Lucile Encrevé:

«Isabelle Le Minh : a melancoly game»

(Translation : Geoffrey Finch)

Text written in 2010 after the solo show of Isabelle Le Minh, Soon, at the Wharf,  Centre for Contemporary Art of Lower-Normandy and published in the artist monography Isabelle Le Minh / Un jeu mélancolique *, Published by Biffures editions, Paris, 2011.

     The preferred medium of Isabelle Le Minh (born in Germany in 1965) is photography. Her medium of choice because she began with it, abandoning a career as a patent engineer in Berlin to join the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles, and the one she still prefers today before all as an object of study because in her recent works, she hardly ever takes photographs herself anymore.

She says of part of her current production, which she started in 2007 and which is entitled After Photography, “the rule that I set for myself is that each piece comprising this work in progress, refers to an artist who has had a significant role in my career and whose work provides a pretext for speculating on the nature of the image or for reflection about the tools and the means of photographic production [...]”1.

Several works exhibited at the Wharf for the exhibition “Soon”2, which featured her in 2009, also refer to the work of other artists, of all generations, using photography and altering them to rework “the contemporary form” of this “game between all men of all periods”3, which is what art is for Marcel Duchamp – postproduction – referring explicitly through their titles to the work of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ed Ruscha, Victor Burgin and Christian Marclay and implicitly, with the word “after”, to those of the generation of appropriators (and above all Sherrie Levine, who, beginning in 1979, with After Edward Weston, re-photographed a corpus of works) but also contemporary post-producers (like Jonathan Monk who produced his film Small Fires Burning in 2002 (after Ed Ruscha after Bruce Nauman after).

So, Words of Light (After Robert Frank), a small painting done in 2007-2008, is a copy of a photograph by Frank, entitled Mabou, Nova Scotia (1977); Trop tôt, trop tard (After Henri Cartier-Bresson), eleven ink-jet prints made in 2008, rub out “all that attests to a decisive moment”4 in certain celebrated works of Cartier-Bresson; Re-play (After Christian Marclay) (2008-2009), plays upon, with the backs of photographs tacked to the wall, White Noise (1993) by Marclay; Just an Illusion (After Ed Ruscha), an ink-jet print from 2009 - a snapshot of a word (“illusion”) formed with unused film - constitutes a borrowing from the works of Ruscha on paper (in which, beginning in the 1960’s, he traced one or several words with strips of paper drawn with their own shadows) and Nothingness/Ball of Nothingness (After Victor Burgin) refers to Photopath that Burgin presented at the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form in 1969 at the ICA in London after having made an instruction card in 1967.

Erudite borrowing of works by men (and the works she is currently using are also by men) – without there being in this choice (which is astonishing when one knows how many women seized upon photography early on), any kind of feminist stance (but rather, as is often the case with appropriation at the beginning, a resumption/ renewal with the terrain and a desire to cloud the issue of genres). The titles are at times more discreet references to works with a less direct impact, on which, women have collaborated – Trop tôt, trop tard is taken from the title of a film made in 1982 by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, in which texts by Friedrich Engels and Mahmoud Hussein are read over images of France and Egypt, and I’ll Be Your Mirror (a small photographic installation from 2008-2009, comprised of three images produced from an amateur photograph and with the help of Photoshop), that of a song by the Velvet Underground sung by Nico (1967).

When the works dialogue with a more low art context, it doesn’t seem to be necessary to the artist to make mention of it in a title – hence Wor(l)ds, a large-scale mobile in steel and lacquered wood from 2008-2009, which sets the famous virtual yellow logo of Pathé within a real space. And when the link with another artist is more of the order of influence than a reworking, their name does not appear5 – Philippe Gronon, whose work, Châssis Photographiques from 1987-1988 to Tableaux Noirs at the turn of this century, have had a strong impact on Le Minh, and are thus at the origin of Tableaux (the title of which can likewise be read as a veiled reference to the work of Jean-Marc Bustamante), photographs that are on a scale of 1 of the backsides of paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts in Caen, accompanied by photocopies of their title cards comprised of a short description (where one perceives that their subjects, from the veil of Veronica to the crucifixion are linked to the notions of appearance and disappearance) made, ironically, in 2003 and so before Gronon began a similar series entitled Versos in 2005 - colour photographs of the backsides of paintings6 - while Le Minh was already exhibiting these works in Orléans7.

This play with art and artists is also found in two works where Le Minh,  who sees an echo of her former activity as a patent engineer in which the notion of anteriority is very important, stirs up her encyclopaedic culture with such pleasure and humour that at times it approaches the Idiotie8: This is the Artist, a slideshow where she classes hundreds of images of artists since 2005 according to voluntarily approximate and humorous criteria (“in good company” for example, a series of photographs of artists with - I – a woman, - II - a dog, – III – a car), and never of good quality, and Listing, a classification of a multitude of artists (at times obscure), that always begins with, “You know, the artist who” by means of traits that characterise them (“paints numbers”, “worked on zoology” or “has a last name which is the first name of another artist”), which, installed at first in 2004 with the librarian Catherine Schwarz at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rouen, in the exhibition takes on two forms – a list of roughly 300 continuously printed pages by a printer and four loop slideshows (Listing/detail), the beginning of the sentence being written on a coloured wall in white neon or directly in black.

We are reminded of course of Sherrie Levine’s statement dating from 1981: “The world is filled with suffocating […] We can only imitate a geture that is always interior, never original. Succeeding the painter, the plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, the impressions, but rather this immense encyclopaedia from which he draws.”9 It is as though these lists where names and faces are added up were an explanation of Le Minh’s desire, who in the face of images has a “feeling of déjà vu”10; of inventing nothing and of passing around works that have already been done by others. And eBay, the new international online flea market on which Le Minh buys some of her photos (for such works as Re-play (After Christian Marclay) - Marclay having found his in the Berlin flea market - and I’ll be your mirror), is also the repository of all those feelings of suffocation as well as all recycling. What characterises these practices of appropriation and what we find here again, is the loss of the aura – a loss tied, we know, to the appearance of photography.

There is a moment of questioning on the notions of authorship and originality – that have been tied for centuries to the value (both material and symbolic) of the work. This is the Artist is in fact more of a real analysis of the image as it participates in the views of artists (that would be
another project), who are often painters. It is an undertaking of rendering them banal and uniform (hence these photographs of artists as children in the chapter “in his early year”, which don’t look like anyone in particular, where in fact anyone might be portrayed), and a critical distancing from modernism (such as these images of pensive artists “doubting, thinking, trying to understand”). In the same way, the small oil on canvas painting after Frank, which is intentionally awkward (and which glows in the dark!) seems to mock the medium of painting, whose ties to photography are at the heart of the artist’s reflections (she recalls having taken a course in Arles on Richter and Polke given by Christian Milovanoff, who from 1980 to 1986, revisited the Louvre11 with a collection of photographs of fragments of paintings that leans towards abstraction). Among her contemporaries who practice citation, we think again of Monk, who is also a great lover of objects that are put into circulation again (works by artists, amateur drawings and photographs) lightly mocking painters who have vigorously promoted themselves– from Pollock, who is evoked in My Name Written in my Piss (1994) to Mondrian (1995) in Me Up a Tree Similar to One Painted by Piet Mondrian in about 1915.

Above and beyond this dialogue with the works of others (which is finally today expected) it is rather the links between the works that was striking in the Wharf exhibition. Numerous pieces by the artist seemed in fact to echo each other, answer each other, giving to read therein other dimensions of the oeuvre. So Just an Illusion (After Ed Ruscha) suspended in space by a thread and the word “Words” in the Wor(l)ds piece are linked to (and as though issued from) the small painting, Words of Light, borrowing an image by Frank, that she considers to be a manifesto, in which he has combined two12 of his photographs outside on a clothes-line (a piece from The Americans, called Political Rally, Chicago from 1956, and another, enigmatic, black, where the word “Words” is articulated). This reveals Le Minh’s interest for words (who uses several languages in her works, steeped in them as she was in her childhood – French and German in Re-play and English in This is the Artist -, and took great interest in courses in semiology), inscribed on the backside of Tableaux, on the back of the photographs in Re-play or that she writes herself on all kinds of supports.

The strength of words, behind which images disappear (‘Words’ as equivalent of ‘Worlds’?). There is at least a reflexion in any case on the distance from the word to the object (the referent) and the object to its representation. Tied to this reflection in another group of works, is the artist’s interest in trompe-l’œil (this illusion): this painting reworking a photograph, accordingly, Words of Light, recalls the photographs showing paintings in the series Tableaux but also to the photographs of parquet placed on the parquet in Nothingness/Ball of Nothingness. With Le Minh, who frames the works she borrows in white, there is nevertheless no ideology of tautology, but rather a regard brought to photography, the chosen object, because, as she writes, “it makes us ceaselessly hesitant between doubt and belief (in the world/in the image)”13. Question the represented reality, therefore hide it (and not reveal it, which is what we would expect of all photography) to the point of losing it with her Tableaux, which she says comes from the oeuvre of Gronon and the backside of a painting of the radically abstract Josef Albers she found in an edition of Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne.

Yet another group reveals itself: works that show only their backsides, the back of paintings and then the backs of photographs in Re-play, the back of a man in I’ll Be Your Mirror (as though one should always go to the other side of the image). Turning ones back means to be absorbed, but it also implies aspiring to something else, projecting oneself somewhere else, introducing an elsewhere, a mystery or setting up a mechanism of waiting – is not the word “soon” the title of the Wharf exhibition? The backside is the realm of the secret. It is the dominion of melancholy. Le Minh’s oeuvre, playful, at times so close to that of Monk, distinguishes itself by this strong melancholy, which takes her far away from the 1960’s conceptual and pop art that she cites to the point of craving.

Backsides, or Rückenfigur, people the history of painting, and romantic painting in particular – think of Woman in the Morning Sun (1810, Essen, Museum Folkwang) by Caspar David Friedrich and so many other of his works that coloured Le Minh’s youth, which was spent partly in the German countryside. These people with their backs turned, manifest the distance that separates them from the world. They are also striking by the refusal they oppose to those who look at them (in which we can find something of the artist who reveals practically nothing of herself). A
person with their back turned reflects the precious character of
humanity, its mortality. In Japanese Kabuki theatre, actors turn their backs and remain motionless to represent a person who is deceased.

This morbidity is present in Le Minh’s work, which is often in black and white, who, when she began in 1996, used, like Eli Lotar, a slaughterhouse as her subject – and all these early photographs are of a great sadness (from Parures, in 2000, photographs of dumps and an abandoned factory, to After Death, in 2005 where she has used another kind of abandoned space as a target - a morgue in ruin - which evokes the worst nightmares). The famous black band of Cartier-Bresson that she adopts directly in Trop tôt, trop tard becomes here the border of a death announcement. The entire work (where the other side is death) becomes vanity. The photographs of Re-play turned around form, thanks to their more or less yellowish colour, the English word MORE, which in French sounds like (“mort” - death) and means this, though she shows us as little as possible as though to thwart its meaning, a procedure evoking a Ruscha pastel from 1977 where the word “millions” is inscribed in tiny letters on a green background, in which loss and lack above all are read.

Le Minh’s oeuvre is inhabited by absence. The absence of figures, the absence of bodies, withdrawn from being regarded: represented bodies (in paintings showing their backsides), photographed bodies in Re-play and I’ll be your mirror (the game having consisted of reversal, with the help of Photoshop, of an image – showing the backside of a photograph, a child face on – the man remaining invisible, behind the camera, and the child’s face disappearing) or Trop tôt, trop tard (where she makes isolated individuals disappear - Hyères, France, 1952 – or in number - Aquila Degli Abrusi, 1952 – and animals - so the cat that is visible in Manhattan, New York, 1947, leaves like the cock, whose shadow always appears at the end of Pathé’s 3D animation, in Wor(l)ds)14.

There is an absence of bodies (which can be verified throughout her work), and the presence of refuse. First of all in the exhibition: balls of paper from Nothingness, the card from the exhibition crumpled into a ball on the parquet then photographed and a photograph of the parquet crumpled into a ball and placed on the floor, without forgetting all the abandoned photos sold on the net she uses, and Listing, which makes an enormous pile as it comes out of the printer. Those taken for targets in her first works respond to these scraps, like the diverse objects left on the floor in the series Gel from 1993-1995 to the multitude of plastic bags trapped in grills and scattered in nature in the works Art plastique and Parures (2000), which evoke the work the same year of Zoe Leonard15, of photographs taken in New York of trees in which bags are hanging, whose subject, as Elisabeth Lebovici16 wrote, is also to present something that has been used, that is damaged.

Hence, we can see that playfulness and intelligence are, in Le Minh’s oeuvre, accompanied by a reflection on the representation of the real, in works where the word takes precedence over the image, where we at times approach abstraction, and reflecting on time, abandonment and death. It is an oeuvre at a distance.  

Lucile Encrevé has a doctorate in Contemporary Art History (University of Paris IV), and is an historian and art critic. She is currently a professor at the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et Design Le Havre/Rouen after having taught 20th century art history at the University François-Rabelais in Tours.



1- Isabelle Le Minh,
“After Photography”,
unpublished text

2 - “Soon – Isabelle Le Minh”, Caen, Wharf,

January 16 – March 21, 2009

3 - Nicolas Bourriaud,

Postproduction, Dijon,

Les presses du réel, 2003, p. 11.

4 - Isabelle Le Minh,

“After Photography”, op. cit.

5 - The set, though they announce the corpus entitled After Photography, do not belong to the collection.

6 - A strange play between their works (and with painting) as Le Minh, with her Tableaux, now works only in black and white, while Gronon, with his Versos, has started to use colour.

7 - “Isabelle Le Minh.
Tableaux”, Orléans, Images du Pôle, Oct. 14 - Nov 13, 2005

8 - Jean-Yves Jouannais,
L’ idiotie : Art, vie, politique-méthode, Beaux-Arts Editions, 2003

9 - Sherrie Levine,
Five Comments (1980-1985),
in Blasted Allegories, An
Anthology of Writings by

Contemporary Artists,
Cambridge, MIT Press,
1987, p. 92

10 - Isabelle Le Minh
unpublished text (on the series Trop Tôt, Trop Tard)

11 - Christian Milovanoff,
Le Louvre revisité, Paris,
Contrejour, 1986

12 - There is another image in which three photographs

are hanging.

13 - Isabelle Le Minh,
unpublished text (2004) on the work Art Plastique

12 - There is another image in which three photographs

are hanging.

13 - Isabelle Le Minh,
unpublished text (2004) on the work Art Plastique

14 - In the older works a Tableau whose subject is indicated on the title card, as Porc écorché, echoes with  pieces of animals that are barely visible in the red images of the series Abattoirs.

15 - Their works were exhibited together in 2009, among other places at the SMAK and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent (“Faux Jumeaux 5.

Unsustainable Art”,
Feb 28 – March 30).

16 - Cf Elisabeth Lebovici, “The Friction of Everyday Life”, Zoe Leonard Photographs, Winterthur, Photo Museum, 2007, p. 71