23 Feb 2014
Daniel Cordonnier hates two things: air conditioners and God. But only recently has he been able to give full expression to his feelings. For much of his life the Parisian was dispassionate, his creative desires and ambitions stifled as he pursued a lucrative business manufacturing air conditioners. Then he remembered a day in his childhood that changed everything.
His parents were poor and devout Christians, and he remembers them fondly. With the challenge of putting food on the table, there was little room for expression. Feeling bombarded with dogma at home and in his community, Cordonnier would escape to the modern art museums of Paris. On one trip, he saw a piece he would never forget: a single red arch painted by a Japanese artist on a bare white wall.
This, for Cordonnier, spoke more of human existence than anything he was taught from the Bible. In the red arch, he saw the whole spectrum of humanity before him: a continual flow of action, one that begins and ends with life.
“Why is Christianity so focused on death and the afterlife instead of focusing on what’s happening now?” Cordonnier asks.
On that decisive day in his factory he thought back to his childhood and the red arch. He chose to save himself from the malaise of a dogma that seemed, to Cordonnier, to only preach salvation in the final act of death — he chose to save himself by giving up God.
He left his religion behind, he quit his business and decided to fully immerse himself in photography.
Embracing his new life was not easy at first. With his camera and rediscovered passion for photography, he began with landscapes in France.
The first photographs are surrealist, double-exposed shots of flowers, meadows and sky with streams of water and light. He describes this early work as “Monet in a photograph”.
But he could not approach human subjects.
“I was just very haunted by this Christian dogma,” Cordonnier said while going through older series of his photographs in Bangkok.
“It made me feel that so much was wrong with the human soul, and I couldn’t take pictures of people knowing that there were all these things that I wasn’t at peace with.”
Cordonnier’s photographs of French landscapes, despite his initial reservations holding him back from human subjects, still have an enviable niche in modern art.
With a technique that Cordonnier dubs “paintography”, the series tastefully blurs the line of the medium and strikes a resemblance to contemporary watercolours.
“I’m not cutting and pasting with Photoshop,” Cordonnier says, but gives little away of his secret technique.
Some photographs in the series have a quality that conveys an undeniable appeal to the feminine soul — perhaps a testament to the intoxication of the French countryside.
Forget Me Not, a hypnotic swirl of lilac flowers, meadow grass and a piece of leather, just lightly knocks the viewer off the axis of reality.
“Well, I think just about every woman loves that piece,” says Nawintanan Jitdejawat, who co-owns the gallery hosting Cordonnier’s upcoming exhibition, The Beauty of Peace.
Moving out of his comfort zone, but still wary of the human soul, Cordonnier next took to the heights of Paris’ urban landscape at night. He scrapes away the boundaries of material reality with pulses of white electricity juxtaposed against the black sky, and as if building an MC Escher, plays with balconies and penthouses to create his very own metropolitan labyrinth.
But something stands out in this series that illuminates, perhaps ironically behind the darkness of night, a growing comfort with Cordonnier’s own existential battle: legs, and the reflections of indistinguishable faces on glass panes. In some photographs, human legs tessellate across tangled platforms in a web of glass usurping Paris’ Sofitel. The unrecognisable faces of service workers are spliced into rooms that Cordonnier cuts and pastes together amid his urban dream sequence.
And he was warming up to people as the subjects of his art. Cordonnier, in pursuit of capturing the essence of the human soul through the lens, packed his belongings into a 20kg backpack and set off for Madagascar. Once there, nothing remarkable happened to help evolve his art. He stuck to his comfort zone, for the most part, photographing natural open spaces. But he soon moved to India, where he discovered Buddhism, a religion that profoundly matched his theories of living in the present. This, like the red arch, was a catalyst that changed his life and vision.
Cordonnier, a lanky man with a retro style — fedora, tight shirt — chants a Buddhist prayer when we talk at the gallery where he’ll be exhibiting. He waxes philosophical about Thich Nhat Hanh before taking a smoking break. His French accent is heavy, but Nawintanan, an artist in her own right, says his chant was spot on.
He’s spritely and energetic, despite being in his fifties, he plops down on the floor for a photo and shoots right back up. He jokes around and playfully lifts the bottom of his shirt for the next shot. He says that he will probably stay in Bangkok — “not for the girls like everyone asks me,” he quips — but not without touching down in Phnom Penh and Yangon for inspiration.
He sits down and thinks back to what happened when he left India to shoot a photo series in Nepal: when Buddhism, that catalyst in his adult life, shaped the work he’s about to unveil to the public.
“Buddhism let me accept the human soul without judgement. I don’t see all the terrible things I used to see before,” he says, pointing to a series that focuses on the human subject.
In Nepal, a cache of human subjects from individuals to groups are photographed. The photos are a cathartic release for Cordonnier that brim with natural colours and kinetic motion, human delight and disgust, marking a profound move away from his surrealist landscapes to realism. In one photograph, an old lady hunches forward, her back looks broken. Her head is in dynamic motion and falls through a swirl of subdued colour. It’s nauseating and uncomfortable at first.
“But darkness can be beautiful,” Cordonnier says.
The biggest jump from Cordonnier’s earlier works is undeniably Om Mani Padme Hum, a stunning play of colour and texture that lends to modern realism. A saffron-clad monk stands in front of a Nepalese temple. A purple film with a Nepali prayer seems superimposed, yet the view of the monk and temple exterior remain fully unobstructed.
Cordonnier explains that he was so taken by the colour and fabric of these flags hung on the temples in Nepal he incorporated them into many of the series’ photographs. He hung thin samples of the fabric over his camera’s lens while shooting the lot of the series to experiment with these types of effects. It’s a method of storytelling, he says.
In another photograph, a crowd of Nepalese people are gathered across the steps in front of a large temple. Their faces can’t be seen; the focus is on religious site. The photograph is shot through blue fabric that enhances the colour of the sky and the deep indigo of the free-hanging flags beneath it.
I tell Cordonnier that my first instinct is to question what the people in front of the temple are doing. He says he doesn’t care what they’re doing, and that I’ve missed the point. It’s the convergence of souls that comprise the story.
Daniel Cordonnier’s exhibition will be held at Modern Gallery from Thursday to April 16. Modern Gallery is located at OP Garden on Charoen Krung Soi 36.
More photos available by following the [link].