Ariane Toussaint, Chapter 2 – Claudine

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2019 (here). Soft-bound, handmade cover with wallpaper and fabric; open spine; 104 pages with fourteen color images and four black-and-white reproductions; 11.5 x 7.9 inches. Includes a removable family-tree poster; various texts in French by the photographer with English translations by Emily Anderson and Sydney Rahimtoola. Text editing by Laurent Zorzin; design by Anna Moschioni. First printing in an edition of 50 copies; second printing in an edition of 70 copies. (Cover and spread shots below).

Context/Comments: In the midst of Ariane Toussaint’s The Big Tapestry Where We Come From. Chapter 2 – Claudine. A Story about Family, Hoarding, Love and Loneliness, an empty frame corrals a description of something we cannot see: “Photograph of an unmade bed,” it says. The bed we are asked to imagine belongs to Toussaint’s great-aunt Claudine, an elderly woman who is, simply put, a hoarder. A hoarder, as Toussaint describes in the book’s opening pages, is someone “whose home is not very neat” – but, in fact, “a bloody mess.” “There is stuff piled-up everywhere: plastic bags, newspapers. [And as] we walk through the trenches, we can hardly tell, where the floor is, where the ceiling is.” But stories, like people, unfold in more complex ways than concise descriptions or abridged definitions. Ways that are shaped by crinkles and blind spots, like rumpled sheets or images made of words – and that Chapter 2 – Claudine so delicately retraces.

Organized within three main sections – “The Family”, “The House of Claudine”, and “Love and Loneliness”, the book takes the form of a play, with an introduction setting the context and tone for Toussaint’s first-person narrative. “What I’m going to tell you is no fun,” she writes. “I’ll tell you about death, suffering, trauma, and pain. But I will also tell you about love and human relationships – about the kind of love I have for my aunt, for my whole family.” And as we learn about Toussaint’s yearning for physical touch from family members, who clearly care deeply but don’t necessarily express it, we understand that her project arises from a place of darkness – from things unsaid, which she intends to set free. It is the succinct immediacy of Toussaint’s sentences that draws you right into her world; a voice that understands and empathizes with a particular kind of solitude – one that the following text fragment, “The Hoarder”, carefully untangles. What resonates within this nuanced characterization, is that Toussaint (grounded in medical and neuropsychological research) does not elaborate on the condition’s signature symptom – domestic mess – but its emotional origins: a loss of trust that eventually manifests in a secluded life, relying on nothing but oneself. However, there are little tricks to bridge the resulting loneliness, and the hoarder does so through a form of animism, creating imaginary characters made of objects. “Everyday objects, intimate objects, household objects, banal objects, bizarre objects, objects that we interact with daily.” As if extensions of the hoarder’s body, they provide company, but most importantly, a better protection “against the world.”

It is these objects – Claudine’s objects – that weave the visual fabric of Chapter 2 – Claudine. Spread across the book’s second and third sections, they are either photographed individually, in color, or captured in monochrome groups. Recalling the flashy dreamscapes of an Almodóvar movie, “The House of Claudine” unites the first selection of images that Toussaint collaged onto vivid, full-bleed backgrounds. Taken during an afternoon’s visit, they retrace her foray through her aunt’s home. One to a page and accompanied by succinct captions that direct our eyes’ focus, we see things including a painting hung on the wall; a golden clock on a shelf; a light-bulb resting in a beautiful blue-speckled glass. These objects indeed become characters, partly for the way Toussaint has captured them – up-close, from tilted angles, and with a flash – at times almost caught by surprise, like the pair of pink rubber gloves peeking out of a closet, as if to catch some air; other times as if posing for the camera, such as an elegant house robe dangling from a door, awaiting the body it is meant to cover. This sensation of personification becomes even stronger for the underlying images with which Toussaint paired Claudine’s objects: a series of fruit, vegetable, and plant drawings that create uncanny visual resonances, like pieces of old wallpaper accumulating on a wall.

These drawings belong to a portfolio originally compiled by Claudine’s mother, Mamita (Toussaint’s great-grandmother), that Claudine gave to her niece during one of her visits. A primary-school teacher who was fond of nature, Mamita collected botanical drawings, including the aforesaid series of fruit, vegetable, and plant reproductions from a post-war encyclopedia titled “Les beaux fruits de la France.” Moved not only by Claudine’s gift, but also the portfolio’s innate connection with her family’s history and interest in crafts, Toussaint decided to include the latter in her book: layers of the past, passed down amongst three generations, three women, who are, along with other relatives, at the heart the book’s final chapter.

Mainly comprised of a series of text-fragments, “Love and Loneliness” opens with a short series of black-and-white photographs that infuse the book with a more removed, at times somber, atmosphere. Here, even if briefly, we are allowed to glimpse into two rooms of Claudine’s home, and can inspect a shelf as well as makeshift table, which both appear more sculptural than functional, only increasing the mystery of their maker. I must admit that with every turning page, I was hoping to see Claudine, but, of course, didn’t. “Claudine always hated pictures,” Toussaint wrote me. “She almost never appears in family albums. I was obviously scared to ask for her permission to photograph her house and the first time I went, I took my small point-and-shoot camera and photographed one black-and-white film secretly when she went to the bathroom.”

Strangely enough, it is this sense of hastiness, present in these photographs that adds to the feeling of intimacy, not only between Toussaint and her aunt, but the project as a whole. Inspired by many things, including medieval illuminations, Motoyuki Daifu’s Lovesody, Richard Billingham’s series about his parents, and Zofia Rydet’s photographs of Polish households and their inhabitants, Toussaint creates her very own interpretation of emotional nearness by bringing us at once as close as a piece of yellowed tape, to then pull back to the perspective of a loving intruder observing her way through her aunt’s reticent life, one object at a time. This constant movement of push-and-pull is most beautifully captured, however, not in her photographs, but her texts.

Written throughout the entire working process of Chapter 2 – Claudine, “The Diary of the Photographer” merges personal notes, with conversations and memories, family lore, meditations about photography and being an artist, the making of Toussaint’s images, space both emotional and physical – and, quite frankly, all the complicated aspects of loving the people you are tied to by blood. What might sound chaotic and overwhelming, is a truly beautiful read, both pondered and raw, and has to be experienced first-hand (although I, sadly, have to say that the English translation is not at the same level as Toussaint’s French original).

As an artist, Toussaint is interested in the relationship between objects, words, and images – and their capacity to create fictions, particularly in regards to one’s own narrative. The world she creates, explores, and dissects is populated by various characters, four of whom we are first introduced to in section one, “The Family.” Each to a double-page, Claudine, Jean-Louis (Claudine’s brother), Mamita, and François (Claudine’s second brother) are characterized by a sequence of nouns that Toussaint arranged in patterns recalling the visual poetry of the French avant-garde. Less descriptions than “textual landscapes,” Toussaint – drawing from stories and personal archives – designed them according to how she imagined her ancestors’ mental landscapes: Claudine’s like stacks of words; Jean-Louis’s, who was a sailor, recalling a wave; Mamita’s, the nature aficionado, like a growing plant; and François’s, who wanted to be a filmmaker, reminiscent of the sprocket-holes on the side of a film. To navigate these landscapes, whether you distinguish their shapes or not, is demanding. If you take the time, however, you’ll notice that the ghostly presence of these characters solidifies in the book’s final section – creating the intricate mesh of Claudine’s story and Toussaint’s narrative.

Toussaint has emphasized that, albeit speaking through her own voice, it is Claudine who is the book’s protagonist. I am not sure if I agree. Not because Claudine ultimately remains an intriguing mystery (and rightfully so!), but because it is Toussaint’s perception of and connection with her that brings her aunt into being within the book – and our mind. Considering the many traps into which Chapter 2 – Claudine could have fallen – ranging from exploitation and dramatization, shaming and idealization, to aesthetic and emotional fussiness – it is remarkable that Toussaint stumbles not even once. This is partly due to the book’s unerring design and intelligent concept: two different types of paper create a tactile object that, despite its emotional weight, is light enough to be held and read with pleasure. The elegant typeface and theatrical index counter and enrich her playful and moody photographs, while a minutely drawn family tree (in the form of a fold-out poster), helps you to find your way through the book’s characters. An acute sense for materiality is particularly present in the cover merging a flowery wallpaper with underlying piece of rough fabric, slowly fraying on its edges with time and use, but never coming apart. Instead of perfection and closure, I think of it more as an object that feels deliberately unfinished, or open-ended, like her title, suggesting the existence of a Chapter 1, which Toussaint never made. Instead, she intentionally began with Chapter 2, because to her “family has no beginning and no end.”

A search for healing, The Big Tapestry Where We Come From. Chapter 2 – Claudine. A Story about Family, Hoarding, Love and Loneliness, addresses the multiple layers that its title suggests. It will take you several reads to find, un-tease them, and reweave them. For me it is not so much of a photobook, than a compendium of stories, resting somewhere between a work of auto-fiction, a memoir of sorts, a visual inquiry, and a coming-of-age. It is the book’s last sentence to reveal that healing, at least for Toussaint, actually occurred. “To grow up is to invite ghosts to your table.” These ghosts stay with you as you close the final page, probing you to confront your own.

Collector’s POV: Ariane Toussaint does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Vexer Verlag (here). Hardcover (33.3×24.5 cm), 264 pages, with 175 color reproductions. (Includes a short text by Trmasan Bruialesi. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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