One of the pictures that I always come back to when thinking about object photography is a black and white image by the artist Jean-Luc Moulène entitled Bi-Fixe, 7 September 2003. It shows two PET bottles of mineral water from Wales sold under the brand Ty Nant, which have been laid flat onto a medium-colored background and photographed directly from above so as to avoid distortion. The straightforward composition involving standard mass-produced objects (specifically a 1 liter and a 0.5 liter bottle) directly evokes pack shot photography, yet the slight graininess of the image and the use of black and white departs from industrial photography and works as an invitation to probe the relationship between the industrial object and its photographic representation.
Jean-Luc Moulène, Bi-Fixe, 7 septembre 2003. Courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
Last week I proposed to take a look at what remains of photography when photography changes. My interest lay less in technical issues than in searching for the ways in which photography imprints upon us a particular way of experiencing the world around us. To continue with this I want to shift the angle and consider not what is left over by photography, but instead things that photography makes possible, something that may be the subject of Moulène’s Bi-Fixe.
His picture can be compared to the advertisement images produced by Ty Nant and visible on the brand’s website (scroll down the page) as well as to those posted on the site of the bottle’s designer, Ross Lovegrove. In both cases, the bottles are presented against white backgrounds and brightly lit so that they appear to hover in space. The lighting emphasizes the irregularly undulating outlines of the bottles and mark with strong contrasts the bulges and recesses on their surface, thereby conveying very legibly the image of flowing water, which the design evokes. The pictures on the designer’s website, which are accompanied by a sketch, underscore the sculptural quality of the object and conceptual source of the design. On the company’s website the emphasis is oriented towards the product’s quality: the bottle is placed next to a naked female model to emphasize, rather crassly, the affinity between the natural curves of the female body and those of flowing water, however contradictory this may be, given the un-ecological character of plastic-bottled water.
By laying the almost-entirely filled bottles flat against a uniform background, Moulène blocks the light from flowing through the transparent containers. As a result, his photograph shows light bouncing off the plastic and creating bright swirling lines that highlight all the nooks and crannies on the surface of the bottles, which comparatively lessens the visual impact of their outlines. Bubbles of air created by the partial absence of water and a few trickles of water dropped onto the exterior of the bottles add to the visual complexity of the image. Whereas the pack shots underscore the outlines of the bottles enclosing the water, Moulène’s picture seemingly frees the water from its containers, creating a tactile, sensuous representation that is, however, paradoxically rendered possible only by the industrial object that contains it.
By playing container and contained against one another, the photograph disturbs the close affinity between object and photograph that the commercial images display: instead of emphasizing the bold design and the purity of what it contains and, in turn, of displaying the virtuosity of professional camera work, his picture works against the grain of that mutually enhancing contraption. At the same time that it unhinges the proximity between mass-produced object and industrial photography, Bi-Fixe suggests that photography is also at the origin of the object: the shape of the bottle directly proceeds from a photographic capturing of flowing water; it is an image that has been translated into a three-dimensional object.
In retrospect, Bi-Fixe reads like a prototype for investigations by the artist that have subsequently led him into experimenting with object design. Taking his cue – or so it would appear – from the photographic origin of Ty Nant’s PET bottles, Moulène has devised several objects that not only resort to computer design but that clearly manifest, like the Ty Nant bottles, the fact they originate in a two-dimensional design that has been translated into three dimensions (rather than conceived and constructed in volume). His Histocamembert (2004) is a case in point, an object reminiscent of a pie chart blown up and translated into volume. No doubt the most conspicuous of these objects is Body (2011), an irregular bean pod-like shape some 8.5 meters long that Moulène produced in collaboration with the car manufacturer Renault. Similarly to his photographic rendering of the Ty Nant bottles, Body reads counter-intuitively: it exhibits color variations and dividing lines that bear, in fact, no relation to its actual shape, it is seemingly translucent yet opaque, and it is industrially produced but as useless as an object made by a 3D printer. Yet it is in fact anything but an object made by a 3D printer, a technology that directly implements the translation of images into simple objects. Body is a visual conundrum that evokes the two-dimensional, “photographic” quality of designed objects translated into volume by confusing the relationship between object and photograph. It is not unlike the glazed wickerwork pattern drawn on potteries traditionally, yet no longer encased in basketry, but messed up: a computer-generated design that takes us back to a photographic experience of the world and invites us, in turn, to look at photographs less as pictures of things than as objects that address the conditions of their making.