All About Me




On the occasion of the PARIS PHOTO 2022 exhibition (10–13 November), Art Research Paris – ARP Auction has chosen to present a group of photographs which make up an astonishing journey in which the artist, Paolo Topy, questions the relationship between photography and narrative, and in particular the autobiographical genre.

Paolo Topy, a French artist of Italian origin, was born in Libya in 1966. He lives and works in Nice.

This exhibition picks up the title of this singular body of work, “All About Me”, and consists of 45 colour prints produced in the summer of 2019. Paolo Topy conceived the series of photographic works on the basis of a desire for autobiographical representation. From that starting-point, the artist established as a protocol the non-representation of his own body and face in order to avoid any risk of exhibitionism and/or voyeurism. The use of manufactured objects seen in opportunistic or even accidental compositions in an immediate environment which is that of everyday life — his own, but also that of his close entourage — makes possible a simple and most spontaneous expression that prioritises a primal gesture, an intuitive or even an unconscious action.

At the origin of this work is a family photograph. A black and white print, ordinary in every way, showing his parents alone. One of those photographs which, in the words of Roland Barthes, had made up his “imaginary world of images” since childhood and which he kept preciously on his night table.

The reference to the philosopher and, in particular, to his book Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (published by Seuil in 1975) is not accidental. The work, consisting of a photographic notebook of some forty pages followed by an autobiography organised in the form of alphabetical entries, questions the relationship between photography and autobiographical narrative, the two being structurally distinct in this book.

Paolo Topy’s intention, contrary to this principle, is to merge narrative and images so that the images become narrative.

In order to achieve this and, in passing, to humorously perfect this “wonderment” that the philosopher describes as the origin of his choices and to almost “chemically” amalgamate the photography and autobiographical narrative that he intends to deploy, Paolo Topy has symbolically added to this photograph of his parents a toy, a small figurine, one of those little puppets that one attaches to the fingertips. It represents a monster, the creature created by Dr Frankenstein. He then made a photograph of this montage.

The purpose of this figurine is to conceal his own image. Paolo Topy chose a substitute object, a derisory object with a grotesque, monstrous aspect.

This choice is rooted in the artist’s own experience and feelings. The arrival of a differently-gifted child in a classic family environment can quickly make him look like a monster, or lead him to believe that he is. This first gesture, full of humour, derision and tenderness, is the source of the whole “All About Me” series. The marmoset used as a subject is thus, in this context, the symbolic projection of the artist and allows the creation of a common place that is shared with the viewer. This projection, which at the same time imposes a certain distancing, allows for a dislocation: the individual narrative becomes a shared narrative and, through a cleverly organised shift, a collective one.

This figurine thus functions as a postulate. It represents the artist. With this act, Paolo Topy overturns the principle of childhood photography and takes control of what it is supposed to evoke: the oblivion of a bygone era. By integrating it into a photograph from which he was absent, he turns this image into something that is much more than an illustration or a testimony.
He himself organises the relationship of self to self; he constructs a world. It gives shape to what did not exist or did not yet exist, and makes it visible. The fictional iconography allows the emergence of a narrative inscribed in the image itself. A narrative that he then develops in all the works that make up the “All About Me” series.

The question of autobiographical representation, of the self, does not arise. It is a matter of the artist’s choice, of the very principle of the artistic exercise laid down in a protocol that he himself has put in place in order to avoid the pitfall of a portrayal that, by being too obvious, would border on the ridiculous with a sinister egocentric theatricality.

Paolo Topy, technically the author of the photograph, becomes, in fact, the narrator of the story of which he is the main character (the puppet as postulate allows him to be identified within the very discourse he is expressing). Through this process, which he controls from beginning to end, and which, according to the principle he posits as belonging to veridicality, represents him by the very way he organises it. He conforms to the referential pact and, more generally, to the theoretical framework laid down by Philippe Lejeune, a literary theorist and specialist in autobiography, in his book Le Pacte Autobiographique (The Autobiographical Pact) published by Editions du Seuil in 1975, and thus “swears to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

With the “All About Me” series, Paolo Topy sets up a “device” in which the audience is not a reader as such — although he is — but rather a viewer who is invited to reconstruct the narrative from the set of signs contained in each of the images. Of course, that viewer will be all the more willing to accept the proposal made to him and will accept it as truth since the artist, by merging image and autobiographical narrative, reorganises the semiotics specific to these two entities. He proposes to better circumscribe the complexity of the set of signs present in order to better organise them and, in so doing, to give them meaning in a more obvious, more effective and more universal way.

This efficiency organises this link, this necessary exchange that will allow the viewer to complete these images with his own way of perceiving these signs and combining them. The interpretation he makes of them will be entirely personal. He will respond to the invitation made to him by the artist. This will be all the easier because, as with any artistic project, even if it is well thought out, the exploration established and defined by the initial protocol is accompanied by a degree of experimentation that is rich in potential and, in function, disrupts the space of perception. They thus enrich the previously established purpose.

As the images progress, the construction of an enunciation also emerges which, surprisingly, escapes being part of the historical vision — necessarily linear and retrospective — which is arbitrarily perceived as a coherent sequence of events.

It is, of course, a personal narrative that takes on a quasi-literary quality through an order and logic of its own, but it is also a series of small narratives — encapsulated — each of which corresponds, in a concrete way, to a work, and whose reunion simply forms a corpus of images with a potentially random and strategic expression. In this new proposal by Paolo Topy, we discover the desire not to enhance an individual story composed of linked and harmonised parts, but rather to reveal its creative potential and representative nature — which is quite ordinary — as a social metaphor.

This series of images (which are so many small life stories) becomes a place for self-expression in a wish to communicate with and transmit to others, a tool for individual construction approached as a project, a means of recognition and enhancement of a territory — the territory of intimacy through the metaphor of a popular context and of an era of consumerism and leisure that produces all kinds of waste, particularly plastic waste, in all senses of the term.

Certain associations of objects allude in an obvious way to the artist’s diverse Mediterranean origins: to his birth in Libya, to his life spent in Italy and later in France, to his dual Italian and French culture and thus to his relationship with the very notion of individual culture and the way it is constructed. He also evokes the different forms that the nomadism of every human being can take on the path of life and which, at times, borders on capriciousness. Some question his relationship to daily life, to the small and seemingly insignificant things, to the events that make up everyday life, and to the most surprising ones. This group of works reveals more broadly his link to territories: those from which he comes, those he crosses or those where he settles for a longer period of time, those that end up being built mentally, with changing contours, according to the idea of physical, moral and intellectual wandering; in short, to the idea of identity that never stops redefining itself and moving into ever-new territories to explore.

Not only humour and derision — self-mockery — but also the grotesque are invited, as well as the serious and sometimes the tragic. The improbable or the absurd break in and cause confusion.

As we can see, this story is, nevertheless, deliberately blurred. Certain combinations, by their dreamlike aspect, construct a narrative which, obviously, seems invented. The artist deliberately sows doubt. A sense of confusion sets in. The question then arises as to where the autobiographical narrative with a historical aim begins, and where the “novel” of a life begins.

Yves Peltier

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