Julien Berthier, The Invisible Journey

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by RVB Books (here). Hardcover with clear PVC jacket, 16×32 cm, 112 pages, with 169 original postcards and collages. Includes inset booklet with text in English/French. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: “A hyper-realistic rock formulation floats in the sea, like a tiny island that could be driven anywhere.” So says the excerpt on the back cover of The Invisible Journey. It’s an odd sentence which may require a few readings to digest. But once internalized, the blurb goes a surprisingly long way toward outlining the project. This is a book about an artificial rock in a variety of backgrounds. Simple enough. But as with many sea journeys, this odyssey has a backstory.

Julian Berthier (b. 1975) was well established as a Parisian provocateur when he was invited by Thomas Mailaender to become the first artistic resident at his Tuna Club in 2021. Mailaender is a prankster in his own right, with a bevy of ironic projects exploring photography, appropriation, and authenticity. The Tuna Club was his latest foray, and Berthier was the perfect resident. He had spliced art monographs together into a single tome under his own name, converted an active construction site into a steel mobile, and chopped a public equestrian statue into a downcast bronze pose. “I wanted to make art outside of art venues,” he once explained in an interview. The Tuna Club was standing by. 

Berthier’s past creations (listed among dozens of others on his website) provide some context for how he responded to Mailaender’s invitation. He also took into account the Tuna Club’s locale, set in the former home of a diving school on the French coast near Marseille. After some thought, Berthier purchased an old motorboat, then spent months remodeling its cabin into a resin-shaped sculpture which blended seamlessly into the hull. It was designed to mimic the distinctive calanque rock slabs of the region. In fact, it matched the landscape so perfectly that Berthier named his boat L’Invisible. In The Invisible Journey, the boat’s materials are itemized like a museum piece: L’Invisible, 2021, Salvaged boat, polystyrene, epoxy resin, paint, engine, 220 x 420 x 232 cm.

L’Invisible moves through water like a normal motorboat. A hidden portal in the roof allows access to the interior. From the wheelhouse it can be propelled and piloted like any marine vessel. When cruising near the Tuna Club, it blends into the calanque seascape with unsettling ease. It may not quite attain full invisibility, but it comes close, as affirmed by pictures on Berthier’s website. His site is also a place to watch short video clips of L’Invisible buzzing around the harbor of Les Goudes. The moving crag provokes smiles and surprised expressions from passing watercraft. I must be in the same boat because I find them impossible to watch without laughing, even after multiple viewings. Like Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe, they strike the perfect note of existential absurdity. What could appear more natural than a rock at sea? And yet this puttering boulder is one of the most bizarre contraptions I’ve ever seen.

L’Invisible’s origin story is recounted in a supplemental folio tucked in the book’s rear sleeve. But the tale gets even stranger. Not only did Berthier shoot pictures and videos of his creation, he made it the subject of an archival postcard project. Perhaps the lowbrow vernacular nature of mail art appealed? Or maybe it was just easier to collage the boat into travel photos than to visit distant sites in person.

In any case, Berthier carefully cut and glued images of L’Invisible onto hundreds of old tourist postcards. Felt tipped pens and watercolors aided the blending process. Berthier seemed determine to test the limits of scissors and glue with stealthy interjections. He reproduced the boat at small scale, then steered it carefully into position. Tone, color, and shading were tuned accordingly. Sometimes he motored the boat into compositional backwaters, or partially obscured its shape behind foreground objects. In the cover image, the boat is dry docked on a trailer near some apartment buildings. No matter what the setting, L’Invisible was adjusted to fit the background scene’s perspective, scale, and direction.

Balancing all of these factors must have been like piloting a yacht through wind-chopped currents. Surely the collages would’ve been far easier to create in Photoshop. But Berthier eschewed digital methods. Perhaps after months building a huge fake rock, a bit of cutting and pasting felt doable. One intentional effect of his analog methods is that collage artifacts are noticeable. L’Invisible blends into scenes, but only up to a point. Its fundamental quality is interloper. Still, the chameleon effect is impressive. As described by RVB, the images “integrate the rock boat … in the same way that the real boat floated on the waters of Marseille: both visible and invisible.”

Berthier’s book The Invisible Journey reproduces 169 manipulated postcards. He tinkered only with the front sides, but the backs are noteworthy too. Many have handwritten ramblings and/or canceled stamps along with manufacturer graphics. Some are browned with oxidation, others are immaculate. Fronts and backs are reproduced as matched sets on each page recto verso, as if they were real cards. These are stacked vertically three to a page (six per facing spread). Multiply by several dozen examples and that’s the entire book. It’s a simple object but one which is deceptively captivating, much like Berthier’s boat.

The Invisible Journey’s dimensions are forced by its unusual layout into a tall and somewhat awkward form. The aspect might feel unwieldy applied to another photo project, but L’Invisible is such a quirky beast that just about anything goes. PVC jacket? A book sized like a boat rudder? Sure, why not. Still, good luck finding a spot on the shelf for this outlier. It resists easy blending.

Berthier must have collected postcards for a while. The range is extensive and spans a wide time period. Thankfully the book is organized into loose categories, 6 cards per spread. Some are matched by color palette, some by era, some by subject or locale. One panel is focused around solitary sailboats, another shows foreground floral arrangements, and another depicts lake scenes in olive tint. There are paintings, castles, and crowded beach scenes too, and these are just a few examples. Each category follows its own strange logic. All are unified by the book’s titular ethos. Somewhere in every scene lurks L’Invisible, like a nautical Zelig. Thumbing through the pages takes on a Where’s Waldo dimension as the reader hunts for the fake rock.

Others have also explored photo typologies of course, including most notably Bernd and Hilla Becher (reviewed here). But they were dead serious. Berthier joins a fresh crop of bookmakers approaching the genre from a slyly subversive stance. Sean Dower’s Monumental Guns (reviewed here) and André Cadere’s New York City, 1975 (reviewed here) were recently published in a similar vein. As all three demonstrate, the use of simple repetition can sometimes have a counterintuitive effect. Familiarity inures readers to the primary subject. Meanwhile secondary surroundings can assume heightened significance. When an absurdist typology hits the viewer just right, it can prick the ineffable.

Perhaps this was Berthier’s intention. Who could cruise past L’Invisible on the open sea, and not spend the succeeding hours pondering every passing rock form? Berthier “embarks on a journey through different places and times, accompanying the travel tales of strangers” according to RVB. “Almost always secondary in the image, the invisible is a pretext for looking at the world around him.” If you believe Dorothea Lange was right, that a camera is a tool that teaches you to see without a camera, then maybe a rock sculpture can expand one’s sensitivity to seascapes? L’Invisible may be a fake object but it has real world applications. The book is seemingly comprised of real postcards. Or are they fabricated? Ponder them long enough and Berthier’s message may become visible.

Collector’s POV: Julien Berthier is represented by Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris (here). His photographic work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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