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Guided By Our Sense of Beauty

Aubrey Allison

Observatoire-seriesThe subjects of Noémie Goudal’s Observatories photographs aren’t real. Look closely at the architecture. Notice the grid of seams. They're made of print-outs. Goudal says she places the structures “as if they were a story being told. The viewer knows it’s fiction; he can see the paper, he can see it’s a construction. But still gets into it. It’s telling a narrative.”

This is the kind of narrative, it might go without saying, that is meant to be evocative, not informative. It opens up possibilities. The real answer to the question "What happened?" isn't relevant.

So what is it about the images that changes when we see that the buildings aren’t real?

I feel invested in this question because Goudal’s sense of narrative resonates with the way we craft narratives out of our own lives. We are expected to do this in hindsight, but we also do it as we occupy each moment. The stories we’ve lived continue to unfold in the present, and when we live with them in mind, however nuanced they may be, however lightly we may manage to hold them—isn’t it possible that we’re not telling ourselves the truth?

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes that "novelistic" does not mean "unrealistic" or "untrue to life." We find motifs in our lives—for example: a woman enjoys an intimate Beethoven concert, her first experience of culture. Several weeks later she meets a man in a restaurant while Beethoven is playing on the radio and she decides to run away with him to the city. The stories we form about our own lives can hinge on larger or more complex things than hearing Beethoven, but the effect is the same:

“Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life....Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of great distress,” Kundera writes.

This kind of meaning is real, even if it is something we construct. Anyone who denies this, says Kundera, "deprives his life of a dimension of beauty."

Noticing the seams in Noémie Goudal's Observatories doesn't change the images. The buildings are still real, even if they are not what we expect. Goudal built them, and they occupied that landscape, and we can look at the photographs now and they're beautiful. Whether or not it’s true may depend on the kind of truth you’re looking for. But in this kind of narrative, a correct answer isn’t the point.