Myfanwy MacLeod

The exhibition In Search of Lost Time brings together the work of Vancouver artist Shannon Oksanen and French artist Valérie Sonnier. For this exhibition, the artists explore ideas about time from different individual and cultural perspectives that are connected by a shared sense of humor.

Much of French artist Valérie Sonnier’s work is film-based. She has used a series of home movies from her own childhood to create drawings and paintings, as well as creating several 8 mm films of her own using a child’s toy truck. Her small drawings are elaborate storyboards for films that illustrate an often strange and disturbing relationship between a little truck and several other vintage toys that Sonnier bought at a local flea market. In her film Footsteps in the snow, Valérie Sonnier investigates the idea of time past and lost time. Set in an abandoned house that once belonged to her parents, the film follows a ghost (her longtime partner Pascal Legrand dressed up in a sheet) as he moves from room to room exploring the deserted space.

Scooby Doo, where are you?

You wouldn’t think there’d be room for more than one or two ghost-hunting shows on TV, but there are more than a dozen on the air. Our current desire to capture the spirits of the dearly departed is part of a long history of attempts by believers and non-believers alike.

Clement Cheroux, in his essay Ghost Dialectics: Spirit Photography in Entertainment and Belief, noted that there are two divergent approaches towards spirit photography. The first type developed as pure entertainment for the public and was marketed as such. In the 1860s, companies such as the London Stereoscopic Company and Underwood & Underwood produced entire series of photographs of ethereal ghosts, angels and fairies. At the same time these photographs were being produced an entirely different application was being developed not for the entertainment purposes but to foster a genuine belief in photographing spirits of the dead. Spirit photography had two faces, and was used for both mystification and demystification.

Spirit photography in France appeared a decade after its debut in the United Sates. This was due, in part, to the reluctance of the leader of French Spiritualism, Allan Kardec, to sanction the use of photography to capture Spirits. However, after his death, his successor Camille Flammarion encouraged spiritualism to become a ”true science” using photography as a means to achieve this end. For the French spiritualists, photography became a means to give irrefutable proof of the existence of life after death. Enter Edouard Isidore Buguet, the first French spirit photographer who was to justify that Kardec’s doubts and suspicion of spirit imagery were spot on.

In late 1874, the spirit photographer Buguet came under the surveillance of police officer Guillaume Lombard, who had set up the police’s new prefectural photographic department. Two months later Buguet was arrested and tried for fraud. On being arrested, Buguet at once confessed that he had no powers as a medium and had obtained his apparitions solely by the use of double exposure. In his confession, Buguet dealt a deathblow to the spiritualist movement in France, and spirit photography had lost all credibility. After 1875, spirit photography went back to its essentially recreational function. Two weeks after his trial Buguet placed an extraordinary series of self-portraits, in which he appears in in conversation with the ghost of Paganini in the dépot legal at the Bibliothèque nationale. From then on his visiting card read “anti-spirit” photographer.

In the decades that followed Buguet’s trial, spirit photography in its recreational form benefited from the development of amateur photography. The growing number of people taking up photography for pleasure led to the development of new entertainment-oriented practices. Spirit photography became fully integrated into this new recreational repertoire; it became a leisure pursuit. In his journal in 1905, the photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue describes his own discovery of spirit photography: “Last year, on removing the lens cap from my camera and quickly running to stand in front it, I managed to take a photograph with me in it, but I was transparent. Today I wondered whether, by using the same system, I couldn’t make photographs of transparent ghosts, like the ones in the stories we listened to last night at the table. So I told Zissou to wrap himself in a sheet. Then he stood before the lens. I remove the cap. I replace it. Zissou goes away and I remove the cap again, without him in the image. I hope to have a fine picture of a ghost”.

Two years after her mother moved out of her childhood home, artist Valerie Sonnier photographed her longtime partner, Pascal Legrand, dressed up as a ghost in front of the house. The result is eerily similar to Lartigue’s famous photograph of his brother Zissou. Lartigue was only eleven years old when he made his photograph, and in it we can observe two brothers at play, goofing around in front of the camera. In Lartigue’s photograph, we also see the 15-year old ghost Zissou from behind climbing up the stairs to enter the house while in Sonnier’s the ghost is descending the stairs and leaving the house. This seemingly insignificant detail, the shift in the ghost’s position, is key to unraveling the story behind Sonnier’s photograph and film.

7, rue Boileau

After World War II, France, like the whole of Europe, faced a severe housing crisis. This shortage was the consequence of destruction during the war, but also of inadequate new construction between 1918 and 1940 due to the economic recession and the low return on income property. World War II aggravated the housing shortage, and the problem after 1945 became so critical that state intervention became necessary. September 1, 1948 saw the introduction of a law to protect tenants' rights that would have far-reaching consequences on both the residential trajectories in the region of Paris and on the artist’s family.

In 1934, at the age of five, the artist’s mother, Monique Sonnier (née Boussard) and her family moved from Besançon, the birthplace of Victor Hugo, to Versailles. A five-minute drive from the Chateau Versailles and its gardens, the family lived at 7, rue Boileau, from 1934 to 2003. The house was “protected” under the 1948 law. But there was little incentive for the owners to maintain and repair the housing stock covered by the law so tenants living in these old dwellings, although protected by the right to remain and pay very low rents, often did so at their own risk.

Problems at the Sonnier house began in 1970 when an underwater stream began to erode the foundations of the house. The owners of the property were reluctant to do the necessary work to shore up the crumbling foundations but they were finally compelled to do so by law. But as is common in such cases, the job was badly done making the situation even worse. The floor of the basement shifted causing the walls and floor on the main level to bow under the pressure. The glass panels on the door between the dining room and the living room were under such pressure that they would shatter at regular intervals, like the windows of a house in a horror movie that is possessed by evil spirits,

Following the death of the artist’s grandmother in 1993, the family should have been evicted from the house. During a 10-year period after her death, bailiffs would regularly come to the house to evict the family but with the help of friends and lawyers the family managed to stay, in part due to the age of her father who was seventy at the time. With his death, renewed attempts to remove the family began. Finally, two years after his death, the artist’s mother, who had lived in the house for over 70 years, was forced to leave.

Sonnier began to photograph and film the house just prior to her mother’s move. She kept the key to the house even after her mother had moved out and returned repeatedly to film until squatters took over her now empty home.

A house is not an empty space but a place animated by artifacts, mementos, and furniture. The material props and architectural spaces they comprise are weighted with personal significance, inscribed in equal measure by private fantasy and cultural memory. While the house and its grounds always played an important role in the work of Sonnier, it was only after a 30-year legal battle ended that she began photographing and filming the house as a subject in its own right. Before, the house had always been part of the background in many of works, particularly her film and series of drawings of a little toy truck. It is in her recreation of Lartigue’s image of a ghost that she finally conjures up the thing itself.

Sonnier’s film Footsteps in the snow (2011) opens with a darkened sky and the sound of distant thunder. The camera pans slowly around the house exploring every corner. Drapes flutter in the wind, the wind blows, and a lightning strike illuminates what appears to be a ghost in the doorway. The ghost moves slowly through the house, appearing and disappearing as he makes his way to the garden. Outside in the garden we see an abandoned swing-set. Snow gently begins to fall as the ghost moves into the overgrown thicket.

Like so much of Sonnier’s past work, this tribute to the house that has figured so large in her life was made with as little means possible. Using an old 8mm film camera and her partner dressed in a sheet, she conjures up through trick photography the uneasy spirits at no.7 rue Boileau. The art of making specters or ghosts appear through optical illusions, or phantasmagoria, was the precursor to modern cinema. Invented in France in the late 18th century, its popularity was due in part to the uncertainty and fear in post-revolutionary France. In a strange coincidence, Versailles was home to several significant developments in this field. In the early days of cinema, watching a film was not the kind of experience it is today, it was an experience unlike any other that had been known before, like seeing a ghost. In many ways Sonnier’s supernatural encounter recalls the work of “cinemagician” Georges Méliès. Like Méliès, Sonnier’s story involves a strange, surreal voyage that uses special effects to question what’s real and what is not. In her staged haunting, she uses only the sound of the wind and the eerie atmosphere of the uninhabited house to summon up the nightmare of her family home. Despite being trapped in a bureaucratic netherworld for so many years, Footsteps in the Snow, although a sad expression of both time lost and time wasted, is tempered by a light-hearted ridiculousness.

See project Rue Boileau