56 Days In Arles
Offset printed clothbound hardcover. Linen thread bound
Deprived, in a pandemic reality, of participating in communal spaces, choices about our personal quarters suddenly have taken on new weight. Tethered to these interiors, the question arises: how can we comfort ourselves within the parameters of the smaller scale? Objects became all the more totemic, symbols of a micro-world order that we have the merest sense of agency over while the outside world crumbles in ways we can’t control, or manage, or save. 56 Days in Arles, published by Libraryman, is a tally of time in lockdown: a beautiful wordless diary in Polaroid glimpses by French photographer François Halard. The images feature corners of his abode, an 18th-century hôtel particulier (mansion), located in a historical idyll in the south of France. Grand rooms, decorated with a bucolic-bourgeois sensibility and strewn with collections and curios, provide a kind of slanted self-portrait: Halard’s “presence” is conveyed solely through his vibrant assemblage of possessions. It is something he excels at, having photographed the polished interiors of many artist and designer homes previously, from Andres Serrano to Louise Bourgeois to Dries Van Noten.
Full of hazy, luminous warmth that has an almost sepia inflection, the images appear like an archival trove despite being contemporary snapshots. Their faded quality emphasizes the elasticity of time, how it can seemingly decelerate. This is furthered still by personalized touches that conjure an older epoch uninterrupted by technology: the book’s spine and introductory pages are lightly dotted with ink splotches, beautiful blemishes that allude to the human hand, and the cloth cover is inset with a Polaroid-sized image, adding a sense of the analog. Paging through the visuals within, the pleasure of observing his home takes on a meta quality, a Matryoshka two-step: “These Polaroids are objects of objects,” curator and art dealer Oscar Humphries notes in the foreword, “and when published here in this book, they become another object.”
56 Days evokes a mournfulness about life-as-we-know-it irrevocably shifting. Humphries muses, “It is not uncommon for beauty to sit against a backdrop of tragedy, like a Puccini aria.” Given this, he continues, “These Polaroids are little moments of joy, or pathos, that on a personal level were an antidote to the anxiety and fear we were all grappling with.” Halard described living in his house during lockdown as a kind of neo-adolescence: “It reminded me very much of when I was young and I was in my room a lot. All I had was that room and its contents.” There is indeed an evocatively “teen” spirit to living in such concentrated isolation and fashioning a safe harbor away from the incomprehensible and uncomprehending outside, one’s whole world funneled into a heightened—yet shrunken—framework. Here that framework is not a single bedroom, it is richly—so to speak—articulated as a succession of stately spaces. Rather than the teen accoutrement of ripped-up magazines and friendship memorabilia, Halard’s world is an artful array of African masks and Japanese vases, textiles and antiques, bouquets and candelabras, shapely ceramics and thick stacks of art books, glass jars and framed dried plants, plush settees and a canopied bed, carved tables and marble fireplaces. These considered juxtapositions feel akin to an altar: Humphries likens the arrangements to “a kind of secular Voodoo.”
The book is not particularly relatable to anyone who didn’t experience lockdown amidst lavishness. It is the luck of the leisure class to meander pensively about their elegant homes, indexing the pleasing aesthetics of their spaces because they feel ennui rather than terrified about essentials. It is a great privilege not to be affected by pragmatic struggles and monetary desperation, as many experienced during this time.
In this sense, 56 Days functions as a vicarious pleasure and fantasy—but not exclusively. The book speaks to the enjoyment of valorizing one’s chosen objects, which is something anyone can do. The book highlights the liberties of arranging and rearranging, of shifting items to shift perception, of the fluidity one can apply to expressing oneself through tangible things. Halard poetically describes his selection of objects as “romance without risk.” There is something romantic about this act of rethinking the self through small tokens, a conjoining of inward and outward. And it is purely fun, in a voyeuristic escape-hatch way, to dip into someone else’s reality, while we have all been so sealed off on our own.
Delighting in one’s objects can feel like a kind of affirmation, a willful articulation of selfhood and a shorthand for core identity when one’s thoughts are otherwise scared and spiraling. 56 Days is a reminder that one is constantly reconstructing one’s environment, spatially and psychically—and can, and should, with whatever means one is able to. It’s a gesture of hope, when finding meaning in the outside world feels so volatile.