18 February 2024

Picturing Time

Axelle VM Philtjens explores
layers of the past

 

by Kate Mothes

Although already a veritable artifact of the past, film photography carries the kind of analog connection to craft that we often long for in our digital age: the loading of a canister, advancing the film, manually adjusting the settings, and of course, listening for the telltale click or pop of the shutter. In the mid-20th century, when instant film revolutionized the way pictures could be shot and developed in a matter of seconds, we glimpsed—although we didn’t know it yet—the instant gratification of today’s technology. Now, digital devices allow us to take and view thousands of photos without ever printing a thing, a revolution for photography that has forever altered our relationship with the medium.

For Belgian artist Axelle VM Philtjens, the iconic Polaroid, with its approximately 3 x 3-inch image pane inside of a 3.4 x 4.2-inch while frame, provides the ideal format to tell a story of passing time. She explores the artistic potential of the film’s physical makeup, which involves layers of mylar and soft emulsion, which hardens after the picture is taken and it dries. While it’s curing, one can use tools or styluses to push the media around, peel layers away, or add other substances to create different surface effects.

Philtjens translates this technique into a time-based study of her surroundings and local architectural history. Two series pictured here, Sarchinium (2023) and Domus Beate Marie (2022) explore a medieval abbey and hospital, respectively, training her lens on details and depths nearly forgotten over the centuries.

Domus Beate Marie

Domus Beate Marie is the original name of St. John’s Hospital in Damme, Belgium. Portions of its c. 1249 chapel and infirmary still exist, a nucleus for later additions. “It tells the story of the remains of a building that is slowly succumbing to time,” Philtjens says. Many of the images are presented in a sequence showing the artist’s manipulations, mirroring the corrosion of patinas, dust, or natural decay. Philtjens tries to capture the last images of the building before its future renovations, documenting and preserving the story of one of Flanders’ oldest buildings for the future.

Sarchinium explores the details and recesses of Sint-Truiden in Limburg, Belgium. Founded in the 7th century, it was one of the oldest and most powerful in the region, with numerous subsequent additions and expansions. In 1794, the French Revolutionary forces plundered and repurposed the structure as a military hospital, then four years later, its Romanesque abbey was demolished. The city continued to expand around it, and in the late 1990s, other parts of the building suffered massive fires.

Sarchinium is a study on medieval abbey ruins in a future-oriented world,” Philtjens says. “In modern society, people look forward to redevelopment and change without looking back.” Instant film provides a way of observing the past while reconciling with the present and uncertain future, emphasizing pictures as objects unto themselves, artifacts that can be collected and archived to tell a story. She adds, “Photography is a medium which has the ability to capture the many layers of reality.”

Philtjens is currently participating in the Arteles residency in Finland and will be presenting a solo exhibition this June in De Bottelarij, Belgkium. See more on her website and Instagram.

Domus Beate Marie
Domus Beate Marie
Sarchinium
Domus Beate Marie
Sarchinium
Domus Beate Marie
Sarchinium

All images © Axelle VM Philtjens

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