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  • Dec 01, 2012
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[Translation] Nature is a temple in which living pillars
At times emit garbled speech
Man crosses it through forests of symbols
That watch him with familiar eyes

“Correspondances”, Charles Baudelaire

On Illustrative Elegies

By Jean-Philippe Deneault
English translation by Sue Stewart


One of the first occasions for contact between workers at an exhibition venue and the works themselves is often through an artist’s spec sheet, which gives instructions for the packing, storage, transport, handling and preparation of the works prior to installation. In the case of Fiona Annis’s series The After-Image (Swan Songs), the instructions for handling her works are rendered with a polite and deferential tone that reveals far more than concern for the physical safety of the pieces. The spec sheet itself almost seems to express a respect befitting the various stages of thanatopraxy, a process that demands thoroughness, tact and care for the dignified preservation of the deceased’s memory. The artist has in fact fashioned cases to contain the works with the care a carpenter might bring to creating a coffin.




The series titled The After-Image (Swan Songs) consists of 12 images interspersed with quotations. The quotations chart a poetic-political-aesthetic trajectory for the viewer through the photographic works, which in turn represent natural or architectural sites associated with the swan songs of famous artists or writers who died either accidentally or by unnatural means, in suicide or murder. Some of these disappearances share an element of the spectacular, in places that range from Tom Thomson’s lake to Virginia Woolf’s silted river and the woodland track followed by Walter Benjamin. Fiona Annis has photographed the places where each of these leading figures of artistic and literary history met their death, to produce stunning shots that draw on a lyrical palette of aquatic or vegetal tones.


In one of her public presentations, the artist stated that her work is rooted in research. Formally speaking, the method she followed in assembling The After-Image (Swan Songs) consisted of four stages: 1) an interest in death itself; 2) studying the deaths of those who came before us; 3) visiting the places where a number of them died; and 4) fleshing out the project with documentation. The artist used anecdote to explain at length how her documentary research and the related travel were subject to many requirements not strictly in line with her predetermined methodological framework. In particular, she talked about the accidental and unforeseen aspects of artistic creation. More than once, she underscored the limited nature of her own technical and photographic skills. Rather than being labelled a photographer, she prefers to be considered a multidisciplinary conceptual artist producing work in which a “documentary romantic approach” leaves much latitude for intuition and emotion.


The quotations from literary theoreticians and philosophers accompanying the photographs and the description of the artist’s process both bestow an eloquent and even learned dimension on the exhibition. The quotations alert the viewer to a freight of meaning contained in the artist’s visual proposition. The mode of presentation and methodological reference points can be attributed to, on the one hand, a didactic concern and, on the other, the intention to include a relevant critical insight from the outset. This technique is intended to orient the viewer’s aesthetic perception and define its scope, and it allows the artist to guide the reading of the work by providing textual landmarks and mapping out the interpretive landscape. The landmarks are an essential component of the work and to an extent they anticipate some elements of critical response. They are also the reason why Annis’s work is more closely allied with portraiture, in the literary sense of evoking[1], than with the still life. The viewer’s attention is thus focussed on the supernatural quality or aura of places and landscapes that are imprinted with the memory of those who have vanished.


Annis explains that the Swan Songs can be summed up as a cycle of photographic encounters that “seek to record [poetic and political] echoes etched in landscape, and act to engage the physical locations of these swan songs as a point of departure for a sustained meditation on final acts and their sites of articulation.” The artist thus proposes a mediation between the viewer and sites laden with history. For the admirers of those “figures whose sudden or violent death enhanced their legend”,[2] the portraits offer the possibility of drawing closer to such personalities, even if the subjects of the works do not themselves appear. Shots of the places where these acts occurred, now visible and mediatized, have huge symbolic value and add to the body of such images, contributing to the mythology of leading figures who have for the most part been selected from the 20th century’s artistic and literary hagiography. Even before viewers lay eyes on the photographs, these larger-than-life figures reside and are alive in their imagination, as in the artist’s, beyond their work and their death. Annis’s portraits collide with, stimulate and nurture this imaginary presence. The full significance of her images is in the questions stimulated by the metaphorical quality of the topographical encounters and the artist’s framing and composition. The After-Image (Swan Songs) therefore engages the critically oriented viewer in an epistemological and sociological interrogation of issues associated with identity and representation.




The quotations that chart the trajectory, presented as keys to the vanished key figures, are drawn from the writings of theoreticians who are as well known as the figures in question, such as Deleuze and Blanchot, whose names appear nowhere in the exhibition. However, the title card accompanying each image features the words “Swan Song” and the name of the vanished person in parentheses; for example, Swan Song (Woolf) or Swan Song (Pasolini). In the case of suicides in particular, these titles draw attention to the performative aspect of the death, not only in the sense of a political protest, but also as a last grand artistic gesture by the deceased. Annis thus leads us to explore not just the issue of the life and death of these celebrated individuals, an inexhaustible source of inspiration, but also their motivation as artists. What now remains of their death? What does it mean, and what were they trying to tell us?


By themselves, the images in The After-Image (Swan Songs) can easily be grasped without any particular conceptual background or reference to literature and philosophy. They are open to all, including those who will not be attempting to understand their deep meaning but will be compelled by their beauty. For such viewers, the show will come to represent simple works of still life. However, the value of Annis’s work, as the reader will have guessed, is on another level. In a new way, the artist reconfigures nature as a reference point for art and a space for a dialectic that pits what is real against what is imagined. It is romantic work that appeals more to emotion than reason, while provoking reflection. It reminds the viewer that an artistic representation, even in the extremely realistic form of photography, is always metaphorical. Although charged with meaning, Nature by itself is not enough. With an artistic intervention, its evocative power is redoubled, and it then becomes capable of feeding or challenging the most persistent myths now circulating about artists


Jean-Philippe Deneault holds a MA in philosophy. Specialized in philosophy of arts and aesthetics, he has held different positions within various artistic and cultural organizations such as Le Mois de la Photo, Vox Centre de l’image contemporaine, la Biennale de Montréal, the Canadian War Museum and Library and Archives Canada. A resident of Saskatoon, he currently sits on the Editorial committee of BlackFlash Magazine.

Read the French version of Jean-Phillipe Deneault’s essay here. 

[1] [Translation] …by means of analogies in agogics, rhythm and harmony, to evoke how someone looks.” Definition of the portrait in Étienne Souriau, Vocabulaire d’esthétique [Aesthetic vocabulary], Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 1990, p.1161-1162.

[2] Jérôme Delgado, « Hommage aux artistes-cygnes [Tribute to the swan-artists]», Le Devoir, 19 March 2011.

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