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.
Nicole Vitré, Archéologies du désert. Pons gallery, Paris 1990.