I wish to evoke deep emotions without simply pleasing the eye.
Ambiguity is disturbing. Over millions of years, our evolution has shaped us to crave certainty. It was a necessary survival skill. Seeing an indistinct shape among the grassy plains of the Savanna sharpened the attention: was this a predator, a food source, or a potential mate? It was important to know for sure which was the case, otherwise the outcome could be very messy indeed.
Modern societies are highly complex, and it can be very hard to discern the threats from the opportunities. A large part of the newest areas of the human brain are associated with what is called ‘theory of mind’: the ability to attribute intentions, desires, emotions, and beliefs to oneself and, importantly, to others. To understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that may well be different from one’s own, and to weigh up the implications. Meanwhile, discoveries made in the field of quantum physics suggest that uncertainty is fundamental to the very material nature of the universe. And philosophers from Laozi and Zhuangzi to Heraclitus and Hegel have embraced the unsettling ambiguities of paradox as the source of profound insight.
For Christophe Canato, a French photographic artist now living in Western Australia, uncertainty is a creative principle. It animates the concepts within his work. Rather than illustrating an idea, his images propose a paradox, setting incompatible associations and emotions within a single image. The image becomes the site of a ‘conversation’ between the artist and the viewer. That artists raise questions rather than proposing answers is commonly true. In the case of Christophe Canato’s work, those questions lead, in the viewer, not to answers but to yet more questions. They expand the field of awareness simply by denying easy resolution. They become sites of ongoing reflection, sharpening the mind by denying the comfort of certainty.
Alasdair: Do you think of your approach to image-making as compassionate?
Christophe: That is an interesting question, because I have never before thought of my approach to my work in terms of compassion. My job as an artist is to offer to the viewer material for reflection, but it is also a way for me to find answers for myself. I think that involves sympathy… is that compassionate?
Sympathy is about feeling sorry for someone. I prefer to think of compassion as a recognition of and sensitivity to human need, and the determination to do something about it.
I think “a recognition of and sensitivity to human need” is a good way to describe my approach, though I have not previously thought of it that way.
While my photographs are images of other people, I am in fact talking about myself. The sensitivity I draw upon when I portray each person or situation is a way of exploring and ‘translating’ my values and concerns. Is it possible to be compassionate toward oneself?
Yes, certainly. It is difficult to be compassionate to others without first having compassion for oneself… How do you approach this sensitivity to others and the exploration of your philosophical ideas through your photography; a medium that could in many ways be seen as very literal?
I wish to evoke deep emotions without simply pleasing the eye. I use minimal composition, that way you get to the essentials… there is no place for the superfluous.
With portraits, it might be a piercing confident gaze confronting the viewer or the hesitant glance of a submissive character. When the whole body is involved, it is the staging and the gestures that communicate strength or vulnerability. Even without clothes, a body may seem powerful or vulnerable. These are the shades of meaning through which I can express the necessary sensitivity to both the subject and the idea.
The first series I would like to explore is ‘Women of Jerusalem (the eighth Station of the Cross)’. How did this series come about?
In 2012, the curator Catherine Czew invited me to take part in a group exhibition called ‘The Stations of the Cross’. [In the Christian religion, and especially in Roman Catholicism, the stations of the cross describe fourteen episodes in the last days of Jesus Christ from the moment of his arrest to the placing of his body in a tomb. Each has become a specific visual trope frequently represented in sacred sculptures and paintings.] The overall concept was to invite various artists each to represent one ‘station’. I agreed on condition that I could represent the eight Station: ‘Jesus meets the Women of Jerusalem’.
Why did you choose that subject?
I am a feminist. I wanted to reflect upon the stigma that can attached to women when they become old and the vulnerability this brings [in contemporary Western culture]. These are intimate portraits. The women wear thin camisoles suggesting both beauty and humiliation, acceptance and rejection. I always work with the way in which opposites respond to each another … and I realise as we are speaking that it is probably in that paradox that feelings of compassion settle. At the time, it was obvious to me that there was something religious about my search for a kind of resilience in vulnerability. This suited the Christian idea of transcendence through self-sacrifice, and the specific ideas in the eight station of the cross.
© Christophe Canato from the series ‘Women of Jerusalem: The eighth Station of the Cross’ 2012
How did you translate those abstract ideas into visual language?
The high-key tonality gives this series a clinical feel that might translate as purity, respect, divinity. But it also highlights the age of the women, their skin marked by the passage of time, their vulnerability, a kind of ghostly desolation. My intention was to confound simplistic interpretation.
How much does this work rely on that Christian religious context to find its meaning?
I later had an opportunity to exhibit some of these photographs in another context, removed from the religious associations of that collective exhibition. In that later case, what viewers told me they saw in these images is a documentary about women with dementia; they saw no religious overtones.
© Christophe Canato from the series ‘Ricochet’ 2014
You made ‘Ricochet’ two years later. What ideas did you want to explore in this series?
I wanted to reflect upon the imagination of boys in that age before puberty when they are no longer infants but not yet adolescent. It is a reflection, of course, through adult eyes and memories. Memories that bouncing back at moments in adult life like a ricochet.
This is about the adventurous journey of later childhood; a childhood inspired by environment and creativity, narcissism and mimicry, tribalism and ritual.
The aesthetic reverses the high-key of ‘Women of Jerusalem’, taking instead a painterly chiaroscuro. What led you to this aesthetic approach?
I wanted to capture something serene and delicate, somewhere between the real world and fantasy. As you suggest, the intimate lighting and black background reference classical Western paintings. But theatrical, surreal and aesthetic…? That is a very good question… I do sometimes wonder if my work might be too aesthetic. I am always trying to find a balance between beauty and disquiet; an idea and uncertainty…
© Christophe Canato from the series ‘Ricochet’ 2014
While in your previous work you have made series that are wholly portraits or wholly still-lifes, here you include both portraits and still-life imagery.
I had in mind the idea of ‘gleaning’, collecting stuff. It is what I did as a boy and, as an adult, it is what I did as I began this series. Horns, plants, insects, a tooth, all kinds of objects that, in some cases, work well on their own and, in others, ‘come alive’ in the presence of the boy. There is an essential connection with nature – to fauna, to flora – and I knew I needed to connect this work to the wider environment, in particular the forest.
The forest is a place that lives in the imagination of the ‘collective unconscious’. In the image of the hut, the forest suggests something dark and threatening; the light coming from within the hut is reassuring, protective.
But, when I am making a series, there is always a long period of ‘work in progress’. Images are juxtaposed and ‘grafted’ throughout the duration of the project. The image of the hut came late in the project. On the other hand, the images of the parrot, the mouse and the snails were already a part of my personal image archive.
‘The Space Between Us’ employs a similarly dark aesthetic but shifts the focus to the relationship between men, and questions of masculinity and mutuality. How did this series begin?
After many years of making images, I finally was brave enough to speak directly about myself, about my gender and about the complexity of relationships. Once again, the series began with an invitation to take part in a group exhibition. Each artist was required to make three works.
In the first image [above left] I wanted to express ideas about a ‘third gender’ that is neither male nor female. The figure in the image has both a beard and the kind of long flowing hair traditionally associated in Western culture with femininity. Such blending of gender can be considered ‘freakish’, as in the nineteenth-century fairground spectacle of the ‘bearded lady’.
In the second image [above right] I addressed the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus [a beautiful but self-absorbed young man who fell in love with his own reflection]. Today narcissism describes an obsession with oneself, one’s physical appearance or public perception. Some suggest that homosexuality is an expression of narcissism; a desire for those who are ‘the same’. I want to question the relevance and ethics of that interpretation – that reading of the story – given the complexity of the human brain and the intricate constructs of our societies.
The final image [below right] touches on the notion of human interconnectivity and spirituality; that we each find meaning and betterment in our relationship to others … where we fit in, how we rise up. Not just in our contemporary world but across time: we ‘ascend’… spiritually and socially we are elevated (we evolve upwards, we rise up through the social classes, a monarch ascends to the head of state, the Ascension of Christ into Heaven…)
I was interested in the contrast in a number of these images, between the clothed and the unclothed figure. Nakedness is often associated with vulnerability, but in these images that does not always seem to be the case.
Each is a duet involving two men. One is dressed and the other is stripped. The one who is undressed seems physically stronger than the other; he supports the man who is clothed. What is the interplay between these two characters? Can we say that one has power over the other? Does nudity represent a weakness or a strength? Do the upwardly turned palms signify vulnerability or suggest the power of knowledge [suggesting the way a book might be held when reading]?
As with all my work, I hope these paradoxical situations invite one to think.
The next series, ‘Bored by Dreams’, shares its title with a song from the 1990s in which a woman is lamenting the tangled relationship between what one wants and what one gets. The series also uses a series of graphic motifs based on a triangle. What ideas are you exploring in this series?
It continues my research into questions of masculinity in cultural and religious contexts, including sexual orientation. The geometric symbols were inspired by activist logos, badges of stigmatisation and decorative religious symbols. [In Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, homosexual and bisexual men were forced to wear the symbol of a pink triangle to make their sexuality public to everyone, just as Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow star. In the 1970s, the symbol of the pink triangle was revived by gay activists as a symbol of memorial and protest against homophobia. In the 1980s, with the advent of AIDS, the triangle was inverted and became a more defiantly positive symbol of both self and community identity.]
© Christophe Canato from the series ‘Bored by Dreams’ 2017–18
The images also make reference to the environment of working men. For example, the star created by superimposing two triangles is made from the pink string used by builders to mark out a construction site. In another image, the triangle takes the form of a pennant from a bunting banner. Other images are formed through the fragmentation and recombination of two images: two men, one black, one white; or one clothed the other naked. It is the double meaning hidden within these compositions that interests me: stigmatisation or assertion; humiliation or celebration; normal or abnormal; accepted or deplored.
In your most recent series, ‘Le Baiser’ [the kiss], you extend the expressive layering to create a kind of metaphorical hybrid. What are the underlying ideas behind this series?
Since completing ‘The Space Between Us’, a large part of my practice has concerned same-sex orientation. While it is true that we have begun to make significant progress in the areas of LGBT rights, homophobia is still the most prevalent cause of teenager suicide in Western countries. Not that long ago in France, an advertising campaign that featured two men kissing was censored following pressure by some influential citizens who complained it was perversely provocative.
These metaphorical portraits are dark and tortured. For me, they are reminiscent of the contorted figures in Francis Bacon’s paintings.
How are they constructed?
Each portrait is a fusion of two men, a couple. These are not digital ‘patchworks’ sticking different body parts together in Photoshop. The final image is formed of two portraits positioned intimately, one over the other. I then erase some sections of the upper layer in order to reveal parts of the lower image, creating a single ‘fused’ portrait. The kiss, usually associated with tenderness and desire, is metamorphosed into a vision of horror: revulsion, pity, curiosity…
What have you learned about compassion in the process of making these photographs?
Until this interview, I had never thought about my art in the context of compassion. Your questions have made me think, and now I plan to consciously integrate the concept of compassion into my work.
I would like to thank you for this.
I guess that this is the point of contemporary art. There is the artist and there are his creations, and there is the ongoing dialogue he seeks to establish with those who view and reflect upon his work.
Christophe Canato was born in Grenoble, France, in 1966. He has a Bachelor of Visual Art (1985) and Beaux-Arts Diplome National Superieur Expression Plastique (1985) both from École supérieure d’Art de Grenoble; and Specialist Master’s degree in Fashion Management, Institut Français de la Mode, Paris. He moved to Australia in 2005, following which his photomedia practice evolved rapidly in its style and content, while also expanding to include videography. He has exhibited extensively in Australia, France and Singapore and won a number of awards including the Paris Salon de la Jeune Création in 1997. He lives and works in Perth, Western Australia.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Compassion.