“Le Travail de mémoire”

Parc de la Villette

In a year of seemingly nonstop commemorations in France (the Edict of Nantes, the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, May ’68), the Parc de la Villette organized a timely if provocative program of photo exhibits and panel discussions invoking less glorious aspects of recent history under the collective title “1914–1998, Le travail de memoire” (1914–1998: The work of remembering). Visitors were greeted at the entrance to one of the two exhibition sites by a lengthy quote from Walter Benjamin on the necessity of “working” memory as one works the land, but a single sentence from one of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” might have been even more apt: “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” The photographic “documents” presented all confronted viewers with the barbarism of this century, from World War I to contemporary carnage in the former Yugoslavia, Chechenya, Rwanda, and Algeria.

Two of the three exhibits, “Un devoir de mémoire” (A duty to remember) and “S21 ou le cauchemar cambodgien” (S21 or the Cambodian nightmare), were originally mounted at the 1997 Arles International Photography Festival. Curated by Christian Caujolle, the festival’s artistic director that year, the installations were intended to question not simply the role of the photograph in the making of memory but the entire chain of transmission—and responsibility—from photographer to viewer, whether it be via the photo agency and the press, the book publisher, the art gallery and museum, or the family album.

At La Villette, as in Arles, the images juxtaposed ranged from “raw” press photos of Algeria by prizewinning Agence France Presse photojournalist Hossine Z. to the aestheticized Polaroid fictions of David Levinthal’s Holocaust series “Mein Kampf” (or even the non-image of Walter Benjamin’s text, which turned out to be a 1996 wall painting by Joseph Kosuth). And in an adjacent space, the 100 black-and-white “portraits” from the Cambodian detention/torture center S21 were in fact a selection of the ID photos that had served to document the passage of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims.

The questions such contrasts raised about the photographer’s stance were reinforced by the way the images themselves were displayed. Some were simply tacked to the wall (e.g., the press-service photos from Algeria, complete with their journalistic captions), others blown up and mounted on pasteboard (snapshots and other amateur photos of different communities targeted by the Nazis—Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Freemasons—as well as an image of a homosexual dance hall taken by Brassaï in the ’30s). Still others were framed with the varying degrees of elegance that commonly distinguish “works of art” from “photo essays” but here served to blur the boundaries between them, as with the excruciatingly beautiful images of the dead and dying taken at Nagasaki by photojournalist Yosuke Yamahata four days after the American A-bomb attack, a number of which were enlarged to the scale of paintings.

This aestheticization of horror was one of the most troubling aspects of “Un devoir de mémoire.” But if such a confrontation between artistic form and historical content was deliberately staged in the two sections organized by Caujolle, it was clearly unintended—and all the more disturbing—in the third, a site-specific installation by Magnum photographer Gilles Peress entitled Bosnia avant/après guerre (Pre/postwar Bosnia, 1998). With the stated aim of “breaking the silence of indifference” toward war crimes, and especially war criminals, in the former Yugoslavia, Peress filled the two levels of the chapel-like Maison de La Villette with giant black-and-white photographs documenting the exhumation of mass graves near Srebrenica and Vukovar. Notwithstanding the wealth of texts accompanying them, the stylized images and their theatrical display (including three photomontages printed on cloth and suspended bannerlike under the dome) seemed singularly inappropriate to their subject.

In its very excess, Peress’ installation highlighted the difficulties inherent in any “work of remembering,” photographic or otherwise. In fact, there is probably a limit to the amount of horror human beings can view, much less remember (compare the curious omissions of France’s most painful memories, Vichy and the Algerian War, from “Un devoir de mémoire”). And more important, memory is one thing and action another; it is not simply the victims who need to be remembered, but also their executioners, and all those who chose to remain spectators.

Miriam Rosen