Magazine article Artforum International

"Le Travail De Memoire." (Photo Exhibits and Panel Discussions)

Magazine article Artforum International

"Le Travail De Memoire." (Photo Exhibits and Panel Discussions)

Article excerpt

In a year of seemingly nonstop commemorations in France (the Edict of Nantes, the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, May '68), the Parc de la Villette organized a timely if provocative program of photo exhibits and panel discussions invoking less glorious aspects of recent history under the collective title "1914-1998, Le travail de memoire" (1914-1998: The work of remembering). Visitors were greeted at the entrance to one of the two exhibition sites by a lengthy quote from Walter Benjamin on the necessity of "working" memory as one works the land, but a single sentence from one of Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" might have been even more apt: "There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism." The photographic "documents" presented all confronted viewers with the barbarism of this century, from World War I to contemporary carnage in the former Yugoslavia, Chechenya, Rwanda, and Algeria.

Two of the three exhibits, "Un devoir de memoire" (A duty to remember) and "S21 ou le cauchemar cambodgien" (S21 or the Cambodian nightmare), were originally mounted at the 1997 Aries International Photography Festival. Curated by Christian Caujolle, the festival's artistic director that year, the installations were intended to question not simply the role of the photograph in the making of memory but the entire chain of transmission - and responsibility - from photographer to viewer, whether it be via the photo agency and the press, the book publisher, the art gallery and museum, or the family album.

At La Villette, as in Arles, the images juxtaposed ranged from "raw" press photos of Algeria by prizewinning Agence France Presse photojournalist Hossine Z. to the aestheticized Polaroid fictions of David Levinthal's Holocaust series "Mein Kampf" (or even the non-image of Walter Benjamin's text, which turned out to be a 1996 wall painting by Joseph Kosuth). And in an adjacent space, the 100 black-and-white "portraits" from the Cambodian detention/torture center S21 were in fact a selection of the ID photos that had served to document the passage of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims.

The questions such contrasts raised about the photographer's stance were reinforced by the way the images themselves were displayed. Some were simply tacked to the wall (e. …

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