The Collector as Artist, the Museum as Home: and the Spectator?

As we encounter the figures Philippe Terrier-Hermann follows in his most recent photographic series, the camera appears to zoom in slowly on them. On a misty morning in the early spring, they stand on a well-kept grass lawn, gathered around two nicely looking young ladies, who seem to be welcoming them. Behind this intriguing company, a beautiful rural estate arises, surrounded by a pond. A remnant of another epoch, the monumental, quasi-round sculpture situated right on the waterfront, reminds us nevertheless that this is indeed a contemporary setting. The next image shows them visiting the interior of a place that in no way resembles the mansion they were just standing in front of. As the photographic series develops further, it becomes clear that effectively, it is another house. Guided by the charming blonde lady, who takes the lead, the group of almost all middle-aged men is demonstrated a newly constructed building, surrounded by a formally laid out garden. Subtly but surely the two pictures Philippe Terrier-Hermann takes of their walk through the green little paths, reveal to us how both architectural constructs are part of the same park. The last two photographs of the series further confirm that finding. As they appear to come at the end of their stroll around these beautiful dwellings, the visitors stand still one last moment at the exterior side of the contemporary building, where the photographer captures them from inside, through the large window. Finally, the sun having come out, we say goodbye to them while seeing them drinking a glass on the nearby castle’s terrace.

Where are we? What have we been looking at? As it is always the case in Philippe Terrier-Hermann’s photographs, the viewer hesitates whether she is confronted with simply a reportage or, instead, with its opposite, an utterly staged scenery. The images themselves do not offer an equivocal answer to that question. With a remarkable sprezzatura, the represented personages move around this not so common environment, as if indeed they are used to do this all the time. But yet, some very subtle details tell the attentive spectator that there is something awkward about this seemingly harmonious setting. These disturbing elements are certainly not to be found in some sort of technological Spielerei on the side of the artist. Philippe Terrier-Hermann does not manipulate his images technically. His camera registers and captures what it encounters before its eye. In that sense, his images are a literal trace, a physical and direct index of a pre-existent reality somewhere and sometime in the past. But, that does not mean they offer us a clear idea of that reality, of what was going on there at that time. For it is in their content that houses a deliberate ambiguity. The complexity of this narration is of course partially determined by the photographer’s treatment of certain formal elements, especially the framing of his images, a given I come back on later in this text. But most obviously, it is the choice of the personages, the subject matter of these pictures that is – to say so - surprising. This strangeness does not house in the men’s dress codes – at least not in first instance. They wear the uniforms of contemporary businessmen, which make them easily identifiable. Their grey hair or slightly bold head and self-confident expressions – they seem to be having fun today – testify to their economic success. The two or three younger men’s flattering behaviour on their behalf only confirms that finding. Thus, so far, nothing unusual, rather on the contrary.

Suspicion rises however, when noticing that no businesswoman accompanies them, as if there were none to be found around. The guiding ladies’ clothes heighten that stereotype. They as well wear uniforms, only introducing a slight difference on the level of their stockings and shoes. That is not a necessity, one realizes. For, by contrast to men, women’s dress codes are not as homogeneously determined as that in those social milieus. Therefore, it is clear, this must have been a decision on the side of their photographic observer, Philippe Terrier-Hermann. Indeed, the blouses, jumpers and skirts are his design. As such, they are his personal footnote to the whole. One comes to see them as a subtle artistic wink to the observers of his images, suggesting one should look at them carefully, in order to unravel in them less obvious layers of meaning than those that are lying on the immediate surface. Terrier-Hermann made use of the same ladies’ dresses in his video Grégoire (2000). Filmed in the ultimate realization of the Belgian Modernist architect Henry Van de Velde, the Maison Grégoire in Uccle (1933), the video reads as a reflection on the ideological connotations that surrounded the construction of this building at the time. Originally conceived as a modest but proportionally perfect private home for a young family with, say, two children at most, Philippe Terrier-Hermann’s video upsets these conventions by letting a middle-aged woman and her young lover taking over the surroundings. There as well, she does not wear the clothing that would be appropriate to her status and age, but the very same green and brown, air-hostess-like creations of the artist. Here again, that compositional element reads as a blink of the eye, disrupting the utopia that surrounded the original architectural concept.

Van de Velde’s Maison Grégoire was conceived as a private place, a home, and it remains so until today. Yet, in his video, the artist deliberately disrespects that given. By letting his personages perform activities outside on the roof terrace, and by filming them through the large, spacious windows from the street, he - as a kind of voyeur - transforms them to semi-public personae. In the series we are looking at here, a similar intermingling and questioning of the private and public sphere is taking place. It is clear from the photographs that none of the depicted men really belongs there. However at ease they might appear, they are ‘intruders.’ For two charming young women guide them around, who nevertheless do neither offer the impression to be the ‘ladies of the house.’ At all times, the people behind this fascinating site, the owners of the property, remain unknown and out of sight of the camera. The actual setting of this shooting is the garden surrounding Kasteel Wijlre, a 17th Century mansion bought in 1981 by the Dutch industrial Jo Eyck and his wife, and subsequently impressively renovated. As they are important collectors of works of art, orchids and chickens, they recently decided to have constructed in their park a separate place for their collection of artworks. This became the so-called Hedge House, the contemporary building that is depicted in Terrier-Hermann’s photographic narrative.

The internationally renowned Dutch architect Wiel Arets signed for the concept of this private museum. Conceived in his attractive and sober style, which plays with linear modules in glass and concrete, the building reflects on the legacy of the early Modernists such as, for example, Van de Velde. No one therefore was better placed than Philippe Terrier-Hermann – who did study extensively not only the works of Van de Velde, but also, among others, of Mies van der Rohe - to capture the subtle ambiguity behind an ideal conception of an architectural construct and its actual use. Through his images, Terrier-Hermann offers a view on a certain lifestyle, on a particular and highly exclusive social layer of our contemporary society. That he knows this social stratum - its habits and its codes - to the bone, another photographic series of his, Internationales 1996-2000 amply demonstrated.1 There, he had followed one and the same young businessman throughout his professional and leisure trips all over the world. In these often overwhelming places, the appearance of the young man provokes a reflection as to who the ideal versus the ‘usual’ visitor of such surroundings would be. Like the visitors of the Hedge House and Kasteel Wijlre, he is so very much at ease in those environments, but yet without ever showing any kind of engagement or involvement towards them. In both series, the depicted figures’ ‘interest’ in the visited location reads as a pose far more than as actually being overwhelmed by it. To the viewers of these images, their presence there rather appears as a game, and a very pleasant one indeed. But it all seems so normal to them that one cannot but become suspicious again.

Who then would be the ideal visitor of the Hedge House? Is there a discrepancy between an imaginary person and the actual visitors we encounter in the images? As has been said, it is conceived as a private museum, which of course is a terrible contradictio in terminis. For is a museum by definition not a place that is open to anybody, to the public at large? Indeed, the Hedge House is open to ‘the public’ two days a week. But that does not clear out all questions that rise. Because, when entering the Hedge House, what kind of objects does one find and what do they tell us? In his ‘Valéry Proust Museum’ Theodor Adorno writes: “The German word museal [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect that to the needs of the present. Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are the family sepulchres of works of art.”2 A museum, Adorno argues, is a collection of dead objects that serve the interests of the past rather than those of the present. We treat them carefully because of our respect towards the fact that they have been of present interest in another era.

But the museum we encounter in the garden around Kasteel Wijlre does not readily fit in to Adorno’s rather pessimistic definition. Because it does not exactly house a public collection that came to us from the past as a kind of heterogeneous patchwork. On the contrary, on view here is the private property of one and the same family, who deliberately chose to offer it its own space in a private ‘Hedge House’ instead of donating it to an existing public museum. As the term itself says, it is to be conceived of as a house, a home for works of art, discretely hidden behind a row of hornbeams. A house is a lively place, it is a notion associated with the present and the now. It should be a home for those who live in it. As such, one can imagine the Hedge House being built as a place where the works of art should be allowed to stay alive instead of dying on the walls and in the corners of the museum. But is this actually possible? Can works of art be ‘kept alive?’ Does building a ‘private museum’ save them from ‘dying?’

Philippe Terrier-Hermann’s images seem to feed that reflective process. In the second series, he shows us how a young boy’s birthday party is being held inside the Hedge House. One sees the boy, doubtlessly one of the family’s grandchildren, having cake and coke with his friends, and playing around inside the museum. In these images, it is more obvious that the photographer has allowed the children to develop their games spontaneously. Thus, the reportage-like character of this series is much heightened, disfavouring the rather staged effect that more strongly marks the first series (with the businessmen). The playful character of the children’s games only heightens the difficulty of a joint private and public function of this building. For here, we are confronted with an exclusively private use of the House. It is a home, a playground for children, which makes it a lively place for them. But strangely, the objects do not come to life at all under the children’s eyes. For they simply disregard them, they play as if the artworks were not there. To them, they are only part of the general décor. With the photographer, the viewer finds herself catapulted into the position of an outsider, a stranger and an intruder. One thus becomes an awkward kind of ‘public,’ one that sneaks on what it sees instead of fully enjoying it. Hidden behind the large beam of the round sculpture we already encountered in the first series, one sees them boating on the pond around the castle. The framing of this image is quite particular: at the same time it offers a mirrored view on the kids, and appears as the upper part of a question mark.

Indeed, finally, both series raise many questions without offering clear answers. By allowing strange, unusual visitors into an already not so ordinary setting, the viewer appears to have lost her way. How do we position ourselves towards these findings? What exactly do we see? Surely the images offer a reflection on the stereotypes circulating around the use of architectural buildings and sites. But they do more than that. They subtly reveal that this easy way of going lifestyle is an utmost reality, which, at the same time, entails a façade it is very hard to get through. For it are not exactly the kind of pictures one encounters in a glossy magazine of such families. The images one is used to would rather be a portrait of the owners with their children and grandchildren somewhere amidst the park. But, as has been pointed out, they themselves remain speechless and out of sight, only made alive through their grandchildren. And when they are captured, they totally disregard their photographer, and therefore, the spectator, as it was also the case for the businessmen in the first series. Again, it is as if he, and we, were a ‘total bore’ to them. Therefore, one cannot but experience a feeling of balancing between attraction to what one is seeing and at the same time an uncomfortable sentiment of repulsion. For however much these images reveal, they allow no entrance but instead foreclose their onlookers. In that sense, the public dimension that is offered, as a kind of ‘view on,’ is annihilated. The world viewed intrinsically remains fully private and idiosyncratic. The external access one gets, is banal, is that of the paparazzo, and this is not exactly a comfortable position.

Philippe Terrier-Hermann’s images reveal to us how Jo Eyck, as a contemporary uomo universalis, turns his life and his surroundings into one great Gesamtkunstwerk. They reflect on a way to position oneself towards that given, coming down to an intermingling of feelings of fascination and raising questions at the same time. For this is and remains an ‘inside world,’ well protected from what is happening ‘out there.’ They display idealist patterns of expectation about which one cannot help wondering if they can ultimately be upheld. The pictures delicately touch on such breaking lines, for example by depicting the little boys playing war games in this peacefully organized nature. Somehow they appear to be bringing in the outside world that, however much they are children, they are already aware of, and allow for a confrontation with it. Whatever one might think of this, it is a paradox the images deliberately do not resolve. As the contemporary incarnation of Renaissance patronage, this collection is called to life through a curious kind of public display, doubled and highlighted by the photographic images. It certainly is a highly attractive form of leisure. But one remains uneasy.