The global award in photography and sustainability

Valérie Belin

The works for which I have been nominated, and which I am presenting here, fully espouse the artistic genre of the still life and, within that, the vanitas and memento mori (“remember that you must die”); they belong in this long pictorial – and now also photographic – tradition. The choice of objects – mass consumer items – makes them contemporary still lifes. Plastic is the dominant raw material. These objects come from all over the planet. They are purely decorative and have no function. Their use value is virtually nil. There is no real need that can justify the profusion of these cheap objects in discount stores; their only “justification” lies in the chaos resulting from the imperatives of international trade and the needs that are created to stimulate it.

In terms of sustainability, these still lifes thus offer a jarring commentary on the effects of our obsession with cheap objects, for not only is their material, plastic, emblematic of the wasteful use of raw materials, but it also represents a grotesque kind of immortality because of its non-biodegradable nature – an immortality that, one could say, is slowly killing the planet.

I treated these still lifes as science-fiction landscapes. Lunar visions. The exotic aspect of the objects, their bright glossiness, evoke a remote, magical world of fairies, magicians and artifices. The objects are chosen like so many illusions of a real world, a fantasy world. Each of these still lifes has a title, from the name of one of the insignificant objects in the image, chosen more or less at random: a dish, an animal figurine, a mirror, a bowl, pearls, a vase, a mask, shoes, gloves. Each ensemble seems not to belong to our world, and as such has a strange kind of trashiness. These useless objects, symbols of our hunger to consume, have replaced the objects that in traditional vanitas paintings symbolised the riches of nature (game, fruit, foods), or human activities and knowledge (represented, notably, by scientific instruments). In vanitas paintings such objects were juxtaposed with elements evoking the ineluctable triumph of death – usually, a human skull. Here, instead of the skull I have included a plastic mannequin head, arm or hand, suggesting a person asphyxiated or buried beneath the mass of dross.

Paradoxically, each ensemble forms a subtly ordered composition and obeys the laws of the genre in a kind of paroxysm of representation. These critical compositions can be perceived as the organic and metaphorical representation of a chaotic brain, but also of a new order in the world and in life forms, a new galaxy governed by a well organised disorder.