Empire by Marie Sordat

This has nothing to do with beauty, beauty is of no importance. This has to do with magic.” The opening words of Marie Sordat’s book Empire (2015) sound like a warning and they are a little bit unsettling too. They leave us in uncertainty about what is going to happen. In order to have something to hold on to, we can only turn to the publishers‘ announcement that this is a monograph. Or to some informative elements in the back of the book: “the photographs are shot between 1999 and 2014 in Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Czech Republic, United States, France, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Israel, Palestine, Poland and Slovakia“. It is presumed that the book’s thread will take us through 15 years of travelling, photography and magic.

© Marie Sordat

15 years is a long period to keep on living on the road, like a rolling stone. But right from the start we get the feeling that Marie has a great ability to fully embrace this big thing, this precious value called freedom. And we are not talking here about conditional or temporary freedom but about the kind of freedom that maybe only stray dogs, street cats or birds (they are omnipresent in the book) can handle.

© Marie Sordat

Freedom is maybe a value that can only be pursued by the privileged of this world but the thing is of course that this should be for nobody a reason to stay home. At least, that is what I take from this book in the first place. We see many wonderful places where I would like to have been as well. The places belong to an unpolished world, a world which has not been overdesigned, a world where you can live as many hours in the night as in the day. The message seems to be that it is only there, far away from the comfort zone at home, that we will meet and get to know unforgettable men and women, that something magical might occur. I also take from Marie’s work that embracing this kind of freedom involves as many hello’s as goodbye’s. Empire seems to be about the road, the companionship and the loneliness.

© Marie Sordat

This brings us again to the title: Empire. Now, I have to admit that I haven’t been able to really decipher the meaning of this word with regard to the work. For me, the title adds to the uncertainty in which we are left right from the start. It is only after coming home from the sensational exposition “Eyes wild open“, that is now on show in the Botanique in Brussels and that is curated by Marie Sordat as well, that I started to develop an adventurous interpretation of the title.

In the exposition she is presenting photographers who, rather than depicting “a world in transition” or “a crumbling world”, share with us a radical expression of how they personnally experience such a world. These photographers don’t look for any distance towards the subject. They don’t have any documentary intention. Their photography is not based on any kind of sociological or political or philosophical thesis about the world either. It is totally based on their raw, practical experience. The exposition is about their particular stance towards reality: about empiricism, quoi!

© Marie Sordat

I like Marie Sordat’s basic assumption for her exposition that the participating photographers belong to a kind of family. She shows how Mr. Klein, Mr. Frank and the Provoke artists from Japan form the family’s first generation and how they have been inspriring more than one following generation (e.g. the VU Agency photographers) ever since. What makes the members of this family distinctive from other photographers is that their images are composed in a photographic language that freed itself from a codified, instutionalised language, let’s say from the “beautifully” framed photography that is propagated by Mr. Cartier-Bresson and the Magnum Agency. Instead the members of this family share a raw, hasty, abrupt, informal language that perfectly mirrors their instinctive way of living and working. These artists don’t stand before the world they are photographing, they are standing in that world. Their work is the shaky, trembling proof of something what I would call a permanent osmosis between life and art.

© Marie Sordat

Bearing this in mind, we understand now that Marie is a full fledged member of the family of empiricist photographers. And let my adventurous interpretation be that she wanted to assert this membership by means of the title. So, we don’t read Empire any more as a report of her travellings but as a retrospective report of a journey through the experiences she made. This journey savours memories of places in the wild where splendid isolation was enjoyed but also of urban locations or nights in traveller’s rooms  where pure harmony was felt. Sometimes it’s about memories that recall a kind of re-gained innocence. The many portraits of children can in this way maybe be read as self-portraits.

© Marie Sordat

Naturally, freedom is sometimes challenged amidst that crude, cold and merciless world that also can be our reality. The journey, inevitably also recalls moments when innocence was lost. Freedom than gives way to a desire for belonging. Family and a place to call home become important. Thus, since the book is dedicated to families both from the past and from the future, portraits of companion swans or of children holding hands with their parents can perhaps be read as self-portraits too.

Empire is beautiful and very intense stuff!

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