Lauren Rozenberg delves into the photograph series Vitriol and interrogates the creative powers of destruction. What happens to bodies when they are attacked, fragmented, set ablaze?
A shadowy hand, cut at the wrist, penetrates the frame from the bottom left corner, leading the viewer’s gaze upward. The fingers hold, almost delicately, an undulating glossy and nebulous photograph. No detail is directly discernible. In fact, the viewer can only make sense of a purple, pink and golden texture on the shiny surface of the photograph. Upon closer inspection, one can start to discern small indentations and an extra level of texture amid this sea of colour.
This shot is taken from the Instagram of Belgian artist Lucile Dizier. It shows the making of a new test for her ongoing series Vitriol (2015 – onward). The image accompanies a close up of the photograph itself (figure 2) intending to better showcase its reflecting properties. The hand shot is not part of the series but, I contend, is telling of Dizier’s approach to and manipulation of photographs into new bodies that can be equally marked or displayed in Vitriol.
Dizier describes Vitriol as ‘a series of drafts and experimentations’ The photographs are taken digitally, printed then burned with a lighter. Afterward, they are either scanned or photographed again. Passing through different media, they undergo a lengthy process that is simultaneously destructive and generative. The series started in 2015 as a visceral response to a recent spurge of vitriolage, or acid attacks, especially carried out against women. Since then, however, the series has constantly changed, evolved or regressed. Photographs are added, then retracted. While the project is at times left aside, unfinished but not abandoned, the series exists both within and alongside Dizier’s practice. Vitriol becomes a meta-series: it goes beyond being a series but rather became a form of experimentation, a way for the artist to reflect on her own practice.
Burning images has long been associated with artistic practices, either as a form of political contestation or as part of the creative process. Most famously, twentieth-century artist Yves Klein produced Fire paintings. He used gas flames propulsed onto the canvas, because, he writes, he wishes to record traces of human sentimentality as well as the fire that engendered it. Fire, declares Klein, is contradictory: it is concurrently sweetness and torture. In 2012, the director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum (Cam), Antonio Manfredi, publicly burned paintings from the museum’s collection to draw attention to the institution’s dire needs of financial support. Cam’s political actions have been construed as ‘Art war’, protesting against governmental cut in the cultural budget. Many artists joined the protest by burning their own work and sending the ashes to Cam.
Dizier mobilises fire to explore torments, forms of tortures and emotions. In her first vitriolic experimentation, Dizier placed a topless woman on a concrete industrial floor. The woman diverts her face from the camera, as if passively offering her body to the omni-present male gaze. Dizier then came to burn strategic part of the picture: the underwear, nipples, hair and face are the most marked zones. When the body has definitely been attacked, the background is also scorched, providing texture to the image. Here emerges the paradox embodied by the hand shot Dizier published on Instagram in October 2018. The hand is the one that burned. The artist’s hand becomes the hand of the tormentor, the one that almost charred the object it now offers. This gesture embodies the essence of Vitriol: creation requires destruction, thinking requires dissolving, the melting of chemicals transforming the image anew. With this experimentation, Dizier dissolves not only the image, but her very own practice.
For another experimentation, Dizier created a collage. She cut parts of the upper body of her model and glued it onto a photograph of an artist’s studio, a wooden easel visible in the back. Dizier then heavily burned the face, arm and neck of the woman, with golden sparks radiating toward the borders of the photograph. The female body in the image is, therefore, not only ignited but also cut and fragmented. The fragmentation is reinforced by the cracks on the woman’s face, threatening at every instant to resume the burning and dissolve fully the pictorial space.
Linda Nochlin has famously argued in her book The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity that the fragmentation of female bodies is contingent upon a new development of male spectatorship. She states that in post-revolutionary France, and especially in Paris, the fragment accomplishes a liberation from the repressive past and destroys previous modes of representation. As such, the fragment, she argues, is a 19th-century symbol of modernity. Although Nochlin’s work is concerned with a very specific historical moment, Dizier approaches the fragmented female body in a similar way. Vitriol is a response to violent attacks that intended to hurt, disfigure or kill women. Her fragmentated visions of attacks on the female model reflects our contemporary culture surrendered entirely to the male gaze.
However, while Yves Klein painted with fire, Dizier uses fire and fragmentation to transform her digital photographs into new and hybrid objects. The digital version only offers a single, frontal, point of view of the object. The light is only reflected as it was when the digital rendering was made. On the other hand, the objects Dizier created are alive: their visual aspects change and evolve constantly, dependent on a myriad of factors. The surrounding light, influence of the humidity on the undulation of the paper, viewpoint or involvement of touch and smell transform the experience of the original project simultaneously transfixed in its digital form.
In Vitriol, Dizier created new non-human bodies that she physically attacks, permanently marks and then displays as a way to reflect on her own artistic practice, which also evolves, melts away and recomposes itself into new forms.
 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/19/burning-painting-prevent-arts-cuts Accessed 12 December 2018.
 Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, (London: Thames and Hudson: 1994).
- Nochlin, Linda. The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity. London: Thames and Hudson: 1994.
Lauren Rozenberg is an art historian and co-editor of Artsolation. She is currently finishing her PhD at University College London. (See more here)