Le grand ensemble
Saskia Ooms, texte publié dans édit N°6, 2007.
On the occasion of his exhibition at the Musée Niepce in Châlon-sur-Saône, Le Point du jour has published the book Le grand ensemble by Mathieu Pernot. This beautiful edition (hard bound, small format) is an art book rather than an exhibition catalogue. Its absence of text is not a coincidence."Le grand ensemble" is in perfect continuity with other series by Pernot. In his art works, he researches the institutional structures of society, in this case state-led social housing and urban planning, and through history he looks at the consequences of these practices, especially for the people who are subjected to them.
In "Le grand ensemble" Pernot looks at the urban areas created at the outskirts of major French cities in the fifties and sixties, some of which were demolished in the eighties and also later on. To cope with the severe housing shortage after WWII, and to counter the informal shantytown settlements (bidonvilles) that had grown in response to thisthe French governments instigated the construction of large-scale housing projects, whose forms owed much to modernist architecture as espoused by Le Corbusier and CIAM. In the Paris region, these projects included the grands ensembles of Sarcelles and La Courneuve, and in the 1960s and 1970s, the villes nouvelles, such as Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée and Sénart. Although only a part of these modern apartment blocks are social housing, the French colloquially refer to them as "HLM", or Habitations à Loyers Modérés, (apartments with moderate rents), Once envisaged as utopian projects for a new modern society, many of these areas are now stigmatized as 'quartiers sensibles' and are known for their social problems, segregation and ghettoization. Consequently, the well-mediatized demolition of some of these degraded blocks in the 1980s and 1990s became iconic symbols in the French collective memory. Pernot uses this visual repository with "Les implosions 2000-2006," earlier published in "l'Etat des Lieux." In a spectacular way - to use a term by Guy Debord - these implosions simultaneously evoke the fragility of their construction their social deficiency During the past two years Pernot has started to collect postcards of these built environments as they were published in the the years 1950-1970. These images were distributed in order to promote these new neighbourhoods with their modern towers, not only as the ideal solution to the problem of housing provision, but also as the vehicle of modern life. "Le grand ensemble" shows both Pernot's series "Implosions", and his collection of colourful postcards that express this optimism. He also includes examples of the short notes written on the back of the postcards by the people who lived in these buildings, as well as blown-up details of the persons who figure on the postcards. Pernot questions these social housing projects and he is looking for a human image of the people who lived there. Showing their letters, their intimate thoughts next to the implosions, he confronted us with the personal lives of these people. He sympathises with them and tries to give them in this way a face, a voice, like for instance in the following note: "Here's our neighbourhood with one tower where we live on the 7th floor. The residence is very beautiful; the apartments are comfortable and not too noisy. There is a floor heating system and we have three large rooms with big closets, in which we were able to put all our belongings (as it should). The room in front, with the little loggia, is the kitchen, the yellow curtains cover the rooms next to the salon. See you soon, come and visit our new place." (1)
This optimistic note gives us a look inside the building. Others are less enthusiastic but they are all precious records of a certain population at a certain time. In the exhibition Pernot showed the postcards blown up under the following title: "Brave new world" (Le Meilleur des Mondes), referring to Aldous Huxley's satirical book of 1932 in which a utopian, modern but alienated society is created. Once again, Pernot clearly points out the errors of modernism and the failures of history. Le grand ensemble is a useful social and meaningful artistic book.
Mathieu Pernot, Le grand ensemble, Le Point du Jour Editeur, 2006.
(1) « Voici notre cité avec 1 tours où nous habitons au 7e. La résidence est une belle réalisation, les appartements confortables et très peu bruyants, des grands placards, chauffage par les sols. 3 grandes chambres, nous avons tout casé notre matériel (bien comme il faut). La pièce devant avec la petite loggia, ce sont les cuisines, les stores jaunes les salles à côté le salon. A bientôt donc pour visiter notre nouvelle installation. »