ANTOINE D’AGATA has always believed that the truth he seeks can only be revealed by drugs, women and distant lands. No voyeur, he subjects himself to the same way of life as those he photographs, sharing their suffering with them. This total artist liv
—In the autumn of 2008, Nan Goldin met Antoine d’Agata, back from a long stay in Cambodia. He had been her student in New York in 1990. “Your face was only eyes”, she wrote in a letter to him. He was frightening to look at, so emaciated that his eyes seemed to take up his entire face. His head was shaved, and every part of his body was tense, as though ready to burst. Everyone who saw the photographer towards the end of 2008 upon his return from Cambodia feared for his life. Inevitably, they all saw that terror had set in and taken over. The passing resemblance to Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, which used to make us laugh, had actually finally become reality. And it was quite different from what we had imagined. Quite different from the fun and games we knew so well — those that are so familiar to anyone who paints the town red every night, in Paris, Tokyo or New York, and spends hours on end surrounded by all sorts of worldly junkies, withdrawal–stricken adventurers, and happy idiots who take four unwitting punk legends as their models.
If you want to plumb the depths of any city, you can also explore the red light districts. The human wrecks there get by, as best they can, with the despair that hangs permanently in the air, but you will never have that sensation of someone looking at you from the very heart of darkness, silently proffering the mantra that closes Conrad’s novel: “Horror, horror, horror'…”.
Antoine d’Agata doesn’t often talk about Cambodia. He talks about the drugs he found there, the Ice that became something of a new name for the devastated country, bled white by the fury of the Khmers rouges. Ice is methamphetamine. In 2008, it could scarcely be found in Europe, but was widely available in Asia and the United States. In Thailand, it is known as “yaba”, the “medication that makes you go mad”. The production areas in Burma and the Golden Triangle flooded the Asian market. It is one of the cruellest of drugs imaginable on account of its concentrated formula, as it enables the user to focus exclusively on a single point for four or five hours, sometimes more. Ice users are so lucid, they are almost frightening. In March 2008, I paid a visit to Antoine d’Agata in Phnom Penh. He had been there for four or five months. I remember on my first afternoon there going to his lodgings on Street 51, at Ka’s. The room went from the bed to the table, where dozens of lighters were strewn. The table didn’t face the window; it gave on to a cracked wall. Antoine was there, clipping his nails, with his back to the window. He just said: “It’s here. I found it.” By this, I understood that having found the place, and the right drug, his journey was nearing its end — the journey had started thirty years earlier. He left Marseille when he was 18 for London, where he lived in a succession of squats. Then he went to South America. In his bag, he always had the same book: Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. His choice of reading material says it all, and hasn’t changed. Antoine d’Agata is said to only take photographs of the night, or rather that he photographs all the synonyms of night. People who don’t know his work in detail even believe that he has never taken a photo in broad daylight in his life. It’s almost true, or, let’s say, it’s a longstanding debate. Around 2003, when he’d just turned forty, he began to wonder whether he could physically hold out against the substance that was consuming and crushing him. The artist who had rejected the light of day so vehemently would constantly bring up the need — for his mental and physical survival — to “get off” the night, and take photos by day. These photos do actually exist. They are always political, and have been compiled in a book that is hard to find today. The title, Psychogéographie (&published by Point du Jour in 2005&), is inspired by Guy Debord. Situationism and the revolutionary sense of drifting is one of Antoine d’Agata’s main influences.
A., La Scoperta motorway service station, April 2014.
Nuevo Laredo, 2005.