by Natasha Boas
When I lived in Paris as a student of philosophy at L’École normale supérieure in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was surrounded by dying male intellectuals—my Sorbonne professor uncle, his art historian life companion, and their best friend, a young student of Derrida’s. Among this disparate coterie, connected by a mutual entanglement with French literary theory, we all knew about the author Hervé Guibert (1955-1991), who had/or had not slept with Foucault, who had/or not flirted with Roland Barthes’ affections and who was the author of numerous novels, a photography critic for Le Monde and a photographer himself. I vaguely remember him at parties (or was he already a ghost in that moment in time?) and art gatherings in small Parisian apartments.
I do remember that Guibert died a year after achieving a problematic sort of celebrity after writing the provocative and tell-all lightly fictionalized roman-à clef, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990), about the final days of the philosopher Michel Foucault, Guibert’s neighbor and friend whom he called Muzil in the book. Guibert wrote this when he was already HIV-positive and outspoken about the disease, contrary to those around him who were living in secrecy and shame. A pioneer of “autofiction,” Guibert in To a Friend revealed to readers, in graphic detail, that Foucault had not, in fact, died of cancer (which had been the public account), but rather of AIDS-related complications. Among us, those who were dying and those who were witnessing these deaths, we discussed the book as one would discuss a murder mystery or an exposé of racy and cruel betrayal while living out the trauma and tragedy of the AIDS crisis in our own lives.
In the CCA Wattis exhibition, curated by Anthony Huberman and organized by Diego Villalobos, Hervé Guibert: This and More, a show of 28 small atmospheric black-and-white gelatin silver photographs of object-filled interiors devoid of people, I was first struck by the image of a leather jacket strewn over a sofa. This image, in a Guibertian context, of course, would be a direct reference to Foucault who was known for leathers of all kinds. Every picture in the show is of objects in rooms, bedrooms mostly. A voyeur without a body to behold, the camera cathects to only the objects in the frame—shoes, jackets, tchotchkes, books. These objects act as indexes, stand-ins, or props for those who have left the room, sight line, or stage. They are souvenirs, French for remembrances. In certain images, such as Ecriture (Writing) (1979), we see what is presumably Guibert’s writing table, manuscript and tools. These images read as auto-portraits. In Vertiges (Vertigo) (undated), we glimpse the artist’s spectral profile through a glass door. Although the curator tells us these photographs are “of relationships between objects and people,” I see these more as landscapes of loss with the objects as “not-bodies.” Guibert, when speaking about writing, would insist that the disease wrote for him, and in this way, these images mark the lack of a body — a body disappeared by an unforgiving fatal disease. The photographs are like AIDS-era postcards. “I was here,” they seem to say, or “He was here, and now he is gone.”2
Guibert’s work has remained mostly unknown to US audiences and neglected by French audiences in this century. It recently reappeared in English with the publication of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (translated from French by Linda Coverdale) and Invisible Ink (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), both from Semiotext(e)/MIT Press (2020). In addition, Guibert’s work appears in Frieze’s editor-in-chief Andrew Durbin’s 2020 auto-biographical novel Skyland, in which the quest for an unattainable Guibert photograph drives the narrator’s desire and the plot. Indeed, curator Huberman has seized this moment of Guibert’s fashionable return and awkwardly attempts a narrative intervention of his own into Durbin and/or Guibert’s prose with a diaristic personal essay that accompanies the show.
Aside from introducing the contemporary art public to Guibert’s photographs, the exhibition at CCA Wattis reads like an intimate journal or documentary of Guibert and his friends and lovers, all of whom died of AIDS-related causes. True Barthians have expressed frustrations with Guibert’s self-mythologizing and the co-option Camera Lucida,2 Roland Barthes’ 1980 intricate meditation on death and the photograph. Other critics scorn his confabulations and lack of truth in his writing and photography. But Guibert was never committed to fact and reality. For him, a good photograph was not a document of reality but rather an image that is “faithful to the memory of an emotion.”3
The light and shadow in the photograph titled Chambre de Matthieu (Matthew’s Room) (1989), of a stark room with a covered white day bed and a single portrait of a young man with a redingote and poet’s blouse — offset by the angular cast-off shadow of the open window — creates a fleeting sense of vertigo, leading me to wonder: where is the subject? Santa Caterina (1988) reminds me of another Guibert image, not in this show, but which I had in my Paris bedroom called Sacristie-Fenêtre Santa Caterina (1980), of a gauzy curtain shrouding a bouquet of flowers in a vase on an open window ledge. The image on view here contains yet another empty bed and a bedside table with three objects that include an owl, a figurine, an unidentifiable optical implement and also what appears to be an empty frame; but looking closely, I see that it may contain an image deliberately erased by the printing process or so faint that it could be a written text or even a drawing of bodies in acts of passion?
Looking at these photos on a foggy San Francisco summer afternoon, I found myself confronted by images of loss and absence of presence. Solitude, illness, virus and death are all too resonant in this Covid time (not to mention the room as the intimate theatre for sheltering in place.) And although the prints are gelatin silver and darkroom-generated (a welcome shock to my digital-image saturated eye), they also feel contemporary—like evidence from 2020, not just 1990. “Once I write, I forget,” Guibert said on French television in 1990.4 Once he takes a photograph—and I feel this in each image on display in This and More—I remember how I had to learn to forget or—as it were—to not forget remembering.
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Hervé Guibert: “This and More” @ CCA Wattis Institute through July 30, 2022.
Images: © Christine Guibert/Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris.
- Anthony Huberman, curatorial statement, This and More, CCA Wattis Institute.
- Translated from the French “La Chambre Claire” in French which is an optical device but literally and interestingly translates as “light room.”
- Herve Guibert interviewed on Apostrophes (French TV), March 16, 1990 (translated by the author from the French).
About the author: Natasha Boas, Ph.D.is a French-American independent scholar and international curator based in San Francisco and Paris. Dr. Boas was trained in the modernist avant-garde and Surrealism, and is committed to making underrecognized artists visible. Most recently, Boas curated the first US exhibition of French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira’s Voice-Over at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art which dialogues with Sedira’s French Pavilion Dreams Have No Titles at this year’s Venice Biennale. This summer, she contributed the catalog essay Strange Flower to the Jean Conner show Inner Garden at Marin MOCA through August 28, 2022.