On Soulèvements by Georges Didi-Huberman at Jeu de Paume, Paris

— Giovanna Zapperi

Poster for the exhibition Soulèvements at Jeu de Paume, Paris, image: Gilles Caron, Manifestants catholiques, Bataille du Bogside, Derry, 1969

Poster for the exhibition Soulèvements at Jeu de Paume, Paris, image: Gilles Caron, Manifestants catholiques, Bataille du Bogside, Derry, 1969

What is the political reach of that which occurs in the sphere of sensations? How to think the overlapping between aesthetics and politics in the context of an exhibition interrogating the very forms of uprising under modernity? “How do images draw so often from our memories in order to give shape to our desires for emancipation?”[1] These are some of the questions conceptually driving Georges Didi-Huberman’s exhibition, Uprisings, at Jeu de Paume in Paris. This is not the first time the philosopher and art historian has tried his hand at such an exercise. But it is the first time in which he is faced with tracing the lines holding the image and the political together in the space of an exhibition.
Upon arriving at Jeu de Paume, I already had the photograph chosen for the exhibition’s communication in my head (seen in the form of posters pasted on the streets and in the metro). Two youths, photographed from behind, are in the midst of hurling paving stones. The black and white, their young age, the gestures, the paving stones—everything in the image suggests a well-recognized iconography of revolt, with reference to the urban uprisings that burst through the 1960s and 70s in Europe and North America. If this image doesn’t encompass in itself the intention of the exhibition and the heterogeneity of the images that make it up, it is nonetheless significant that it was chosen among others. Once in the exhibition halls, I again asked myself about this choice because it raises, it seems to me, a number of problems pertaining to the exhibition as a whole. Contrary to what one might think at first glance, the scene was not photographed in May 1968 Paris. It is actually a 1969 photograph taken by Gilles Caron in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in the wake of violent riots against the country’s Catholic minority. The riots spurred widespread destruction with many deaths and left hundreds wounded. In all its ambivalence, Caron’s shot is featured in an exhibition whose unifying imaginary is one clearly oriented towards the Left. The image is presented, irregardless, in an associative sequence with other shots Caron took at the time or in the previous year in France. And just a little further on, a photograph by Leonard Freed captures Guernica’s inhabitants before Picasso’s well–known canvas, arms raised.
What we see is thus essentially a series of gestures and corporeal attitudes resembling one another, based on a method of montage, that is more concerned with the visual relations established between images than with the images themselves. In effect, bringing attention to the “life” of images implies an exit from linear temporality, favoring instead a temporal heterogeneity in which returns, hauntings and après-coups coexist: in his study dedicated to Aby Warburg, Didi-Huberman indicatively writes that “the time of the image is not the time of history in general.”[2] If the curated sequence of images permits the projection of an emancipatory desire onto Gilles Caron’s shot, on the other hand, this putting in relation with other images effectively represses its context. Repression transforms the signification of Caron’s image, functioning like a redemptive reversal: an anti-Catholic pogrom morphs into an image of revolt.
How to think, then, the complicity between history and images, or, to put it differently, between the event and its resonances—that is at once political and sensible? In certain of his works, Georges Didi-Huberman has retraced, in an exemplary manner, the material history of images—the conditions under which they were taken, why and how they were circulated, shown and reproduced—to then explore their resonances and transformations across time.[3] But the exhibition foregoes this complexity for a narration, spanning an ensemble of themes, that works to orient and marshal the gaze: it revives an iconographic method considered obsolete. The installation of Uprisings is organized in five chapters-cum-slogans that define the many typologies or visual motifs referring, more or less, to attitudes and gestures throughout the exhibition: “elements (unleashed),” “gestures (intense),” “words (exclaimed),” “conflicts (flared up),” “desires (indestructible).” With strong emotional force, these titles attempt a unification of objects and images that are, by nature, disparate: artworks, archival documents, media photographs, newspaper clippings, materials and supports. Sometimes “uprising” is summoned simply through movement captured by the camera, like in Man Ray’s Sculpture mouvante (1920): the photograph depicts sheets waving in the wind. In other images, it is the body’s gestures and postures that suggest the movement of revolt, like in an image of the dancer Jo Mihaly photographed by Germaine Krull Die Tänzerin Jo Mihaly in “Revolution” Paris (1925). The effect is one of a constellation of alternating gestures—according to a nonlinear temporality—centering around a range of cross-modal and simultaneously extremely heterogeneous themes. The evocation of “uprising” opens up an imaginary space, deploying itself across a variety of interlaced threads that span the entire exhibition. Broadly speaking, the exhibition borrows its tone from pathos accompanied by a form of expressivity, that at times appears detached from the event referred to in the exhibited images—that is, the moment where the gesture of revolt irrupts, where any link between image, gesture and uprising becomes blurred. The pathos always tends, in effect, to take precedence. What results is the trapping of gestures and images in, first and foremost, an affective and emotional dimension. This risks draining off the channels connecting to their political dimension that equally produce meaning, conflicts and the potentiality to act.
Moreover, in reality, the ambition of proposing an encyclopedic vision—so to speak—of the uprising-as-form, appears to produce a quite partial result. Curatorial choices derive from the curator’s own specific interests and sidestep many important issues (for instance, the very questioning of available frameworks for understanding forms of uprising in modernity). Of course, one is not able to include everything in the exhibition. Yet it remains legitimate to interrogate the curatorial choices and what they signify, especially seen from a perspective that concerns itself with representations of the revolting subject and its reverberations in the present. As a feminist, I cannot help remarking that femi-nist struggles were completely omitted from the exhibition.[4] And to be honest, whether feminist or not, women rarely appear as subjects of struggle. When they do, they often happen to be caricatures—like in Honoré Daumier’s lithographs (see for example, Les Divorceuses (1848)). This void is all the more glaring if one considers that the exhibition was conceived as a sort of catalogue of revolts that have unfolded in modernity. The French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Zapatista revolution, the Spanish Civil War, May 1968, the uprisings that swept across Arab countries in the last years: these struggles make up the chapters of a story already written. Women rarely appear within this series of uprisings in their capacity to revolt. And when they do, it is always for a cause that subordinates their oppression as women to the general interest—that is to say, to masculine knowledge. In the perspective adopted by the exhibition, a woman can represent struggle in so far as she is a symbol (see, for instance, Tina Modotti’s Woman with Flag (1928)). But the subversion of patriarchal relations is never treated as an end in itself, which prevents the thinking of women as political subjects in their own right. Aside from the hysterics photographed at the Salpêtrière, the independent feminine subject—in revolt against gender belonging—is only represented by the Madres of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. When questioned about this absence in an interview, Georges Didi-Huberman explains that he was interested in women’s revolts only in so far as they dialectically positioned themselves: that they do not “just” defend the feminine condition, but participate in a common cause alongside men.[5] Fighting against the oppression that one is subjected to as a woman is thus not dialectical. The absence of feminism in the exhibition is not surprising: feminist struggles are unable to find their place in the story proffered by the exhibition precisely because, by doing so, they would risk putting such a story into crisis. One can affirm, alongside Italian feminist Carla Lonzi, that feminism is precisely the unforeseen of history (this history as it is recounted in Uprisings). Indeed, feminism interrupts any dialectical conception of history in which woman is excluded from the domain of consciousness and thus from subjectivity.[6] The subject of revolt found in the exhibition is one thought through the grid of a universalism that contains and marginalizes difference.
Decolonial and postcolonial revolts are equally repressed—without doubt for the same reasons—from the horizon of these uprisings. If the exhibition considers different historico-geographical contexts, it appears to be only in so far as they derive from a model of uprising that runs directly from the French Revolution to May 1968. In this respect it is especially dumbfounding that any revolts implicating colonialism, in one way or another, appear only in the negative. At most, their presence assumes a phantom form that reminds one how active the processes for repressing France’s colonial past still are—with all the ensuing catastrophic effects. Bruno Boudjelal’s photographic installation, Sur les traces de Fanon (2012), barely contours the face of Frantz Fanon in the form of a meager shadow. As for the Algerian War, it is only hinted at in an artwork by Raymond Hains, OAS. Fusillez les plastiqueurs (1961), which literally suggests repression and censure. There are no traces of the 2005 postcolonial riots that erupted across France and, as far as migrants are concerned, they only appear calmly crossing the border between Greece and Macedonia in the video by Maria Kourkouta that closes the exhibition (Idomeni, 14 mars 2016. Frontière gréco-macédonienne (2016)). This image stands in stark contrast to the multiple revolts waged by migrants against unacceptable conditions imposed upon them in recent years—piercing through histories of migration—even well before the events spurred by the Syrian conflict. From their vital role in broader social struggles these last decades to the uprisings that have relentlessly flared up in detention centers—recalling marronages of the colonial era, which are also absent from the exhibition—migrants have affirmed themselves as fully fledged political subjects.
With this perspective in mind, it is perhaps not coincidental that when the exhibition does concern itself with the present it is one that is obscured to the viewer. Take, for example, the image of a work by Ismail Bahri, Film à blanc (2012). A white piece of paper is placed in front of the lens, preventing any observation of a crowd assembled during a Tunisian protest. Gone are the barricades, the pathos, the bodies that rise up and the choreographed gestures: the question of actuality, or more so actualization, remains suspended in an exhibition turned resolutely towards the past. The conflicts characterizing our own present are effectively kept at bay. But it is not enough to simply detect the cracks in a constellation—inevitably incomplete—of modernity’s uprisings. One must question the very coherence of choices inscribing the uprising in a “classic” narrative of revolt. Such a narrative renders illegible a whole sequence of conflicts that appear to hold much more influence on the present moment. It contributes, without doubt, to a “black and white” impression of the exhibition where—by way of a narration taking the form of a heroic epic—“uprising” becomes sealed off in the past. It is precisely here that the aesthetic dimension intervenes, not simply to “aestheticize” revolt, as one could put it, but to inscribe it into the grand narratives that, much to the contrary, uprisings themselves constantly strive to abolish.

Translated from French by Anna De Filippi

  1. [1] Georges Didi-Huberman, Uprisings, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Jeu de Paume, 2016), p. 18.
  2. [2] Georges Didi-Huberman, The Surviving Image: Aby Warburg and Tylorian Anthropology, Oxford Art Journal 25 (2002), p.61.
  3. [3] Cf. for example: Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
  4. [4] I’m not the only one to have noticed this absence. See for example Elisabeth Lebovici’s critique: “Sous-lévements” published on December 7, 2016 on her blog: http://le-beau-vice.blogspot.fr/2016/11/sous-levements-jeu-de-paume-paris_19.html (accessed February 8, 2017). See also the report published on the blog Lunettes Rouges on October 24, 2016: “Des soulèvements bien encadrés” http://lunettesrouges.blog.lemonde.fr/2016/10/24/des-soulevements-bien-encadres/ (accessed February 9, 2017).
  5. [5] “Images et gestes du soulèvement,” interview by Joseph Confavreux for Mediapart, published December 30, 2016, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7gplyZAd34 (accessed February 9, 2017).
  6. [6] Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel, Milano, Scritti di Rivolta Femminile, 1970 and Et al. / edizioni, 2010 (for a partial English translation cf. “Let’s Spit on Hegel,” in May, no. 4 (June 2010), pp. 101-119.