By Jill Glessing
Resistance to oppression takes many forms. Antonio Gramsci, incarcerated during Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, struggled to understand the workings of power. Developing his concept of hegemony, published later in Prison Notebooks, Gramsci proposed that power is always in flux and unstable, hence always vulnerable to popular contestation. Within this modern dialectical framework of political change, Georges Didi-Huberman, art historian and curator of the exhibition Uprisings,1 further delineated the processes whereby bodies and societies rise up against oppression.
Resistance to power must be old as the hierarchical structures that provoke it.2 Since dissent was an unlikely subject for commissioned art, however, we have little record of its early depiction. Only with the development of republican revolutions and, concurrently, mass-reproduction technologies would such documentation be produced and disseminated. Walter Benjamin noted the value of emerging photography and film media to political movements.
For these same reasons, these media dominated the exhibition, alongside videos, engravings, documents, installations, Internet sites, drawings, and paintings. Two hundred and seventy pieces amassed on two large floors of the Jeu de Paume ranged from the early nineteenth century to the present day, with three new pieces commissioned by the museum. Admirable in its international scope, the exhibition’s greater emphasis on European, and especially French, materials is forgiven as its host city, Paris, is legendary for popular rebellions, from the French Revolution to the 1968 student and worker strikes. As it travels to Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and, finally, Montreal, the exhibition will morph to include more works relevant to these cities’ regions.
Important within the rich theoretical web informing Didi-Huberman’s approach are three twentieth-century figures who engaged in image production or analysis: Austrian art historian Aby Warburg, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, and French filmmaker Chris Marker. Warburg created an art-historical typology of expressive gestures and iconic forms – what he called Pathosformel; Eisenstein introduced film montage, an editing technique that juxtaposed disparate scenes to create revolutionary meanings; and Marker, in a brilliant synthesis of Eisensteinian montage and Warburgian gesture, built a collective narrative of uprising. In his film Le Fond De L’air Est Rouge (1977), Marker spliced and sequenced related gestures of mourning and revolt from, for example, Eisenstein’s representation of the 1905 Odessa uprising in Battleship Potemkin (1925) and newsreel footage of the 1962 Charonne metro station massacre in Paris. Marker’s cut notes, quoted in Didi-Huberman’s catalogue essay, corroborate his method: “Burial of the dead of Charonne . . . A woman wipes her eyes. Potemkin: close-up of a woman wiping her eyes, finishing the gesture of the woman of Charonne.”3
Following these models, Didi-Huberman parsed the vast gathering of historical representations of uprising into phases to create a grammar, or Warburgian “atlas,” of signs and gestures. Five sections charted the phenomenology of resistance from early incubation through to often-inevitable suppression. The resultant tapestry, woven of bodies, desires, and creativity, constitutes a curatorial gesture toward an archive of resistance. Radical pieces, marginalized or homeless within contemporary art and culture, were united here to form a potent collective force.
Perfectly placed to introduce the exhibition’s first section, Elements (Unleashed) – its central value of montage and its underlying tenor of promise – was Maria Kourkouta’s large commissioned video projection Remontages (2016). A slow, soundless procession of dissolved black-and-white clips from film history, prominently featuring Jean Vigo’s 1933 Zero for Conduct, joined and overlay moments of communal struggle and joy: women passing barricade stones and boys parading defiantly against their authoritarian boarding-school masters. Roving sea waves, flyers falling from the sky, and feathers freed from the bedding that bound them express the contagious pulse that propels dissent. Before moving to the streets, the first stirrings of imagination and desire are awoken. These faint flutterings appear here as the light materials of paper, fabric, flags, whispered and circulated by the wind (like Internet memes today); even dust appears as energetic activism. In Man Ray’s photograph Dust Breeding (1920), Duchamp’s disruptive sculpture languishes on a studio floor inviting dust to rise, grow, and become form. When Victor Hugo raked an inked feather across paper, he created a semi-indexical impression of wave and flight (Always coming back with the quill, 1856). After 9/11, a marker for a different sort of uprising – of war and Islamaphobia – Dennis Adams photographed airborne debris. In Patriot, one of three large colour prints in his Airborne series (2002), a bright-red plastic bag floating in fragile suspension against a blue-and-white sky evokes the American flag, which became a symbol for alarming nationalism. In Tina Modotti’s 1927 black-and-white photographic composition Bandolier, Cob, Sickle, Mexican and Russian revolutionary symbols combine in a sharper invocation of radical change.
Only after the subtle play of imagination will the body start into declarative action: in the second section, Gestures (Intense), mouths open in anger, arms and placards rise above crowds, bodies disobey. In Käthe Kollwitz’s print Assault, a woman with arms raised vehemently directs a charge of men and children. Modelling avantgarde political engagement, French painter and socialist Gustave Courbet’s small, skilful sketch of a bourgeois revolutionary, gun held aloft, gives instruction for art and publics today. Courbet’s story was picked up later in the exhibition with a small oil painting of the ruined Vendôme Column that Courbet was charged with toppling during the 1871 Paris Commune. Five powerful photographs by Gilles Caron displayed street-fighting choreography: the graceful or contorted bodies of Irish nationalists in Londonderry (1969) and striking French farmers (1967) wound up and ready to hurl stones. Each of Pascal Convert’s three large images presents a figure who lost his life because of trade union or Communist Party affiliation. The hand or arm of each subject is blurred, an effect exaggerated through the enlarged palladium-on-linen format. Beneath the images lay a glass sculpture of a damaged arm, suggesting the vulnerability of bodies that confront power (Uprising, 2015). Lorna Simpson’s large-scale video projection – a grid of fifteen closely framed black mouths softly humming the strains of John Coltrane’s Easy to Remember (2001) – is a moving testament to the suffering and endurance of slaves in the United States. Also reflecting resistant bodies is Alberto Kordo’s iconic photograph of post-revolutionary Havana; sitting atop a lamppost, a man calmly surveys the sea of celebrating Cubans beneath him (1959); three Black Panthers stand, arms shot straight up into fists, facing a snowy Chicago skyline, in Hiroji Kubota’s 1969 photograph; in Leonard Freed’s moving photograph, Guernicans with arms raised and fingers in peace signs stand before a mural of Picasso’s painted memorialization of their townspeople massacred under Franco’s fascism (1977).
In Words (Exclaimed), manifestos, posters, and artworks illustrated the integral role of words in revolutionary activity. A page from the Berlin worker publication AIZ outlined the photomontage process. Its creator, John Heartfield, directing readers to “Use photography as a Weapon,” also relied heavily on captions for his satirical condemnations of growing Nazi power. During the 1968 Paris student revolt, posters and ciné-tracts became critical formats. Gerard Fromanger and Jean-Luc Godard’s clever Film-tract no. 1968 opens with titles scrawled in red over newspapers, then for several seconds it makes a strong statement with a full frame of red, the colour of left politics; the camera, slowly shifting sideways, reveals the abstract curve of red encroaching on a white ground. As the camera continues to pan, the red is revealed to be paint, which slowly drips into finger shapes over the white and then onto a blue field, creating a bloodied tricolore flag.
Imagination, gestures, and words are tentative steps toward direct confrontation. The frequency with which people take to the streets to insist on justice was made clear in the section Conflicts (Flared Up). During the 1848 Paris rebellion, Thibault produced the very first photographic representation of a political uprising. The gossamer detail in his daguerreotype softened the harsher reality of pulled paving stones and broken barricades. Charles Marville documented Paris’s urban renewal; during the 1871 Paris Commune, his successor, Edmond, photographed its ruins. Two images show the rubble remains of the Hôtel de Ville. Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri documented the human ruins of that conflict. His famous photograph Insurgents killed during the Commune’s “Bloody Week” testifies to the mass executions carried out by the French military. Numerous, mostly twentieth-century, black-and-white documentary photographs of street struggles across Europe, Latin America, South Africa, and Asia sample the lives risked and sacrificed for justice. Among the professional photographers represented were Agustí Centelles, Willy Römer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Malcome Browne, who captured a monk performing an extreme form of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s repression of Buddhism by setting himself on fire.
Closer to our own time, and in “anti-journalistic” style, Allan Sekula photographed the first anti-globalization protest. Rejecting the high drama of conventional photojournalism, his colour slide show Waiting for Teargas shows both tense and banal moments of the Seattle street protest. Sekula’s work also addressed the economy and labour of the shipping industry, to which subtle curatorial reference was made through the proximate placement of Chieh-Jen Chen’s The Route (2006), a documentary film focusing on the international solidarity that developed in support of striking Liverpool dockworkers.
The final category, Desires (Indestructibles), considered the metaphysical energetics of desire that underlie resistance. Four photographs made by Sonderkommando – Jews forced to assist Nazi exterminations at Auschwitz – were meant to display that interminable desire. The tiny, potent images, made in secrecy and at great risk, show women, stripped and herded toward a gas chamber and lying in heaps near cremation pits. The inclusion of these controversial images reiterated an interest expressed by Didi-Huberman in an earlier book, Images in Spite of All: these images demand imaginative viewing, to understand not only the immense human cruelty and suffering manifested in them, but also our interminable will to resist.
Further signalling that gathering materials under the abstract theme of “desire” was not simply an academic exercise were works addressing very real problems beyond museum walls. In Taysir Batniji’s video Gaza Diary (2001), a sad mix of everyday sounds and scenes of life under Israeli occupation are punctuated with shots of animals being butchered for meat, alluding to the fractured existence of Palestinians. Enrique Ramirez’s 2013 video listens in on thoughts of three individuals waiting in an immigration office room; a widening camera view reveals the room to be a raft floating on international waters, going nowhere, in perpetual drift between unwelcoming nations. Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza’s mesmerizing play with transparencies on a light table refers to the suppression of information about abuses at a refugee detention centre outside of Paris. In her video And They Go into the Space that Your Gaze Embraces: Smoke Signals (2016), a hand lifts and removes negatives of scenes related to refugee incarceration, allowing only fleeting glimpses of their content and frustrating our attempt to know more.
Maria Kourkouta’s poetic history of uprising introduced the exhibition; her moving video Idomeni, March 14, 2016, Greco–Macedonian Border (2016) closed and bracketed it. Kourkouta set her camera alongside a muddy path traversed by migrants heading toward a gap in an otherwise closed Macedonian border. A seemingly endless flow of women, men, and children, carrying bags and bundles, pass before the lens, demonstrating their determination to survive.
The risk of assembling such a profusion of materials is the same as the risk that threatens focus and action: information overload. What value can such a compilation have? We now have a body of written histories of peoples’ resistance, but an archive of visual materials on this subject has yet to be developed. This collection solidifies, if only temporarily, such a history. Is the prospect of a permanent museum of popular struggle too fanciful? The project’s political import is less easy to access and invokes larger questions about the relationship between art and political change. The exhibition demonstrated the integral role of art within political activism. But can such a format inspire or guide us through our own political struggles? On the simplest level, we might consider the project to contribute to the exchange of ideas within our public sphere, itself an essential condition for democracy.
2 Jean Nicolas noted in La Rébellion française (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2002) that at least 8,528 uprisings between 1661 and 1789 were needed to trigger the French revolutionary process.
3 Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Desires (Fragments on What Makes Us Rise Up),” in Uprisings (Soulèvements), exh. cat. (Paris: Jeu de Paume and Éditions Gallimard, 2016), 290.
Jill Glessing teaches at Ryerson University and writes on visual arts and culture.