Thierry Urbain Français
Nicole Vitré, Archéologies du désert. Pons gallery, Paris 1990.
Exotic means that which comes from far away. In exploring his personal image of the desert, Thierry Urbain resolutely turns his back on this definition. Far off as defined by such a simple cliche does not apply in his case. In spite of the orientalism sometimes found in certain of his images, it's exactly the contrary of exotic that is meant. Nothing trivial, no display of the headiness of the unknown, no orgy of new sensations (odors, flowers, perfumes). In opposition to the highly-colored descriptions usually accompanying the Western World's discovery of the Orient, the work here has the soberness of black and white, of tight framing and of small size: the tools of silence and of a personal presence. Here that which is far off does not submerge the spectator but instead places him before his own personal questioning.

The exotic looks for the bizarre, the strange, in a word for the sensational and plays upon the chock of geographic distance. Thierry Urbain, on the contrary, seeks the intimacy of an interior vision: the desert which is at once an alibi and a liberator, a privileged place to know oneself. The 19th century saw a profusion of people who plunged with delight into exotism: writers, scientists, explorers of all sorts. The desert, on the other hand, reveals rapidly to the voyager a unique and obsessive requirement: not to loose oneself.

Does the artist persue an illusion of happiness or does he seek a certain remoteness in the revelation of these lands? The emptiness of the innermost being appears here as tranquility and sereneity; not as vertigo. If the desert is the materialization of an intimate image, this approach is in obvious harmony with the project of introspection proposed via the photography which becomes the privileged form of this interior voyage.

What is absent or present in these landscapes? What does the photography reveal to us other than the image of successive crests or a star spangled sky? A unitary dream freed from the force of reason alone? Undoubtedly. A hieratic space — the desert — where the slightest tremor becomes a sign of life? Where anthropomorphic presence is concealed so as to reveal the essence of being?

The monotonous yet fascinating succession of dunes shaped by time and wind: only he who has dared to enter there and tried to orient himself can perceive the true meaning, undergoing an experience in which our most ordinary marks (fractioning of time and tasks, notion of property...) no longer correspond to anything. Irresponsible, in a way, completely delivered from the expectation and organization of the coming instant, spectators of sand and stars, could we hope for something more than this revelation: to see and to contemplate?

One must be worthy of the desert the touareg tell us: during the voyage each is supposed to discern that which he has brought with him. Our innermost visions are tenacious and accompany us often in spite of ourselves. "The nostalgic and torturing backdrop" made up of our forced choices no longer has reason to exist: the desert is present here and now; no crossroads.

The sandy surface flees before our eyes to the horizon — or to the mirage? — there where it blends with the celestial vault that engulfs us all. Heaven and earth, dunes and clouds, sand and stars, all play with the infinity they reflect and are offered to our abandoned soul's contemplation; something here could "coincide with an obscure interior poem". These images are primarily intended for he who stands upright, transcends the horizon for the perfect and indifferent wandering contained in a gaze which enlarges one's consciousness. The starry desert shown to us calls for flight. The airplane, a technical reassuring intermediary, defines the limits of an introspective regard: level, altitude, guiding-marks of the altimeter and the horizon all needed for a trouble free flight, or perhaps elevation, remoteness necessary choices for an approach to the landscapes of one's own history? In either case, the machine becomes the evident link between our awakened consciousness and the pure irreality of dreams: fly and behold.

Our eyes troubled by so much space and depth, fly in all directions over the surface of the print: the magic of the small size on which the landscape, highly concentrated, proposes and permits successive and ever renewed interpretations. The eternity born of these images seeps into us. The intimacy of the revelation becomes evidence.

The very quality of the air is perceptible. The black and white print plays its role here to perfection: one is astonished that such darkness of a star lit night can radiate such intense azure! Out of the obsession with the grain of sand added to that of the photo emerges something of the essence of humanity. From the purified — almost icy — silence of these photographies comes an expectation and a presence which are moving. The aridity and starkness of the landscapes calls for the most intelligent and highest demands of our innermost spirit. No embellishments... Imperceptibly, the acuteness of our vision is heightened. Our respiration changes. The pure and sharp lines of this particular desert, as they are revealed to us, do not permit any weakness in our vision which becomes as searching as that of a pilot during a night-flight.

Each element of the image is easily recognizable: the sky, the moon, the ground, a plane, vague landmarks and yet... Out of the strange homogeneity of the whole thus constructed, oozes an insidious questioning, quiet, serene but also terribly pressing. A distant visual approach is all we have of these unknown and far countries, yet it brings us back to earth, back to a possible comprehension of worldly things. But in spite of the sensual and tactile side of the dunes, there is something secret, untouchable, almost sacred in these surfaces which attracts and captures us.

The artist or the spectator, which of the two is the most fascinated by the moire of the sand, by the ageless space unrolled before our eyes, or the grazing light which is at once disquieting and reassuring? And exactly what light is it? The rising or the setting of the sun or the moon? A waning light which fades on a mystery faintly perceived, or the promise contained in a coming dawn?

There is no doubt that Thierry Urbain has completely unveiled his own personal unknown lands, but toward which our identities and memories converge marvelously.
Frédéric Lambert, Archéologies du désert. Pons gallery, Paris 1990.
To cross a desert, to walk carefully around an archeological site, to fly at night, to measure oneself with the geological aspects of a landscape, discover a funeral chamber and the atmosphere that haunts it, to breathe the hot dust and the cold of a starry night, all that is adventure.

One might say it was a child's game if the precision which forces respect were not present. Here is a craft that takes years to master before aquiring the skill to measure, photograph and build so many memories.

In the photographer's pouch, a large ocher bag of rough linen, compasses, both geographic and geometrical, rulers, pencils, a plumb-line, 20 meters of white cord, a brush, a swiss knife, a hat: all that is necessary to take photographies.

Beside the photographer (or at least accompanying him depending on the spot), a native, standing rather far off because he knows the foreigner absorbed in his task; an archeologist, also silent and alone who is several centuries away; a seasoned pilot, tough old grumbler who smokes evil-smelling cigarettes and who does night flights because they're well paid, and who can't fathom what the photographer, sitting next to him and deciphering maps so well, is seeking to discover.

Then there are those times back in Paris when one must mingle with the crowd, take up one's daily tasks, answer the telephone, and print, print in the dark to bring out the black to which he is so attached in his photographies, print those lights which he no longer tries to make reality correspond to because he knows too well that his light is never Light but something else which is has its own beauty.

One day a cultural attache who had lodged him sent him a postcard showing a dune and a dromedary and on which was written "Light of the Desert." He had smiled at the use of the singular and at so much naivete, had used it as a bookmark and finally had lost it.

Another time, while working for a scientific organization on an archeological dig, he felt he understood that all the traces photographed, all the lines that restitute the design of the ruins form secret messages that must be understood, not to call up a civilization, but for the beauty they leave on his pictures. He saw the ancient port appear, the southernmost fortification of the city, the cemetery, an ancient marketplace, the scribal quarter, the outlaying farms, roads. He knew that archeologists don't look at photographies but read them, evaluate them, classify them, crisscross them with marks in order to place their numbers. He liked to listen to them as they made a site come alive, but he remained attached to the landscapes which the geometry of the ruins designed.

At Fara, at Hassuna, at the excavations of Byblos, at Kish, he felt a precise expression: as if time had not passed. His concentration, the photography, the ruins all gave him the heady and disquieting taste of eternity. Never in the cemetery of Djemdet Nasr, in that of Obeid, or over a tomb at Kheit Quasim did the idea of death occur to him. The skeletons, or what was left of them, were tranquil and later in his black and white prints he let them rest in peace.

He kept a notebook and wrote: "Do the 5 th tomb again. Study the field; cliff, hill. Show the plain (calm). Begin charts, finish tombs. Return to the mound on the terasse East by East in the morning for the light. Have 3 films ready, or 4? Ask Etienne T. for samples."

Another day he tried to get his bearings. "To reach the collective tomb, start at the Northern well, follow the dry gulch for 100 meters. On the left skirt the outer side of the low wall, 20 meters lower under the slabs."

Once in a desert in wartime, he met another photographer whose specialty was current events. "I've covered them all he said. Afghanistan, Sudan, China, Moldaiva and Syldaiva, Erythea, the Jordan West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Tchad, Arabia, no nation, no war during which my eye was absent." The photographer didn't know what to say in response to such a slogan and to so many certitudes. He asked himself "But I, what have I accomplished?"

His photographies show human beings only after they have been dead so long that they form a bouquet of bones.

While travelling he doesn't dream. The nights are often difficult, the heat, the cold, the mosquitos or the noise of a radio, the weariness of eye and spirit, the tension required during the day make for light sleep.

It's in Paris that he dreams, that he accepts the images he has lived and which he associates with his photographies. Sometimes he even dreams in photography: nothing moves, the images are stills, only a cloud floats by discreetly blown by the wind, or a fleeting light or a passing shadow. In the morning he remembers his dreams as if it were a portfolio.

At Nefra, a labyrinthine hypogee, he rapidly found himself at home. He knew how to guide one without hesitation to chambers called "Offerings", "Invocations", "Augurs" or "Investiture". He had studied the lights of the place to such an extent that the reigning obscurity no longer bothered him. Little by little he deciphered the architect's intention: to bring a delicate light from the exterior into the funeral chamber, echo by echo. He photographed the site following the path that was meant to bring to the dead a sun as discreet as a nightlight in the room of a child who is afraid of the dark.

It was also at Nefra that he realized monumental architecture is not necessarily a symbol of power, but the need of a simplicity open to all movement. Here, he felt as if the space had been especially conceived for him as a photographer. Indeed, the archeologists were often around him, watching him take his shots, as if they could obtain an enlightenment from the encounter of the site and the frame of the photography. Several times there were six or seven of them crowded behind the camera, flattened against a wall, trying to understand: they call that photography's little offering to archeology. In the evening, around the table, the camera became a person that one discusses, a sort of developer of regards.

At Nefra he was sung by a scorpion and for three days he lay motionless and feverish. At the height of the venom's action, he was delirious and had hallucinations, saw himself naked as a hittite priest destroying his cameras in one anteroom after another. In the funeral chamber a princess was waiting for him, and they made love without touching the ground while the light filtered through the grains of sand and halogenated silver spreads a discrete hibiscus scent.

In Paris during a work session.

In the Institute's offices, two satellite images, a series of aerial photographies, an archeological survey and a box of prints are spread on a large dark colored wooden desk. The archeologists look at the photographed objects to draw conclusions. At the end of the day they look at the photographies to construct images.

He likes departures, he likes voyages, the noise of the airplane's motors, the setting sun, being far away. The runway is empty and that solitude awakens his perception of the land and the sky.

And it is that which he wishes to photograph: deserted landscapes because they are an acknowledgment to the earth. His work in archeology makes the same statement; the cities, the peoples buried in the sands of time: a lesson in humility.

He savors all the colors of a landscape including the blackness of the sky. A woman has written about his photographies: "The very quality of the air is perceptible. The black and white print plays its role here to perfection: One is astonished that such darkness of a star lit night can radiate such intense azure!"
Frédéric Lambert, Babylone. Pons gallery, Paris 1993.
Translated by Christian Gutleben.
I was not particularly qualified to fulfill the ministry's request. I nevertheless flew without overdone scruples to the Babylon site where a considerable team of archeologists was already at work. The excavation area looked like an opencast, fully busy, ochre mine...

In the morning, before joining the precincts of the library, I cross a sector of the site which spreads on several hectares. I enjoy going through the Sumer gate, exchanging a few words with the workers who are clearing terraces, pushing wheelbarrows so loaded that the thin boards on which they pass bend dangerously.
Burnt by the sun and the night, smoothed out by the timeless winds, the city still seems to hear the esplanades that are filling up, the guards that are changing and the crowds that are resonating at the foot of the terraces. The first time, as I was discovering the library, I had the feeling that all that was left from the manuscripts was the architecture of their secrets. Hidden, put away, absent as they seem, the rooms follow each other as so many strongholds of the arts and of knowledge.
Apart from a photographer and a draughtsman who defines himself as the last ruin-sketcher, I am the only one who does not belong to the community of the archeologists. My only credit consists in having published a text on the history of ancient libraries (Babylon, Alexandria, Athens, Rome ...).

The study of numerous fictional or documentary texts which strove to narrate or describe them had driven me to make a few assumptions. These assumptions rested on nothing very serious and deliberately contradicted certain scientific particulars. Yet, possibly because of their provocative drift, they had been published and commented upon several times by different magazines.
I keenly contested the idea that the ancient libraries were run according to models of rational classification. Admittedly, several catalogues were discovered. They came in the form of clay tablets on which are written in cuneiform sixty odd titles referring to well-known works (epic poems, algebra treatises, mythological accounts...). Although the temptation was strong to interpret them as essential files to trace back the documents, I nevertheless asserted that the Babylon library can only have lived through an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation, that it was not run by librarians but celebrated by regular readers or rather devotees. These libraries were probably not thought of as cumulative memories where each document had to be recorded, at the risk of never being consulted, but as selective places where the magic of words is superseded by the greatness of the Gods. One did not come to read, in the classical meaning of the word, but to perform a ritual which consisted in looking for a document and honor it. The reader had to glorify the clay, the papyrus, the stones, the cloths..., to praise the palace which shelters the library, to praise the author of the ideas as well as the author of the signs (the scribe).
Naturally, all these assumptions were not made at random or out of sheer fantasizing. So much so that I was invited to take part in the new Babylon excavations as an expert in library science.
Actually, I did not take my status very seriously and, though nobody in the least made me feel on the fringe, I quickly assumed the role of the dreamer. With my hands in my back, I paced the rooms, pored aver the manuscripts that were being exhumed, drew up several rough plans of the library. I was expecting some sort of revelation. With my feet in the red dust raised by the picks, the knives, the paint brushes, the wire brushes and other excavation tools, I listened to the cries, the noises, the silences of the site. I often felt dizzy, hollow and sick. Being always mentally alert — my field of investigation fell within the province of the imagination —, striving to restore the place to life, and suffering from the heat, I was eventually wearing out...

Yet today, very slowly, step by step, from the clearing of a door to the baring of an ornamental tiling, I shared with the archeologists the incredible confirmation of all my assumptions.
The unearthed architectural unit is situated in the central part of the Palace. It is laid out like a monument organized for an initiatory route. The numerous rooms are interconnected by an incoherent network of stairways that would baffle anyone endeavoring to understand them or to endow them with a function of communication. The whole library is a big-scale altar designed, not to file the documents, but to take them along on a predetermined itinerary. Many a clue helped us to reconstitute the various stations and situations by which a reader of true faith had to go through — unlike today's faithful reader, the babylonian reader is a believer. The numerous tiny windows are disposed as so many loopholes and organize the light; thus, at any moment while he was reading, the devotee could watch the ground that was covered or yet to be covered and, as in a game of memory, think again about what the book had already made him experience.

I work a lot with a sumerologue who conducts all the research on the tablets that are being discovered. As soon as the sand uncovers a piece of clay that looks slightly darker than the accumulated rubble she is sent for. Then starts a scene of parturition. She kneels down, caresses softly with both hands the outline of the object and smoothly frees it with an infinite patience. I noticed that in these moments of inception her face relaxes totally in the kind of big serene smile that welcomes the newborn child and embraces the dead man. Often the tablet is broken and she withdraws the fragments from the sand like numerous splinters taken from the flesh of the earth. Often also the tablet remains intact and ends up circulating from hand to hand...
Late Thursday she made me share her astonishment: she itemized among the documents preserved in a basket and a jar an important number of writings that were not cuneiform and she noticed a thematic topography that revealed inconsistencies (the genre, the periods, the mediums are so to speak mixed up).
All the texts, be they religious, economic, or, as was also discovered, quasi-novelistic, had to be read according to the same ritual, from endless stairways to invocation rooms. A text was not read, it was prayed. Its reading convened everyone who had produced it, written it, read it, including the reader to come.

We are now convinced. The Babylon library was not a filed memory, a reflection of the powers: it was the source of it. From it depended prosperity, the wheat that grows, the barley that sways in the wind, the warriors that come back victoriously, the springs that do not dry up, the good and just kings...

One night, there was like a revelation. Not that a revelation is necessary to authenticate scientific discoveries and perpetuate the eureka myth, but an effect of nature happened to clarify everything. We had decided that evening to go back to the site. We had to shift a corrugated iron door which blocked the access to the excavations in order to reach the western terrace, and from there, walking along the Hammurabi sanctuary, join the scribal quarter. We then hit upon a marvelous scene, a miniature extravaganza: a firefly ballet. In their tens, these little insects flew up towards the top of the library, very lightly, intermittently shedding luminous flashes of an astonishing power and softness. Their slow and regular procession, punctuated by flashes, gave to the library its true meaning. Wasn't it built for the readers ceaselessly, by day and by night, to honor the texts and to set place alive by walking it up and down during long rituals? The music instruments that had been found in certain rooms, weren't they there to impose a rhythm?

When we got back, I cut my hand quite deeply as I closed the corrugated iron door. My blood in the sand drew a pattern, a letter. I should have copied it out. I then quoted to myself that strange sentence from the great poem of Eanna's stela, possibly the first literary and peotic text ever: "tears on her cheek and they furrowed the sands"...