The works of Julian Feeld — a Paris-based (but internationally-experienced) photographer — are shrouded in mystery. This particular series, titled La Forêt, is especially cryptic. The images immerse you in a dark, wet forest, and at first you may not be entirely sure what you are seeing — or how you feel about it. Gradually, shapes take form: a naked body lying prone on a rock; human legs splayed open amongst the undergrowth; genitals encroached by moss. Some of the images are beautiful, appealing to that romanticized idea of the “natural” body in tandem with nature; others are dark and disturbing, fragmenting the body into an inhuman shape as if it were just another dead tree lying motionless on the forest floor. What Feeld is doing here is an exercise in perception, capturing us in our own moment of subjective interpretation; we have to make sense of these photos, we have to determine whether we feel “peaceful” or “alarmed,” we have to decide if the bodies are part of what we call “Nature,” or separate from it. The critical beauty of Feeld’s work is that it reveals to us our deeply personal signifying practices.
It goes without saying that Feeld’s images are much different than your typical nude photographs. Speaking to this, Feeld writes: “For La Forêt, I wasn’t interested in taking ‘nudes’ in the classical sense, but rather in creating a sort of chimera, an impossible ‘thing’ using human flesh as the provoking visual element.” The chimera — that mythical hybird with a lion’s head, goat’s body, and serpent’s tail — embodies the sort of categorical ambiguity that Feeld is driving at; the naked bodies in his photographs are so interwoven with the environment that the boundaries defining what is “human,” “nonhuman” (the trees) and inert (the rocks) become obscured. The result is slightly troubling to the imagination, as we so often narcissistically imagine ourselves as separate from the world in which we exist.
The darkness and obscurity of La Forêt comes to a head in its sister film, Le Chien, filmed in collaboration with Feeld’s partner, Mathilde Huron. In the film, a naked man (played by Feeld) scrambles desperately at a dense thicket, panting heavily. Something seems to be barring his entry, but he continues to writhe and push anyways. Feeld explains that this film was inspired by a story told by Huron about her dog, “how she watched it try to dig itself into a giant pile of wood and debris, seeking death, pushing itself into the next world.” Like the photographs, Le Chien troubles the idea of what is “human”: this man is behaving like an animal bent on completing an unknown objective. The audio track is similarly disturbing, in that it sounds like a multiplicity of human voices panting, gasping, and overlapping in different octaves. The result of both La Forêt and Le Chien is an indescribable uncertainty; a visceral, pre-intellectual state wherein we must make meaning — or accept that there is none.