Text published in photoworks Magazine, issue 9. November/april 2007/2008.
We are sending you this little note to give you our news.
We've finished decorating the house.
I'm beginning to get used to it but I get depressed sometimes.
Apart from that all is well, I hope it's the same for you.
25 June 1973, Mantes la Jolie (Yvelines). Le Val-Fouré.
Nearly a century after Atget photographed the homes of the chiffoniers, scavengers of the city's rubbish, who squatted the deserted military zone that surrounded Paris, displaced by Hausmann's grand designs, the periphery of this and other cities in France remains stigmatised. In 1943, the County of London Plan stated 'a good house, with all the amenities necessary for a full and healthy life, is a primary social need for everyone and must be the constant objective'. Yet the majority of social housing built between the 1950s and the 1970s for the working classes – made homeless by the war and mass slum clearance and swelled in numbers by newly-arrived immigrants – took the form of flats and high-rise blocks. In France these new estates, the grands ensembles, were concentrated in the city outskirts. As in England, many of them fell into terminal decline in the 1980s. After scenes of riots throughout the 90s and 00s, these areas are now commonly regarded as ghettos of violence, crime and racial conflict, site of the failure of French socialism and integration. It is this cycle of urban renewal and decay that forms the subject of Mathieu Pernot's new body of work, one of the highlights of this year's Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles.
Pernot sets the scene by presenting his collection of postcards of these gleaming new suburban developments. Clumsily hand-tinted, they are transformed by this painterly process from document to fantasy vision of a modernist utopia – 'yesterday's city of tomorrow'. Their accumulation, page after page, reinforces the vast scale and ambition of the post-war reconstruction project; the massive investment in this 'brave new world', with its promise of a bright and prosperous future for a new classless society empowered by technological advances and shiny domestic appliances.
Beneath the promotional glamour, already made shabby by the unfinished state of some of the buildings and the alien colouring, the brutal forms of the HLM [council housing] are evident. Turning the page, with a rapid fast-forward, the precise chill of a black and white photograph, full-bleed, records the demolition of a high-rise block. It seems as if the buildings have given up and self-destructed, too ashamed of their dereliction to continue. The images are devoid of witnesses, their silence as enveloping as the smoke – not the deserted scene of a crime or photography of the aftermath, but the freeze-framing of the act of suicide.
Previously published in Les Etats des Lieux, alongside colour photographs of recently-evicted rooms in Barcelonian barrios, these implosions inevitably recall other bombed-out buildings, other collapsing tower blocks. Like Denis Darzacq's falling youths in his project La Chute, they become a metaphor for an explosive political situation, a society in collapse, an allusion to endings literal and theoretical.
But as the book progresses, there is a subtle shift in scale. As the implosions become more spectacular, the postcards gradually transform from distant views to images taken from within the estates, so that we begin to distinguish individual figures. Pernot then introduces a cast of characters, excavated from the postcards by intense magnification. Revealed in the enlarged screen of the image stands a girl in a white pinafore, silently watching. A woman looks out enquiringly, strolling down the street with her umbrella. Two boys in shorts stand innocently, Doisneauesque–guinea pigs of this, now maligned, social experiment.
Finally, Pernot offers a further dramatisation of the subject by setting down a dialogue for these ghostly inhabitants. Toujours est aussi long que jamais is a play in fifty five acts. Copied from the backs of the postcards, these texts make up a polyphonic melody of everyday life. The concise syntax curtails their pathos, which is further ruptured by surreal interjections: 'oxygen', 'bandaid', 'artichoke' – replies to TV competitions. Pernot replaces the usual validatory critical essay with this chatter, underlining the fragmentary nature of history, and humanising a community recently dismissed as 'la racaille' [scum] by the French President.
Like the work of many contemporary artists (see Erik Kessels overleaf), Mathieu Pernot's practice is that of documentaliste, in the French sense of being a researcher and an archivist, but it shares the more poetic register of, for example, Mohini Chandra's ethnographic Album Pacifica, (1997) and the ethics of conceptual work such as Martha Rosler's seminal 'The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems' (1974-5). If Le Grand Ensemble has a stylish, quirky, light-hearted air, with its fashionable tropes of vernacular imagery and explosions, closer reading proves it to be a skilfully edited and well-paced book; an intelligent reflection on the fragility of any grand ensemble; on photography's documentary role and its complex relationship to the writing of history.
'Got here safely, even if I'm scared stiff'
'I'm thinking of you'
'Meilleur souvenir et quel souvenir !'