Jean-François Bouchard Exile from Babylon

Apr 27–Jul 15,  2023
    Jean-François Bouchard, Tree of Life #6, 2022. From the series Exile from Babylon. Courtesy of the artist and Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto
Jean-François Bouchard, Tree of Life #6, 2022. From the series Exile from Babylon. Courtesy of the artist and Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto

In this exhibition, Montreal-born, New York City-based artist Jean-François Bouchard documents a squatters’ camp in the California desert. Depicting trash and debris snagged in the branches of the area’s few trees, each photograph offers a symbolic glimpse into the community’s conditions alongside an immersive three-channel video. The ghostly, post-apocalyptic scenes are a testament to the flagrant inequalities of modern society and its bleak, uncertain future.

Driven to seek alternative means of survival due to homelessness, addiction, or libertarian ideals, some Americans reject modern society—or Babylon—in favour of what they call “Slab City,” forming unlikely communities of squatters and wanderers in search of collective refuge. Settled on a decommissioned military base in the Sonoran Desert, the location photographed by Bouchard shows life without any form of local government or basic services like running water, electricity, and garbage removal. Residents establish themselves in shanties, makeshift tents, shipping containers, crumbling recreational vehicles, and even dens dug into the ground.

In Exile from Babylon, Bouchard represents the community’s reality metaphorically, through eerie still-life photographs of trees. Collectively, these gritty scenes testify to the vast disparities that are increasingly apparent in modern society, as well as the quest for fulfilment derived from absolute freedom and how this is achieved only at great personal sacrifice.

The three-channel video featured in the exhibition highlights the people in the community, as well as the highly transient, anonymous, elusive existence that most of them exemplify. The residents come and go, receding without notice for periods of time, and disappear under strange circumstances. Some are known to be fugitives seeking refuge and anonymity, but their true identities often remain hidden, as many are known only by their nicknames.

Presented by Arsenal Contemporary Art Toronto

Jean-François Bouchard (b. Montreal, based in New York City) has worked in lens-based visual art since 2003, traveling the world seeking out people whose interests and lifestyles are out of the ordinary. His visual focus is generally on marginalized, misunderstood, and often ostracized groups in our Western society. His work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, and festivals in Canada, the USA, and France. His works are featured in a book published by The Magenta Foundation and numerous international publications. Artnet selected his recent exhibition as one of the “Must-see shows in NYC.” Bouchard lives in New York City and Montréal.