Memories of the Disaster

[Summer 2005]

by Jacques Doyon

The works in this issue fall under the sign of things that are beyond comprehension. The list of catastrophic events that have left bitter traces on our democratic ideals in the last half-century is long. Current events dealt with in contemporary visual arts bring to mind some of these unimaginable moments: the shock of September 11, 2001;

the butchery of the landing on the coast of Normandy in 1942; nuclear paranoia linked to escalation of the Cold War; the scope and inhumanity of the destruction of the Vietnam war. Adding to the list to form a more complete portrait of this period of history are the Shoah, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the recent genocide in Rwanda.

Here, the works are intended not so much as documentation but as memorial. They do not try to report facts or to provoke empathy or dread. Rather, they attempt to explore modes of representation that could allow for expression of the excess of both facts and the mind: the overwhelming negativity of these events, as well as the mind’s incapacity to justify and accept such realities of power as the underside of our societies of abundance and freedom.

UN DICTIONNAIRE… de Melvin Charney displays the ordinariness of media representation of architecture. His thematic groups attempt to extract from the systematic overkill inherent to a mediatic world the images that reveal the structuration of the built environment, customs and behaviours, the culture that underlies them, the symbolic investments in them, and, sometimes, their excess. The 100 series, New York, 11/9/2001, does not operate differently: it exposes the material and symbolic structuration of the World Trade Centre as an issue of power. Bertrand Carrière explores the memory buried in the landscape of the Dieppe landing of 1942. His series Caux is offered as a long meditation on the vacuity and sense of loss and perdition that prevail in this landscape marked by the irremediable. This series was preceded by an installation in two parts, Jubilee, which inverted the traditional forms of the memorial by proposing an ephemeral monument and a cemetery of images. Liza Nguyen, with Souvenirs du Vietnam, explores a double aesthetic of memory. The photographs in Surface (simple handfuls of earth accompanied by the name of a place) open a space for reflection on the devastation of Vietnam. The pamphlets of Cartes postales du Vietnam, for their part, offer a critique of institutionalized forms of national memory and their appropriation by tourism. With Irradiations, Denis Farley undertakes a strange voyage through the corridors and rooms of an obsolete bomb shelter. He introduces into the images of these places a figure evoking irradiation, clearly referring to the burning issue of the nuclear threat. Because the bunker has now become a museum, this strategy also appears to be a more relevant mode of activation of memory than are those of traditional museology.

What do these images, made in the aftermath of events, say? Sometimes, they examine raw remains by expressing a certain muteness, or silence – Nguyen’s “surfaces” of earth, Carrière’s fortified landscapes, Farley’s obsolete bomb shelter. Sometimes, they question the institutionalized representations of these events: overabundance and systematic repetition of media images, for Charney; the transformation into tourist sites of Vietnam’s official war memorials, for Nguyen; the inversion of monumentalization with ephemeral installations, for Carrière.

These works explore forms of minimal monstration that leave open the question of the very possibility of these events, both in the past and in the future. How had this been possible? And why are we so sure that events will repeat themselves in the future – tomorrow, perhaps? These works expose or contradict the instituted portrayals that are part of the very recurrence of these catastrophic events: forms of patriotic memorialization, a certain mode of museification with an ideological tendency, the panicked beat of media representations . . .