Words by Elizabeth Breiner
Photography by Cyril Porchet
To fully appreciate the graphically dazzling subjects of Cyril Porchet’s Reina, it is necessary to understand the series’ place at the end of a long conceptual trajectory, shifting between figuration and abstraction in the effort to convey human systems of power and control through the two-dimensional image. Often by pushing the visual saturation point to its intoxicating limits, Porchet is able to show mankind’s efforts to exert command over the religious, political, and cultural realms through different visible and invisible manifestations of the architectures of power. Neither overtly criticizing nor celebrating these scenes, he shows us through the malleable eye of the camera the means by which form, space and movement can subtly, silently impact our subconscious state.
Reina, Porchet suggests, is in some ways a U-turn back to the very first series he completed on baroque churches entitled Seduction, consisting of uniform, typological renderings of extravagantly ornate church alters around the world. “I selected those spaces for the exuberance and saturation level of all the details,” he says. “I crossed Europe and also went to South America to shoot those churches, and through certain photography techniques I tried to flatten the three-dimensionality of the spaces, to make them really flat, so that the image is bending in some kind of abstraction—so that at first we lose a little of our bearings and are lost in this image.”
He is particularly interested in the way in which the baroque style came about during the Counter-Reformation period as a form of self-aggrandizing propaganda for the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation. But the series is not about religion strictly—rather, it is about how power and religion communicate through structural forms. This body of work is for him an “allegoric way to talk about the spectacularity of our contemporary society . . . a way to take an architecture of the past to talk about the present.”
His subsequent Meeting series, which looks at meetings of the general assembly of European businesses and shareholders, came out of this previous set to provide a contemporary answer to the common question of religion’s place in his work. Using “a more Protestant way to communicate,” Meeting is intended to reflect where ‘the power’ lies today: in contemporary society’s new religion, big business. The brazen transparency of these meetings struck Porchet, with the readily visible power dynamic at play in their physical organization, the “chairs organized like Roman armies” in commanding, theatrical event spaces and stadiums.
From here, he wanted to take this exploration of power and architecture in a more abstract direction, choosing to focus on the link between the churches and meeting places as oratory spaces where the empowered give speeches to the gathered masses: “I wanted to use the idea of power as a physical vibration, and architecture as a non-functional structure.” Thus the Speech series was born, which captures the form water takes when delicately poised above a loudspeaker playing political speeches—“a materialization of sound” that is “formally quite chaotic” but with “a very clear structure also in it.”
Natural instances of chaos and structure interweaving as inspiration for Porchet’s work.
An interest in this relation between structure and chaos pushed him to his next visual endeavor, his Crowd series, which brought back a human presence that in his previous series was only implicit. All the Crowd images are captured at folkloric, traditional events: “I thought it was interesting in a period where everything is going in the direction of globalization to go to these traditional mass events—and I thought it was interesting because there was some color dominance that brings us back to the idea of a clan, a group, a flag.” These color trends as well as “the fluid mechanics, the dynamics of these crowds” are made visible using a long-exposure technique that brings otherwise invisible patterns to the surface of his images.
Certain aspects of painting inspired these works, which have some of the creamy vividness of Impressionism, as well as the composite qualities of Post-Impressionist pointillism; the further back you step, the more the form takes over the individual, each person like a spot of paint in a larger cosmic dance. “When I was above those crowds, it was really, really powerful – a very strong experience, with the sound and people moving, and [I fell] into a kind of trance. There is a sort of strange vibration, and it made me think of Jackson Pollock, who also entered into some kind of trance when he was dancing around the canvas on the floor.”
Finally, from the deindividuated crowds, Reina came about as a return to the individual subject—though some of the Crowd images were in fact shot simultaneously, during the Carnival of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the site of Reina. Carnival represents a celebration of “the structure taking over the chaos, the arrival of spring, life over death . . . and these [women in the images] are the queens of it.” The gala to elect the Carnival Queen (or Reina, the Spanish word for queen) is the most important event of the entire carnival, as each contestant in turn displays herself onstage in all her finery for the jury and gathered crowds to judge. Queens also of endurance, the contestants carry more than the mere burden of competitive pressure, for the uniquely elaborate decoration behind them is not a backdrop as one might presume; rather, everything we see is a costume, affixed to each woman’s body—making each a kind of one-woman tableau vivant.
To render these women adorned in ornamentation as lavish and opulent as the baroque churches, Porchet drew upon the same photographic techniques he had used for his earlier series: flattening the many different layers and dimensions of each image, and opting in this case—as in a complimentary series, Vertigo, of the church ceilings—to make them black and white so that the women would disappear into the surrounding details and a uniform typology would become possible. In the baroque churches, he points out, the ceilings are an awe-inspiring fusion of trompe l’oeil painting and architecture, constructed such that one medium is indistinguishable from the other, and the flattening effect acknowledges the deliberate synthesis of these two forms.
The queens of Carnival are given an equally illusory quality in Porchet’s images, wherein it is impossible to locate where the person ends and the costume begins. Visually blending costumes and bodies into one are elements of painting and architecture superimposed on the human form to the point that the woman is merely a vessel for the encompassing structure with which she has temporarily fused. Until they arrive on stage, the competing queens are in a state of apprehensive agony, grimacing as their gargantuan headdresses teeter dangerously from their skulls and their final accoutrement are put in place—which Porchet discovered his first time at Carnival, thinking he could portray the women in their element backstage. Reina captures their ultimate moment of performative presentation, as they lift up their heads and put on their masks of gracious delight for their audience, a form of perfected propaganda; but it is only through the static image that this unsustainable state becomes a piece of permanent theater, where both structure and chaos are able to coexist within a single frame.
Cyril Porchet was born in Geneva in 1984. He began his studies in 2005: in 2009 he received a BA in Visual Communication and Photography, followed by an MA in Artistic Direction, both completed at ECAL in Lausanne. His work quickly received acclaim and has been celebrated multiple times, including 3 nominations for the prestigious Swiss Federal Design Awards. His work has been exhibited in different museums and galleries, including La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris and at the Museum fur Gestaltung, in Zurich. His works feature in many collections, including amongst others the private collection of famous art dealer and collector Larry Gagosian. Cyril Porchet lives and works in Lausanne in Switzerland.
nineteensixtyeight presents a selection of 9 images from the series Reina, available to buy in our shop.