Essays: The Space Between

Essay by Hilarie M. Sheets 

Color is the first element that seduces in an Akim Monet photograph. Molten oranges, rich blues, lurid greens and purples that a Fauvist would envy, saturate the visual field. Then the sheer ornamented exuberance of his subject matter teases the eye with its baroque textures -be it the hypnotic sculpted dancers decorating a 10th-century sex temple in India, the fantastic organicism of Gaudí’s architectural creations in Barcelona, the exotic proliferation of flora and fauna in Bali, or the hyperbolic transformations of cross dressers on parade in New York. 

Monet presents all this in reverse -that is, he prints directly what is on his negatives rather than inverting them into positive images. Doing this appeals to him both esthetically and conceptually. First off, it’s how he’s able to achieve such an unexpectedly painterly and heightened palette. It’s also for him the most direct transfer of how the light of a particular place and moment burns into sensitized film. Looking at these photographs you do indeed viscerally sense the energy -the colors, smells, music- of his subjects. 

Monet, who knows of no lineage to his famous namesake but nonetheless feels an affinity with the Impressionist artist, comes to photography from the sensibility of painting and literature. Born in Switzerland in 1968, where he lived until he moved to the United States to attend Cornell University, Monet spent his childhood in a house in which Egyptian and Greek antiquities were juxtaposed with important paintings from Impressionism to Contemporary art. Monet’s exposure to art and art history was immediate and nonlinear. He went on to study comparative literature in college, and after graduating returned to Switzerland and became an art dealer at a contemporary gallery. 

While Monet had taken photographs in college and as a dealer documenting the installation of shows, it wasn't until a trip to India in 1992 that the medium got under his skin. He was deeply affected by the power of the ancient temples and monuments that are still a vital part of daily life there, and used photography as a way of processing what he was feeling. Yet when he saw his pictures developed and printed, he was disappointed by their snapshot quality. He found looking at the negative strips, though, much more akin to his actual experience of the places and became obsessed with finding a way to print them as negatives. 

With no formal training in photography, Monet cobbled together a homemade process -with tools picked up along his travels- of re-photographing projections of the negatives, so the final print would match the original negative. Years later while working as an art dealer in New York, Monet -who dusted off this project that had been shelved after his six-month trip to Southeast Asia- learned how to use digital printing technology to eliminate the interim steps and achieve glorious high-resolution prints of his negatives at a grand scale. Energized by these results, and devoting ever more of himself to photography, Monet exhibited the series "Passage to India" at the Carosso Gallery in New York in the summer of 2002, and has completed two new series, "Homage to Gaudí" and "Exotic Flowers," all of which are reproduced here.  

What the pictures share is an interest in duality that is underscored by the way Monet plays with idea of positive and negative in his printing technique. In "Passage to India" you see a resting Buddha the color of burning hot embers and a stone couple locked in the act of love infused with icy blue tones -ostensibly opposites yet both simultaneously addressing the spiritual and the sensual. 

"Homage to Gaudí" explores the interface of architecture and nature, inside and outside. The architect’s undulating, flourishing edifices -walls, caves, gates, towers- are so organic, it’s hard to tell where the manmade stops and nature takes up, particularly when rendered in Monet’s inside-out palette. Monet also focuses more here on the kind of cropping and composing devices inherent in photography, making two towers shot from above seem so reduced in scale they look like side-by-side bowling pins, and framing them inside a rugged vertical opening in an image he says is an homage to a Barnett Newman "zip" painting.  

Another in the series shows a pigeon sitting on a balcony encrusted with dazzling floral mosaics, juxtaposed with actual nature beyond that has the ethereal quality of an Impressionist landscape dissolving into dappled paint. Monet see this image as a door to a more recent series of still lifes and portraits called "Exotic Flowers." The idea with this, he explains, was to go back to square one, and just as a painter learns the rudiments of making still lifes and portraits, so too would he return to the basics.  

Again dichotomy plays a powerful role in Monet's gorgeous pictures taken in Bali of wild growth not seen on this side of the equator as well as of transvestites negating their gender in New York’s yearly Wigstock festival. Conceptually, the two subjects hold together both in their fragility and lavish statement, and the same colors echo in each -the deep purple of the sunflower in one drag queen’s hair, for instance, is laced throughout the tropical plants.  

The hothouse effect of Monet's pictures speaks to a moment when the world feels on the verge of boiling over, where the same Balinese paradise that he photographed was subsequently bombed by terrorists. Part of the beauty and intensity of these photographs has to do with the convergence of opposites, of past and present. They stand sublimely poised in the space between. 


Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine and writes about art for The New York Times and for Art&Auction