Wednesday 19 January 2011

Peurs sur la Ville - "Paris is a battlefield"

Paris est un champ de bataille. Nous l’avions oublié” (Paris is a battlefield. We have forgotten that) notes writer and historian Max Gallo in his introduction to the Peurs sur la ville exhibition which launches tomorrow (January 20th) at the Monnaie de Paris. Throughout its history, he points out, the city has been the scene of bloody battles, invasions, uprisings and terrorist attacks, and long-lasting peace is a recent situation that we have perhaps begun to take for granted.

The show has therefore been conceived as a reminder of how fragile the peace of our cities remains. It
is built around three different photographic perspectives, representing the recent past, the situation today and an imagined vision of what the future might be.

The archives of the Paris Match magazine provide the historic perspective, with photos of the liberation of Paris in 1944, the revolt in May 1968, terrorist attacks in the 1970s and more recent protests on the city streets. Although several of these photos feature dehumanised bodies laying in rivers of blood on the streets of the capital, perhaps the most powerful images are those taken in the suburbs during recent unrest. One in particular, a simple picture of the Cité des 4000 housing project in the suburb of La Courneuve is particularly striking. It is violence by architecture, and a reminder that if war comes to Paris it will most probably come from within.

The artist Michael Wolf has chosen Google’s Street View tool to give a representation of the city today. His highly pixelated images, labelled Paris Street View, are blown up to sizes that make them almost unrecognisable. The violence here is not physical but psychological, and we are reminded that we are all unwitting actors in the city streetscape today. The images - embracing couples, helmeted motorcyclists, wayward arms and legs - are banal, but a hint of menace floats over these creations.

The third installation is the work of Patrick Chauvel, entitled Guerre ici and is possibly the most striking of the three. These pictures, mash ups of Chauvel's world-renowned photographs from war zones with images taken of Paris today, give an apocalyptic vision of a possible future for the city. The violence Chauvel has witnessed in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia is superimposed onto scenes that are familiar to us, transporting us from our routines into a world of horror.

The creations, systematically displayed next to the original pictures to ensure that they remain rooted in the real, transplant wrecked tanks, looting and sniper victims onto the most touristic sites in the city. The artifice works best of all on a startling but entirely believable night-time shot of fire-framed soldiers patrolling in front of Notre Dame. It is what Paris might have been and what it might still be.

The slogan of Paris Match, the chief partner in this exhibition, used to be "le poids des mots, le choc des photos" (the weight of words, the shock of photos), and if there is a criticism I would make of this show it is that it has concentrated purely on the second aspect. This is a vast subject that demands to be investigated and debated, and I can't help feeling that its surface has only been lightly scratched here.

The exhibition is perhaps not served by its surroundings either. With its left bank setting, the elegant staircase, the marble fireplaces and high ceilings, it is difficult to build up any feelings of fear and apprehension despite the very dim light in the rooms. Looking around the images, it is a struggle to imagine the scenes to be possible in Paris today, let alone imminent. And that's perhaps just as well.

Peurs sur la Ville
Until April 17th
La Monnaie de Paris, 11 Quai de Conti, 75006
Tuesday - Sunday, 11am - 6pm (9.30 on Thursdays)

Photo credits:
Top: L'arc de triomphe © Patrick Chauvel photomontage Paul Biota
Middle: PSV 28, Série Paris Street View © Michael Wolf, Courtesy La Galerie Particulière, Paris
Bottom: 1982, attentat à la voiture piégée devant le 33 rue Marbeuf,
© Paris Match


PeterParis said...

Fascinating! Seems to be a must!

Owen said...

Sounds pretty incredible, hope to be able to get to see it...

Maybe this could be an occasion at long last to get together, if you could stand to see it again, and if Peter happened to be there, that would be three... do I hear 4 ? 4 going once, going twice...


Between now and April hopefully we could figure out a date. I'll be on vacation for two weeks in February... could be possible then...

Adam said...

I'm game Owen - good suggestion. I should be free sometime in February too...

If anyone else wants to join us...:-)

Anonymous said...

Adam, I found the mash-up photos you've reproduced powerful and disturbing. It's surprising that their impact was somehow lessened in their grand Left Bank display.
I'd certainly be up for an Invisible Paris outing to see this.

Adam said...

Landscapelover: The pictures are powerful, but I couldn't help feeling how much more powerful they would be if the exhibition was situated in a concrete tower block or an underground car park.

Let's all try and meet up then!

beau gosse said...

Strangely compelling and scary!

Dawne Boynton Polis said...

I just started receiving your blog in my inbox, and my husband and i both agree that it's one of the best French blogs that we've seen.
As photographers, we very interested in reading about this exhibit, and are sorry we were not in Paris to have seen it. I'll Google it and try to find more images.
Thank you, and Happy New year!

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