselves are not the reality, so there is a layer between the real and the way you can express it.

Martin: Your practice seems very material-based. It’s not just pictures on the wall, as you were describing. It’s quite sculptural.

Couzinet-Jacques: Well, you know what Ad Reinhardt said: “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” But what is interesting in photography is that it’s linked to real things. It’s quite straight. The price to pay is that the image itself can be too plain and too perpendicular to talk about real things on its own.

Martin: Too perpendicular? Perpendicular to what?

Couzinet-Jacques: A photograph is square and flat. Sculpture or an installation allows for more dimension to talk about feelings, surfaces, and objects. I try to create an enchantment, to transform the subject, to deviate from the “straightness” of the photography medium.

Martin: But, you mentioned showing your work at Le Bal, which focuses primarily on documentary photography. Do you consider yourself a documentary photographer? Are your reference points in photography documentary photographers, or art photographers?

Couzinet-Jacques: I like that photography is linked to something that exists, but how you compose something, the decision you make when you press a button, this becomes a mix of the political, the social, and the poetic. Poetry and politics are part of the documentary. I’m very interested in the American documentary school, starting with Walker Evans. They are my “mentors.” But I don’t want to do the same things. I try to find my own grammar, my own language. Probably it’s a kind of remix in a way.

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, Untitled, Eden, 2015

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques, Untitled, Eden, 2015. Unless otherwise noted, all photographs © and courtesy the artist

Martin: I think so much of contemporary photography is sort of “Photography Plus”—photography plus sculpture, photography plus painting. It seems like you’re also drawing on tools from other mediums as you need them.

Couzinet-Jacques: I try to be free with that. I’m very interested in other works that are not linked to photography—contemporary art; art generally. I would say that I use photography as a default setting. I use it because its strength is to link people directly to the social and political. Probably the greatest, most beautiful poetry is ultimately concrete in form. I don’t know if I will still be a photographer in ten years, but I will always work with images.

With the Eden project, this is the first time in my life that I’m buying a house—and especially buying a house as an art project. But this is just a starting point of the project, and it’s very different from anything I’ve done before. I know the skills I can bring to it, and I’m going to experiment. Right now, I’m interested in taking a risk.

Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques’s work from this first edition of Immersion: A French American Photography Commission will be exhibited at Aperture in November 2016, accompanied by a new publication.