Belgian photographer Charif Benhelima’s Polaroids at Brussels’ Bozar

Charif Benhelima combines the intimacy of the classic Polaroid image with a skewed perspective that re-evaluates the subject matter and forces viewers to realign their emotional perspective. His current exhibition, Polaroids 1998-2012, offers up a crystallisation of Benhelima’s experience of foreignness and his critical dialogue with this dislocation. Furthermore, the collection hints at the (im)possibilities that surround the interpretation of memory.

A massive, pale spectre greets visitors to Benhelima’s Polaroids: a delicately etched, almost painterly bouquet. Overexposed, the common or immediate features that might be immediately perceived of such a bouquet are bleached out, leaving behind only the essential parts, those features encoded by memories, dwelling alongside and upon other memories. This is a key element of Benhelima’s collection – the compilation of memories and experience. The iconic Polaroid is an excellent means of presenting this – very rarely does the tool itself supersede the content in terms of immediate significance.

Theoretically, Benhelima’s intention in choosing the everyday for his subject matter springs from his wish to avert the monolith sensitive social and political issues that riddle German artistic production. Expressing itself in practice, this wish is revealed within Benhelima’s methodology of overexposure that forces viewers beyond the ‘real’ or immediately apparent. The comfort of the Polaroid image is manipulated, making bare our own relationship with the intimacy of others. Viewers encounter a series of intimate memories that become, rather conversely, both inviting and alienating in their familiarity.

On one level, Benhelima’s bleached aesthetic fits well with the prosaic scenes with which we are presented. Combined with his Polaroid palette, the images offers up a kind of Continental dreamy suburban Americana.

Benhelima’s evident visual and critical concern with perspective puts identity and subjectivity at the centre of the collection. The skewed visual representation of the images engages with the rootlessness and displacement which Benhelima has made his subject elsewhere. There is a clear line running between this collection and his work on spatio-temporal dislocation and foreigness, cemented, of course, by the final instalment to the series: ‘Semites’. But even here, instead of a portrait series Benhelima’s shots continually require viewers to reflect upon the limits of their own perception.

Experience is privileged over reality. The dizzying display of the photos, stacked alongside one another almost end to end, makes one’s progression through the exhibition a little like being sat down with a holiday snapshot toy, each picture an intimate rendering of half-remembered juvenilia, while Benhelima whispers a barely discernable stream-of-consciousness narrative into your ear.

The initial detail recorded by the Polaroid, that is, the visual content of the photograph, is in many ways secondary to Benhelima’s choice of form and execution. Like memories, these shots are indistinct, overexposed: used. ‘Overexposed’ is not just in reference to the method but more its metaphorical function: to represent how memories and objects and people are ‘lived in’, that is, to show how they are altered by thought.

A bicycle sits as a distant centrepiece in ‘Black-Out’, Benhelima’s first series. Its buttery surroundings form a kind of shifting plasma, a visual rendering of foggy memory. The paleness of these Polaroids gives thought a tangible sense. Benhelima dredges memories through a lemony mire, upon which the images float like flotsom, delicately suspended aloft upon a foamy sea of memory. At other times it’s as if you’re speeding past an image, your hindered vision holding you at arm’s length. Again, it is more the manner in which the viewer’s perception is impeded, rather than what we are left with, that concerns Benhelima. It is what has been left out.

Occasionally the images are alluring, the subject only inches beyond the viewer’s perspective. Rather than taunting one with its simultaneous immediacy and unavailability, Benhelima’s perspective envelops viewers within its own dreamy pace, lending an emotional clarity rather than one rooted in reality. These are someone else’s memories, lovingly rendered and inherently inviting, drawing attention inwards towards their opaque depths rather than deflecting one’s contemplation.

Benhelima’s second collection – ‘Harlem on my mind – I was, I am’ – is much more directly concerned with Otherness. Again, the perspective here is always slightly crooked. Rather than faces we see reflections of feet and legs in the vast street puddles, the monochrome red images dotted sparingly between the sombre black and white industrial scenes lent a comparative heaviness and inescapability.

Polaroid shots provide, as Dirk Lauwaert remarks in his accompanying text, a “consolation”, of sorts. Alongside this however, they run the risk of suffocation. The Harlem series engages with this suffocation in a very particular way. The switch between industrial scenes and intimate body portraits that never quite catch the subject’s full face in turn alienate the viewer, making our viewing of the pictures feel at once like an intrusion and a rebuff. In this way, the series confronts our own feelings of Otherness without turning our gaze fully back upon us.

Here we see the outline of a cane, there, a close-up of swollen feet in orthopaedic shoes, and at the end a dead cat lying juxtaposed with its chalked cartoon twin, sketched onto a dim sidewalk. Human and animal frailty dominates this series, leaping between the industrial and the intimately sensual.

The concern for identity remains in ‘Roots’, in which Benhelima displays photographs of wild plants from around the world. The overexposure, coupled with the often man-made surroundings, makes the plants unnatural – fluorescent fairy lights are even tightly wrapped around one tree. When not man-made, the surroundings are often abstract, as if the plants are emerging from Benhelima’s mental recesses.

The blown-up Polaroid dominating the hallway – Occupancy III (2006) – features bleached green vines floating against cobalt tiles. As with the ‘Black-Out’ series, our relationship with memory is evoked. At a corner room, both the images and lighting contribute to an underwater feel that is even vaguely tropical. The vines return here in miniature, with more detail. Memory becomes comparatively more intimate when considered within a certain distance, both in time and space.

Benhelima’s final section, ‘Semites’, expresses his own confrontation with his Jewish origins. In his characteristic style, rather than the portraits commenting upon Benhelima’s own identity, viewers are confronted with the limits to their own subjective experience. The portraits are never simply straight-on, one side of the face always remains slightly overexposed and thus hidden.

Charif Benhelima rails against grandiose political statement: his Polaroids beseech viewers to form their own response and question their own alterity. Rather than simply acknowledging the limits imposed by our own subjectivity, Benhelima’s collection forces us to confront these limits and bear witness to the encounter. The overexposure of the images literally impairs our vision, manifesting less ‘real’ though more truthful, more intimate, scenes.

Charif Benhelima: Polaroids 1998-2012
Until 18th November
Bozar Center for Fine Arts, Rue Ravensteinstraat 23 – 1000 Brussels