Custom and courtesy to the reader dictate that any review of this kind of show (the large-scale, essay-like, pan-chronic display of how an idea might be substantiated through images and text and the exhibition medium as such) should begin with the ‘whats’ before continuing with the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’.
So, I must immediately set three things straight. First, for good and bad, the official English translation of the exhibition title offers fewer possibilities for creative association than the original. ‘Uprising’ seems to have a more straightforward relation to ‘insurrection’, ‘revolt’, ‘rebellion’ or even ‘riot’ than soulèvement does to insurrection, révolte, rébellion or émeute. This is important to keep in mind, since the whole Soulèvements venture was conceived and executed in French. Second, Jeu de Paume defines itself as ‘an arts center with a strong reputation for exhibiting and promoting all forms of mechanical and electronic imagery.’ The physical content of Soulèvements clearly reflects that. Third, French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman (born in 1953, maître de conférence at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, author of numerous books, in recent years often inspired by Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg and Sergei Eisenstein) is perhaps the most reliably – and predictably – consistent maker of essay-exhibitions in the art world today. With him we know what we get, and we must focus our viewing and reading of Soulèvements on what his particular approach offers.
Essayistic thinking means, on the one hand, keeping several thoughts in our head at the same time and, on the other hand, playing them against each other so that they add up to something unexpectedly large. The risk is that, since all the elements we use must fit into the frame we have established by selecting a topic, everything will in the end fall into place a bit too easily. I’ll get back to that, but first I’ll quote the official press release, to give a taste of the rhetoric that this exhibition employs. This is how Jeu de Paume expresses itself through Didi-Huberman, in the official English translation:
“Uprisings is a trans-disciplinary exhibition on the theme of human gestures that raise up the world or rise up against it: collective or individual gestures, actions or passions, works or thoughts. They are gestures which say no to a state of history that is considered too ‘heavy’ and that therefore needs to be ‘lifted’ or even sent packing. They are also gestures that say yes to something else: to a desired better world, an imagined or adumbrated world, a world that could be inhabited and conceived differently.”
Jeu de Paume was originally designed for a predecessor of tennis called ‘game of the palm’ because it was originally – in a nice aside to Didi-Huberman’s gestural exhibition concept – played without racket, with bare or gloved hands. What does the building contain right now? A little bit of everything, in fact, organised in carefully intertwined strings and sub-strings designed to demonstrate why ‘uprising’ could and should be understood both literally and figuratively, through similes such as the rising storm or wave, and emblems such as the raised clenched fist and the hastily dug-up flagstone being thrown or added to a barricade.
Didi-Huberman’s opening move is to show exquisite ink drawings by Henri Michaux and Victor Hugo together with Man Ray’s no less distinguished photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘dust breeding’ on the Great Glass. He continues with (among quite a few other things) photographs by Tina Modotti, and of Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés, as well as videos by Jasmina Metwaly (based on footage from the demonstrations on Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011) and by Roman Signer (of various things blowing in an artificially induced, upwards-directed stream of air) and ends with some of Goya’s etchings.
Only this is not the end at all; it is just the preliminary conclusion, arrived at through things blowing in the wind, of ‘Elements (Unleashed)’, the first of the exhibition’s five headings. We immediately move on to ‘Gestures (Intense)’ and encounter Käthe Kollwitz, Tina Modotti again, a rather too literal juxtaposition of the hammer used by Antonin Artaud ‘to “try” his texts or to hammer his diction’ and a drawing of an almost identical hammer by Joseph Beuys, the film A Glass of Milk by Jack Goldstein that Jeu de Paume has put on its website to entice us to visit the exhibition (presumably because of the resolute hammerings of a dark fist on a rickety table that cause the milk to spill), black-and-white photographs by Gilles Caron of stone-throwing youths in the 1960s (they, too, are used as ‘campaign images’), a run-of-the-mill Annette Messager installation, a rather forgettable Lorna Simpson video of humming mouths titled Easy to Remember, and Art and Language’s Shouting Men, the two latter signifying the sub-heading ‘Mouths for Exclaiming’ .
And then, after climbing the stairs to the upper floor, we are treated to an equally wide variety of works of art and non-art: newspaper clippings, for example, or photographs documenting political stagecraft, or the Ciné-Tracts of the May 1968 uprising in France, silent and anonymous, but conspicuously similar to the work of the Dziga Vertov Group founded that same year by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. This substantiates the three remaining headings in heterogeneous, but somewhat overly thought constellations. Under the ‘Words (Exclaimed)’ heading there is – again among a wealth of other things – more Victor Hugo, more Henri Michaux and more Joseph Beuys, while the ‘Conflicts (Flared Up)’ section includes some of the the 38 Strike Objects photographs by Jean-Luc Moulène (who is simultaneously showing new work at Centre Pompidou and at Galerie Chantal Crousel), as well as visual documentation of the various nineteenth-century uprisings in Paris and iconic press pictures of 1960s atrocities.
By now we should have a sense of how dense this exhibition is and how much it relies on both ‘word-images’ (metaphor) and ‘image-words’ (metynomy) to constantly re-energise its narrative. Almost all the exhibits – except perhaps the newer video works by lesser-known authors that feel a bit too made-to-measure for the ‘raising up/rising up’ occasion – could have inspired a separate essay or even monograph by Didi-Huberman. Some of them actually did. In his final section, ‘Desires (Indestructible)’, he includes the four indistinct photographs taken by an anonymous Greek member of an Auschwitz Sonderkommando in 1944 that he analysed in Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (published in English by University of Chicago Press in 2008). Here they hang next to Joan Miró’s sketches for The Hope of a Condemned Man, a series of three paintings protesting the execution of a young anarchist by Franco’s Spain in 1974. The exhibition ends in what might simultaneously be called a point of no return and a cul-de-sac: with a stationary-camera video by Maria Kourkouta of refugees trying to cross Greece’s border with Macedonia at Idomeni on March 14, 2016.
I’m not being ironic when I talk about ‘a wealth of things’ in this exhibition, nor am I dismissing the validity or quality of the connections that Didi-Huberman is making between them. Indeed, without spelling out at least some of the actual content of Soulèvements I couldn’t have conveyed the exhibition’s scope, ambition and precision, all worthy of recognition and admiration. Yet, while reading the 418-page catalogue and thinking back at my visit to Jeu de Paume three questions have begun to crystallise in my head. They are at the same time specific and broad, aiming at this particular exhibition, exhibition-making today, and the current state of the world.
My first question is: Do images really tell stories? This is the problem of the essay-exhibition, and of visual communication in general. To act as if the perfectly ordered string of image-objects were the exact equivalent of a competently argued speculative text is, at best, overly enthusiastic. Sometimes it is downright dangerous, as when Eisenstein was experimenting with cinematic metaphors in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, or The General Line. Such non-verbal metaphorical practice is by no means destined to succeed, but when it does it instantly becomes a powerful tool for political manipulation. There is, of course, nothing new about post-truth.
No, spoken or written language remains our best and safest instrument for reading each other’s minds with the precision necessary for transmitting an adequate response. Didi-Huberman, an accomplished writer on Eisenstein’s work, implicitly acknowledges as much. Therefore, I suspect, he adds short texts to some of the works in the exhibition: to formulate arguments he realises it would be impossible to transmit outside the ‘as if’ modality of language. This becomes clear in the note that accompanies the photograph of what I judge to be the least convincing inclusion in Soulèvements: Duchamp’s dust breeding. Comme si cette image nous montrait un « élevage », voire un « soulèvement » de la poussière. (‘As if this image showed us a “raising”, or even an “uprising” of dust.’)
Do I need to point out that what really ‘happens’ here is the shift – not necessarily an innocent one – between two deceptively similar words? Marie-José Mondzain’s essay in the catalogue is partly dedicated to justifying the relevance of this image to the exhibition, and the notion of uprising as a whole, by connecting it to Duchamp’s purposely gnomic utterances on the inframince. ‘Duchamp’s meditation on weight and heaviness form the basis of his concept of the infra-thin.’ To me this proves only one thing: Duchamp is such a fundamental element of (Western) art orthodoxy that a presence must be awarded to him wherever important ideas are being discussed.
When are such textual statements of intent necessary and helpful, and when do they act against the interest of the images and objects brought together in an essay-exhibition? (I should clarify that Didi-Huberman himself doesn’t use this term, which I nevertheless feel is a fair description of his practice as an exhibition-maker.) Couldn’t Duchamp, who stressed the active role of the viewer, also be described as the quintessential disinterested observer, a professional connoisseur of modernist art rather than an instigator of infrathin uprisings? Isn’t he a perfect version of ‘the gentleman of independent means’ for an affluent age when less is more? Can’t we imagine him recommending a wealthy buyer to invest in Michaux’s mescaline-powered ‘running crowd’ ink drawings?
Which brings me to my second question: Do we really need connoisseurs of uprisings? This is the problem of left-leaning liberal intellectuals as both authors and audiences. It is therefore of concern to nearly all of those who visit the Soulèvements exhibition and, most probably, to all of those who read the catalogue. It is certainly a question to ask of those who write in the catalogue.
The contribution I find most rewarding is Jacques Rancière’s short essay titled ‘One Uprising May Hide Another’. The author rehearses his well-known deconstruction of the supposedly clear-cut difference between passive spectatorship and active participation. He relates uprising (and in particular the image of uprising that is the actual content of this exhibition) to theatre, which allows the two functions to become temporarily interchangeable. ‘Uprising is, perhaps, less a becoming-active of pathos than a way of conjugating movement and rest.’ The innovating subtlety that Rancière proposes is to catch a glimpse of this contradiction in a moment of inaction (an analysis promoted by a xylograph, from The Illustrated London News, of workers theatrically posing on a barricade during the 1848 uprising in Paris). ‘It is not enough to be numerous and active. Some inactivity must come into play, some finality that is not a means to a specific end.’ I can’t help wondering how this exhibition might have looked if curated by Rancière rather than by Didi-Huberman.
A snapshot from the exhibition, or more precisely from its institutional margins that always interest me as an exhibition-maker, speaks not only to the same dilemma of activity versus passivity but also to the dilemma of interactivity versus ‘interpassivity’ in any display of museum-grade artefacts. Next to the regular informative label for the first known photograph of a street barricade, a light-sensitive daguerrotype by Eugène Thibault titled The Barricade on Rue Saint-Maure-Popincourt before the Attack by General Lamoncière’s Troups, Sunday 25 June 1848, a member of the Jeu de Paume staff (the nature of the message and absence of any punctuation makes me sure Didi-Huberman could not have authored this) has added a second label: Merci de soulever délicatement le rideau puis de le replacer (‘Thanks for raising the curtain carefully then replacing it’).
My third question is: Do uprisings really belong in a museum? This, ultimately, is the problem of why ‘liberals’ lose against ‘conservatives’ – if we adopt American terminology, which we are so often obliged to do. The best analysis I have read is by American cognitive linguist George Lakoff. On his blog, Lakoff (who definitely qualifies as a liberal) reminds us why the enlightenment-era belief that humans think rationally, wish to avoid self-contradiction, and act with their own best interest in mind, is such a dangerous fallacy.
It is actually the liberal intellectuals and professionals who refuse to accept the findings of neuroscience, Lakoff insists, when they discount how people really think: in metaphors and frames that create and ‘curate’ values. (Incidentally, not so differently from how art and exhibitions work.) Conservatives, on the other hand, are often businessmen with degrees in subjects such as engineering or marketing, where shifting on-the-ground realities must be taken into account; they ‘know how to talk to the people’. Demagoguery, yes, but when members of the white working class help secure power for the Republicans, they don’t vote against their interests, they vote for their values. They want to be recognised as righteous and morally good because of their patriarchal and laissez-faire values, their aversion to strangers and to change. The Republicans offer them all that (and little else, mostly).
Is there anything more condescending to these ‘people of reality’ (to quote the much-derided slogan of Sweden’s marginal Christian Democratic party a few years ago) than the constant fascination within academia and the art world for those first moments of an uprising – when the stone rests in the palm, waiting to be thrown, and politics is ‘liberated’ from practical life – and the intoxicating sensation of togetherness and freedom it generates? The problem is perhaps not so much the emotion – which, after all, is something everyone can identify with – but the ‘aesthetic regime’ (a term coined by Rancière) prescribing that only this aspect of political upheaval is to be imagined, depicted and talked about – not any of the moments that invariably follow once the stone hits (or misses) its target and the collective body reveals itself as an uneasy confederacy of conflicting wills. ‘Ordinary people’ all over the world know and dread those moments because they constitute a very real threat to their life, property and happiness. But I daresay that on the day I was there, none of the visitors to Jeu de Paume were in any immediate danger of losing their status or livelihood because of such turmoil.
The non-progressive, non-egalitarian and illiberal powers apparently so strong right now are never shy about forecasting all the subsequent stages of an uprising and putting them to profitable use. Fear of revolution is one of the things keeping the current Russian regime in power, for instance. The Putins and Trumps and Le Pens and Dutertes of this world have no time for politics as a frozen gesture or abstract good floating above the art of the deal. And I can’t help wondering if ‘we’ – the liberals and radicals who together form an establishment of progress that keeps abdicating its considerable powers – should really be spending our time enjoying visual metaphors of revolutionary tipping-points as if they were rare Taiwanese oolong teas.