Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Probing the Cloister's Silence

Bruno Rotival has spent two decades photographing the residents of French abbeys -- an act of piety in itself

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Scenes of monastic life photographed by Bruno Rotival, above and right.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF FNAC

Bruno Rotival, a 52-year-old Frenchman, has spent about 20 years photographing monasteries and exploring the lives of their solitary, pious inhabitants. He has visited 75 of the 200 or so monasteries that remain in France, on each visit staying several days, sometimes as much as two weeks. He estimates that in total, he has spent at least a year and a half among the cloisters. And when he's there: "My life is the same as theirs. I eat the same food, help with the cleaning and other jobs, and I observe the same silence."

Sometimes Rotival is not allowed to bring a camera when he enters a monastery, and in those instances, he goes anyway. But most of the time photography is permitted. Two of the series on the monastic life Rotival has produced are now on view in Taipei in linked shows, Le temps du silence (Time of Silence) at the FNAC department store on Nanking East Road, and La tentation du silence (The Temptation of Silence) at the nearby Institut Francais.

The photographs themselves are black-and-white images shot with a Leica. Rotival's aesthetic is handsome if unremarkable, a fairly common style that draws on the early 20th century documentary photography of pioneers like Brassai and Cartier-Bresson, but doesn't recapture their genius.

But if Rotival's aesthetic is nothing new, he at least offers a rare portrait of contemporary monastic life. It's a portrait that consists mostly of individuals pictured alone, walking through empty corridors, praying in empty chapels, walking through abbey cemeteries that are empty save the crosses. The emphasis is on solitude, and it conveys empathy for the solitary struggle of coming to terms with finitude, and of not being bothered by loneliness. Sometimes, when the feeling is strongest, it even moves beyond a specifically Christian religiosity, inclining towards a more existential point of view. (In recent years Rotival has pursued this possibility even further by photographing Buddhist monasteries in Asia, though none of those photos are part of the current exhibition.)

But on the other hand, a number of images are endowed with fairly common symbols that show up as cliches. A monk gazes upward through a dark chapel towards a shining stained-glass triptych; a nun gazes across a black expanse at a candle flame; wizened, benevolent countenances are upturned, and the light of faith shines down upon them. These are photos that one would imagine, even if no one ever bothered to make them.

Fortunately there's more. Rotival also shows how the monastic brothers and sisters eat, how they study in the scriptorium and how they engage in various tasks and trades -- in short, how they are human beings. For outsiders, the mystery of the abbeys is not that their resident spiritualists are aloof, but how they, like us, are bounded by worldly concerns. That's why it's edifying to see a group of monks laughing as they gather around a sink to scrub their plates, or a nun with an instamatic camera. It's a flash of humanity that puts their deep solitude into relief. Without it, there would be no sense of the human overcoming these monks and nuns embody, and that is what Rotival is trying to show.

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