Valérie Belin: 'My photographs seek to cause some kind of havoc on the mind'

Meta-Clichés is the renowned Parisian artist's first show in China

Boundary-pushing contemporary French photographer Valérie Belin presents her first China show this summer. She speaks about her inspirations, artistic evolution and how her work seeks to wreak ‘some kind of havoc on the mind’

Born in the suburbs of the French capital in 1964, Parisian visual artist Valérie Belin has spent her career pushing the boundaries of conventional photography. Her work has become critically acclaimed worldwide for its examination of the space between illusion and reality.


As the winner of the prestigious Prix Pictet prize in 2015 for her work under the theme ‘disorder’, Belin plays with viewers’ perceptions of reality, showcasing complex compositions and abstract portrayals of the human body. Exploring illusion as a form of self-delusion, her recent All Star series scrutinises the hegemonic image of female beauty, examining the models and celebrities who are placed on pedestals and often regarded as some kind of ‘super heroine’ by superimposing them on mixed media works.


In what has surely been a long time coming, this summer sees Belin’s first solo exhibition in China. Showing at Shanghai Center of Photography throughout July and August, Meta-Clichés is a retrospective of unique works - from Belin’s very first projects to her latest new media experiments in digital technology and overlay techniques.

How do you feel about your first show in China?

For a long time, China has been synonymous with an inaccessible and distant place to me. But to be invited here has always been very important. It signifies that my work crosses borders, through its implications of the universal aspects of society. Maybe it’s because my subjects bear a sense of a kind of globalised unity. I want my work to constantly raise the question: What is life today?

Your photography is known to resonate with audiences of all ages and backgrounds. What do you think makes your work so universal?

The main concern with my work is to position the subjects in my photographs as existing outside of time itself. I’m looking for timeless subjects and sensations that all audiences can relate to. My photographs seek to cause some kind of havoc on the mind, just like the Freudian experience of ‘the uncanny’. It’s like the feeling that arises when you see your reflection in a window and, at first, think that it is someone else. This feeling of the surreal and mysterious is something everyone can recognise.

What was it that originally drew you to photography as a medium?

From a young age, I was captivated by lessons connected to creation, literature and the history of art, but I had no particular talent for drawing. Photography has always allowed me to create a link to the real world, but from a comfortable distance. I consider myself more as an artist than as a photographer, and I have always viewed my work in the same way as a painter would consider a painting - by taking the world and making art from it in my own way.

I joined the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Bourges - an influential fine arts school - with a great lack of awareness. The freedom that I was given at that institution enabled me, very quickly, to consider photography as a prime tool to allow me to formalise my own relationship with the world. I benefitted from an education based mainly on knowledge of the main trends of American art in the ’60s and ’70s, notably minimalism. After graduating in 1987, I went to university to study the philosophy of art where I tried to analyse the relationships between minimalism and the changes in our urban environments. Minimalist artists offer us a particularly physical experience of urban regions and their alienating effect, which is especially evident in huge cities like Shanghai.

Can you describe the artistic process you go through when creating new work? Is it different each time or do you stick with a similar process?

My choice of subject in my photography is always the result of what I think is the necessary portrayal of a character, and my work may be regarded as an obsessive attempt at re-creating some kind of truth, whereby the models play a major role. I have a strong preference for permanent metamorphosis of objects and people who are affected by their own social environment. In this respect, my subjects become artifacts, provisional displays, fiction; they are many metaphors of the ‘artificial paradise’ incurred by globalisation and media coverage of living beings. One could go as far as to say I look to create some hybrid subject form, a cross

between living matter and inert matter.


Where does your fascination with the human form and its representations come from?

I am really interested in the human body and most importantly representation of stereotypes in the media. I photograph a whole range of people, from male bodybuilders, male models, female models, transsexual models. But I want the photographs to suggest we can’t place these people within a certain genre. I don’t try to transmit a particular message, but more to provoke a feeling of confusion, to get people questioning.

Tell us about the works on display at your Meta-Clichés show. How do you think your body of work has evolved over time?

Most of the artworks at the shows in China have been created after 2006. This year was marked for me by the use of colour in my work, which notably introduced a new ambiguity of the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. In these artworks, I begin to step away from a more conventional conception of photography, and you can see the evolution of my style though the creation of a form of more ‘magical’ realism.


In my later photography, the artworks show a hybrid effect, placing the subject somewhere between the organic and the inanimate. For example, my Modéles II series reinforces the artificial and pictorial aspects of the subjects and shows a sort of transition from photographic realism to a manipulated image.

The exhibition enables me to have a large place for my artworks to be realised, so there is space to superimpose and layer several images. These eclectic artworks show a kind of contamination between living beings and things.

How would you describe your upcoming show to someone who has never seen your photography before?

In my opinion, photography is both appropriation and reflection of the real world. It enables me to respond to a desire for both objectification of people and the vain idea of wanting to keep memories of ‘things’ alive.

My work develops through different series of images based on a game of repetitions and variations. The absolute frontal viewpoint, the radical multi-dimensionality and the absence of context - these things don’t require any narration. This effect transforms the models into my photographs into icons. My subjects represent both the vanity

and the fragility of our existence.

Meta-Clichés is at Shanghai Center of Photography from Sunday 2 until August 24. Entry is 40RMB; 30RMB (students). See more event details below.

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