Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
April 25–June 22, 1997
“The historian, like the camera, always lies.” In discussing history’s inevitable inaccuracies, historian Norman Davies recalls how the impossible task of the historian has been likened to that of the photographer. The former must collate as many sources as possible in order even to begin to reconstruct history as a whole, while the latter must multiply the number of images of a single subject if verisimilitude is the aim. Somewhat in keeping with the spirit of the quantitative and non-event-based approach to history of the école des Annales, French photographer Jean-Luc Moulène’s multiple and mundane images of people in given societies appear to purport generic anecdotes of daily urban life as historical data. So be it. Our construct of history is, fortunately, no longer solely involved with declarations of war and the signing of treaties. But what about art?
While Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments” resulted in documentary photography led slightly astray into the realm of compositional poetry, or of reality’s inherent surrealism, the furtive quality of Moulène’s photographs results in precisely that: furtiveness. In other words, the fifty-two very large-scale silk-screened and mostly colour prints of street scenes, stores, and transportation presented at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (MAM) and grouped under the cleverly polysemic title Déposition had much more to do with mode and affect than with the content of the images themselves. Plastered directly on the curvilinear walls of the MAM’s snail-shaped room, Moulène’s grainy “posters” quite visibly espoused the asperities of the museum’s architecture. Not only was the rough and ephemeral presentation conventionally street-like, but, given the acid-green paint that saturated the museum’s walls, the show’s overall effect was decidedly hip. As hip, say, as the blurred, ground-angle shot of a young woman’s legs in skin-tight fluorescent leggings and flanked by a dog’s lower body with red penis in full bloom.
But then again, Moulène’s purposefully slipshod and often off-centred images are innocuous: a woman lifting her glass in what appears to be an airport café; a kneeling, small figure of a man working on the final touches of the newly renovated façade of a police station; a set of outdoor steps littered with cigarette butts. While aesthetic plays on form, colour, and scale are diffuse, they remain sufficiently present to keep us musing. However, they do seem to belong to the exhibition’s concept rather than to the individual images, which, viewed in succession, remain void of any distinctive feeling or continuity of vision. More than anything else, what this formal literacy conjures up is the seductive strategies of advertising. What, then, one wonders, is Moulène trying to sell. Anecdote as History? It’s already been bought. Art as a reality show into which each viewer will project his or her own emotions? Perhaps.