It was three in the morning and everyone seemed to be sleeping when Marie Bovo (Alicante, 1967) arrived at an illegal gypsy camp in Les Arnavaux, Marseille. In the darkness of the night the ramshackle shacks still stood out. Outside, some objects and the remains of the dinner remained out in the open. The tracks, on which not many years ago the trains traveled daily, were covered with threadbare fabrics. After deciding where to pose her large format camera, and due to the light shortage, the photographer needed three hours to get her first shot. As the night wore on, the reflection of the city lights faded. There came a time when I couldn’t see anything. Darkness invaded everything. “It was too dark! I worked intuitively trusting in the ‘generosity of technology’, and in the camera that does not need to see ”, recalls the author in Nocturnes, a monograph published by Editions Xavier Barral that serves as a catalog for an exhibition, which can be seen until August 23 in the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris.
There are 35 large-format pieces that, belonging to five photographic series and made between 2008 and 2020, are exhibited in the room. Along with them, two video films are shown. The entire work has been done overnight. “Night photography involves long exposure times, and one of the effects of this long exposure is that, together with light, time becomes part of the equation,” highlights the photographer. Thus, time expands, seems to have stopped, giving the images a dreamy character within the dark night. It is not the architecture of the places that interests the artist, but their use. Also that which is hidden between the layers of the urbanized Mediterranean landscape, “frequently framed between veils, curtains and blinds and that differs greatly from the more Nordic opening tradition,” as the photographer describes it. It is through her delicate use of composition, impregnated with social poetry, where the powerful imprint of the invisible actors that inhabit these spaces daily is evident.
He was born in Spain, where he spent his childhood. She now lives and works in Marseille, and has adopted French nationality. But it is to the experiences of those first years, which took place in the residence of her grandparents, where the gaze of this multidisciplinary artist goes back. As a child I wanted to be a sculptor. In her house there were no books, no painting, just a photograph of a sculpture of a painful mater, hanging on the wall of her grandmother’s bedroom. “It would be the first work of art I saw,” recalls Bovo, “the strange thing is that she did not know how to distinguish whether it was a sculpture or an image. It had the same degree of presence as a photograph of a real person. She seemed to be alive. Today when I close my eyes I still see her. What I really like about photography is that it evokes all dimensions. It does not reach that majestic and exalted character of painting within art. Photography is mixed. It is not pure. It can be a document or a postcard, and it occupies all dimensions. That interests me a lot. An altar has not been built around it, but it is located on the level of real life ”.
“I consider myself Spanish with a heart and soul,” says the author. “I studied art and literature in France, but in Spanish art I found a way of seeing and feeling that I think is reflected in my images. It was the poetry of Federico García Lorca that laid the foundations for my artistic search. I was inspired by her use of color as a symbol; in her poetry abstract things acquire a concrete reality ”. Her artistic beginnings were through painting and installations and her interest in photography arose when a friend gave her a camera, more than 20 years ago. “I knew the history of photography well, but I am self-taught in terms of its technique,” she says. Her nocturnal images have placed her within the international photography scene. “I am interested in the limitations of vision and what this implies. Working at night has been to face this limitation and accept it. Accept that there are things that escape the gaze, the voyeuristic and exhibitionist impulse of our societies, and from there, value not only the importance of what you can see but also what you do not see or hide. For me this ties in with Lorca in that in my work the darkness is not presented as an abstraction but as something that can be felt ”.
The night, the timelessness of images that speak to us about both the present and the past, and the absence of the inhabitants of these spaces define this journey that leads us from Marseille to Algiers, considered its twin sister on the other side of the Mediterranean, until we reach to the town of Kasunya in Ghana. The presence of the artist is never intrusive, both when she works inside the houses and on her more immediate exterior. The camera focuses on the sky in the series Cours Intérieures, just at the moment when the first lights come on that alert us to the presence of the inhabitants inside their homes. The sky is reduced to a rectangle – which could function as a metaphor for the photographic frame – furrowed by the tendales where the clothes of those who live in the houses hang. “I am very interested in how people organize the space to live when nothing favors them,” says the artist. “These specific buildings once belonged to bourgeois people. The area became impoverished and today it is the Tunisian and Algerian immigrants who inhabit them. Families of eight children can be found living in 20 square meters and clotheslines are no longer usually seen in bourgeois houses, they are associated with more depressed areas. ”
In the late afternoon, the apartment building located on Rue Reda Houhou in Algiers seems to come to life when its owners open their balconies, protected from the sun by blinds and curtains during the day. So in Alger, Bovo seems to transform these half-open balconies into theatrical settings where the intimate space is blurred with the public. The vibrant color scheme that accompanies La voie de chemin de fer It does not diminish the human drama behind this series made in an illegal settlement of Roma, located under a bridge in Marseille. Protected in the wee hours of the morning by the invisibility offered by the night, the traces of the rituals of the day reveal the presence of its inhabitants. The same sensation invades us when observing Evening Settings, where it seems that the inhabitants of the town of Kasunya have just disappeared, leaving behind in the courtyards the testimonies of daily activities. These gadgets incite the viewer to imagine the lives of these people, who pass between their atavistic customs and technological development. Suisse- Le Palais du roi It is the only series in which the human presence is discreetly perceived, through the reflection of a mirror. In it the artist captures the interior of a room. Built in 1895, in recent times it housed a kebab, today destined for demolition, and whose remodeling involved the disappearance of the mosaics on its walls where the mythological origins of Marseille are represented. Bovo immortalized with her camera these vestiges of the past where the passage of time is reflected while talking about the vulnerability of the landscape.
Silence is implicit in this artist’s approach to her exploration of the night. A silence that springs from their careful observation and the non-invasive appropriation of privacy, and invites the viewer to reflect on the most disadvantaged; about what we don’t see, or don’t want to see. In Bovo’s nighttime images a world is hidden, but a universe is revealed.
Nocturnes. Marie Bovo. Fondation Henri Cartier- Bresson. Paris. Until August 23.
Nocturnes. Marie Bovo. Atelier EXB. 160 pages. 42 euros.