“Is he allowed to cross the boundary?” I ask French-American artist and filmmaker, Babette Mangolte. I’m referring to the man with the wayward look in his eye who has snuck over the boundary to get a closer look at her pictures.
“What?!” Mangolte exclaims, as she grabs my arm with a look of shock on her face (as much shock as I can discern from behind her charismatic John Lennon-esque sunglasses). Apparently, the boundary is there for a reason.
Mangolte’s newest exhibition at the VOX gallery features an assortment of installations from the ’70s to the present. In Looking and Touching (2007), the boundary creates a forced distance between the viewer (who is behind the boundary) and a variety of black-and-white framed photographs that hang on a faraway wall. From a distance, the viewer sees 46 photos of New York City life in the ’70s, from dance and theatre performances to city scenes.
One is not, however, limited to the role of a spectator. On the viewer’s side of the barrier rests an elongated table, strewn with smaller, delicate versions of the wall photos and their negatives. These tiny table photos evince the process of selection in film photography, with the viewer free to touch and inspect the photos as they search for the accompanying framed versions on the wall in front of them. Such a setup encourages both a theatrical and inclusive understanding of photography.
The viewer can question the photos from afar while still engaging with them up-close. The boundary is physically there, but the fourth wall seems somewhat broken. This unique interaction demonstrates how distance informs the construction of the image.
Indeed, distance, space, and perception are all major themes in Mangolte’s work. Buildings appear groundless, movement appears static, people appear positionless.
But perhaps more than anything, her pieces document a bygone era while remaining relevant. Videos of New York City in the ’70s play, contextualizing her work: the sights and sounds of the city accompany viewers as they walk around the room. The videos capture a moment, Mangolte remarks, that was less hectic: “people were not rushing around with their smartphones.” Though those times are notably different from today, portraits of Mangolte’s neighbours, friends, and family manage to connect the viewer with fellow faces, despite the layers of years between the photo and the viewer.
Mangolte’s newest piece, Hommage to the Colour Green (2013), includes digital photos from around the world that portray varying shades of green in the hopes of documenting changes in tones which may result from climate change. Unlike her other works, these images are bright, sharp, and mostly devoid of people. Similarities exist within her work, with an apparent focus on the themes of time and change: “I am fascinated by images of what could vanish,” says Mangolte. Though the wilderness is disappearing, and the Earth is continuously changing (she mentions Montreal’s relatively temperate past winter), Mangolte’s photos are neither stark nor violent, grandiose nor haunting, but rather purposefully ordinary and plain. Peaceful hues and gentle countrysides span the walls, whilst still acting as a prescient warning and a taste of foreshadowed nostalgia.
As a whole, Mangolte’s exhibition allows us to look into the past, present, and future. Through her black-and-white photos and green landscapes, Mangolte allows us to embrace art as a form to analyze the world that once was and the world that we are creating.
Babette Mangolte’s exhibition is on display until April 20 at VOX (2 Ste-Catherine St. Ouest). Free admission.