Bord de Mer by Gabriele Basilico

Just before his untimely death in 2013, Gabriele Basilico was working on the fourth and ultimate edition of  “Bord de Mer“, the monograph with his photographs for the DATAR Photographic Mission (first publication date, 1990). Italian publishing house Contrasto published this last edition of the well-known work last summer. In comparison with its earlier versions, it proposes 71 photographs in stead of 37 or 55. The book also contains some sketches that Basilico drew in 1985 for the preparation of the exhibition “La Mission Photographique de la DATAR Travaux en cours 1984/1985” in Paris. And, the book also contains 135 thumbnail size photographs that were never published before. In the back of the book, it is written that Basilico has completely conceived and realised this project himself. So it seems that – in the deep winter of his life – he dearly wanted to invite us to go back with him to those other very intense winter days in 1984, when he was in the north of France working for the DATAR .

 

© Gabriele Basilico

The DATAR Photographic Mission was commissioned by the French government with the aim of photographing the transformations in the landscape during the 1980’ies and has in the meantime acquired some mythical aura in the history of photography. Bord de Mer (2017) perfectly renders Basilico’s contribution to the aura. We learn about his preliminary reconnaissance trips with a small format camera and about his choice to do the actual job with a view camera, looking slowly to the localities that had marked him the most. For some shots, he has returned several times to the same place, in order to capture the right atmospheric circumstances. Because of the use of the wide angle, the result is a series that has something larger than life.

© Gabriele Basilico

Throughout the book, we follow Mr. Basilico’s footsteps from the border with Belgium westwards to Normandy. We are walking through the mists, through the dunes, along the beaches, under the ever-transforming volumes of grey clouds (“Le vent de Belgique transportait de la musique“!). The North Sea, which is the most coloruful sea in the world (that is what locals say), is constantly present but the subjects in the images change all the time. Basilico mostly shares with us his fascination for the majesty and the theatrical aspect of France’s ports. We see huge dock-side cranes, immobile but graciously shining in the weak winter light. Grains of sand and drops of rain are reflecting the same light a thousand times. We see many ship yards and storehouses. We see ferry boats with smoking chimneys preparing for departure into the Channel. But he also shows us half-deserted camping sites, completely deserted summerhouses and bars. These are closed but they still make you feel thirsty for a pint of Flemish beer. That is where the larger than life images touch the human condition.

 

© Gabriele Basilico

It may be telling that Basilico choose to retain the original introduction by Mr. Bernard Latarjet, former director of the DATAR, also in his last version of Bord de Mer. The text compellingly explains what was at stake in the early 1980ies. In Mr. Latarjet’s analysis, we, children of modernity, have lost our grip on our surroundings, on the landscape in which we live and on ourselves because of our reliance on les techniques in daily life. But he also sees another reason: modern societies merely produce myriads of symbols that not longer fulfill their essential functions; we don’t dispose any more of collective symbols that make to the reality in which we live meaningful. 

© Gabriele Basilico

Coming to the role of art in all this post-modern confusion, Mr. Latarjet argues that contemporary art contributes as well to “the increasing evanescence of the real”. In his view, art has become more and more auto-referential. Art is merely echoing other art and it has lost its role of medium that helps us to make sense of our reality. He also writes that it is the free market which qualifies nowadays what can be called art and what not.

© Gabriele Basilico

The introduction clarifies what was the reasoning behind the DATAR mission. It was about investigating our new relationship with the landscape in a public service framework that protected the photographers from the art distributors and the market.

© Gabriele Basilico

According to Mr. Latarjet, Basilico realised the most exemplary images of DATAR’s mission: his “tableaux” of Bord de Mer are able to seize back and restitute the real; they allow us to re-appropriate a landscape from which we have been separated. For me, Bord de Mer is one of these books where something magical is happening, indeed. Maybe it is striking a chord with us all because its images represent the sensuousness that can overwhelm us when we are at the seaside and that we like to share with our companions over there. He managed to make his incredible sensibility for the landscapes tangible in a pure way. His view is not filtered either by nostalgia or by a leaning for objectivity. And, although his style is rather classical, his art is not echoing other art. It is radically subjective and at the same time totally familiar to everyone. Collective symbols that fulfill their essential functions!   

Thank you very much Mr. Basilico!