“From the beginning, I was really interested in territory, landscape and architecture. How can we be inhabitants? What does it really mean to be, and to belong, in a space?” says Cyril. “When I was younger, my parents and I moved a lot, so, from a very young age, I knew that the feeling of belonging was ephemeral. I am in this city for a few months, in this room for a few years. I don’t feel attached to a place or a city.”
Cyril’s first encounter with photography was at summer camp when he was ten (though fascinated, he admits he didn’t take many photos then), and it was only when he studied architecture that his focus changed. “Actually, I didn’t study much architecture. I was in the lab all day, so I then went to an art school in France in Rennes.”
While there, he experimented with many forms including video, sculpture, performance and painting. But it was photography which seemed natural. “I don’t know why photography felt more comfortable. At the time, I was very interested in working with almost nothing, and, with photography, you don’t need much. You don’t need a workshop. My workshop is the landscape: I work outside. For me it was really important to be flexible.”
It is this roving sense of identity which characterises Cyril’s photography. His images of the quotidian, overlooked and, sometimes discarded, details which characterise the landscape around us – limestone rubble yielding to the garigue or the polished shore of a rocky beach – encourage a new way of seeing the familiar. The lens has been directed at that which was, perhaps, deemed too mundane to be noticed.
But, Cyril insists this is not about country or nationality. “I can be in Malta but I can be anywhere or everywhere - it’s not the primary consideration.” His preoccupation with space, and the way movement interacts within this, is his starting point for musings on the impermanent and fragile nature of the world around us, whether this is a Mediterranean island or a European capital.
“The body in space allows me to answer those questions,” he says. Indeed, his first exhibition, upon graduating from the Beaux Arts de Rennes, reflects this. Room 32 included images representing details from the eponymous room, to encourage the viewer to zoom in on one fragment, then another, and then another; their attention mimicking their imaginary movement within the area.
This action is repeated in his walks and inspiration can be found in the most unexpected places. It’s the fading instant which most concerns him, the ephemeral perfection of a slice of time in which the light and environmental elements work together to present an answer to his question. “One moment it works and it’s a good place. It’s only one second,” he says.
His work has been influenced by the New Topographics movement of the 1970s, photographers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, whom he encountered during his studies in Rennes. Baltz’s stark images represented an America of concrete walls and vast industrial warehouses, far from the picturesque images in tourist guidebooks. “Lewis Baltz was taking photos of the landscape which is in transition, in this in-between space; not the beautiful landscape, but it was about the place and the moment captured there. It wasn’t the image you wanted to give about the country, but its reality.”
It is this concern with portraying the world around him, warts and all, which motivates him. “I’m not interested in creating a photographic report on the beauty of Malta or France. I’m not interested in taking photos of sunsets over Valletta but it’s more how can I live in a country, how can I live in this instant, how can I be there, at this point in time.”
I tell him the momentary sense of belonging in a space and in time is something many other immigrant artists have reflected upon and he may be part of the peripatetic movement of people. He admits this, pointing to the ‘A’ on his ID card. “Now I say I come from France - that’s easier. I used to live in Paris for a long time, but, today, I cannot say I’m a Parisian, since I don’t live out my routine there, and in Malta I cannot say I’m Maltese. So, I’m just in-between and I like that. You can have distance: you’re here and you’re not here.”
The flow of people, Cyril says, makes it more difficult to address the issue of belonging because the landscape itself is shifting. “For my grandparents, the answer to that question was easier - they lived in a small village and they didn’t move a lot. Today it’s different: we live in cities; we move abroad, and the landscape changes.”
In Cyril’s work, the landscape is peripatetic, impermanent and fragile, allowing him to peel away the layers of the past. He shows me a series of photos he calls ‘palimpsests’ – extreme close-up images, some of them abstract in their detail – which map out time. The traces in the rocks mirror the history of man’s influence on the land and you get the feeling the image is a result of a unique confluence of the angle of light and colour.
Everything alters, according to Cyril, even our cities, towns and streets, depending on the mood, the weather or the light. “There’s something new in the same thing.” He says this is truer in Malta than it is in Paris, due to the vernacular nature of the architecture, which reflects local building methods and stone. As a result, he points out, spaces change constantly, and even houses are moulded and adapted with changing times, resulting in homes shaped like ‘Tetris’ structures. “Like this house I live in, our bathroom is above our neighbours’ storage room.”
For Cyril, this is the role of the artist: to ask questions and help people see things differently. “When you’re used to living in the same place, you don’t see your environment, you forget it, and the artist’s role is to guide you to look again at the same thing,” he says.
By the time I leave Cyril’s workshop, it’s almost noon, the soft mid-morning sun having given way to a harsher light, transforming a familiar street into something new.
This feature originally appeared in The Commercial Courier