L'état des lieux
François Cheval, texte publié dans « l'état des lieux », 779 éditions, 2004
The paradoxical side to Mathieu Pernot's work lies chiefly in how he takes issue with the very status of photography itself. Lying halfway between the report and the fictional reconstruction, the method, based on the study of "details" and their specific rhetoric, analyses the relationship that it keeps up with the subject (the person) and the constituent object (exclusion). Paradoxical, always, it follows state-of-the-art practices the better to examine its intentions.
What escapes us.
From the outset, Mathieu Pernot's work keeps the raw fact at a distance. To the question of proof, he opposes a set of clues, traces and signs, their legitimacy relying entirely on the spectators' ability to identify them.
The gipsies were initially the preferred terrain for an action, a process, giving photography "political" status. Photomatons, a series done with gipsy children, impressed by the strictness of the contrivance. By setting itself apart from police-type photography – because obviously this series refers back to the filing of the "usual suspects" – it questioned the prescribed nature of the way we look at it. The normative constraint of the machine takes over as the real subject of an approach that nothing today calls into question. By dissociating himself from the usual gipsy imagery, Mathieu Pernot questioned not just the status conferred on these communities but also the account given of that status.
The series devoted to Romanian gipsies (1998) amplified the idea of an ambivalent existence at once fashioned by the constraint and irreducibly a wild and powerful force. The cohesion of the social group is inevitably seen in terms of resistance to the norm.
Because it is the norm.
The idea of total control has haunted our societies since the 19th century. It is always pursuing photography because organised surveillance can only be conceived with the use of sophisticated optical equipment.
Alphonse Bertillon was the first to work out a complex apparatus for identity recognition for controlling society. Since then, photographic techniques have constantly been shadowing techniques of exclusion and confinement; the ones being the carbon copy of the others, instruments of control and integration for the solution of the social order.
In Gipsy Camp, a series of passport-type photos, Mathieu Pernot reconstituted the history of the Saliers internment camp, a model camp where, in 1942, the architect of the Historic Buildings department reconstituted a village of the Camargue.1 Some fifty years on, Mathieu Pernot confronted the portraits of fifteen survivors with their pictures taken from their despicable criminal records.2
The juxtaposition of two images with contradictory statuses, the appearance of the double, cause confusion in the order of identification. To those wishing to remove any doubt – guilt is written into the photograph – by the accumulation of criminalising clues, Mathieu Pernot opposes the reality of an unseen complexity. The portrait alone is not authorised to compose a biography.
The recourse to precision and frontality, the tools of applied photography, support the search for meaningful elements. They bring into perspective the conscious, integrated rhetoric behind systems of social constraint.
The techne producing alienation is here convened and disturbed by the victims' oral accounts being associated with their contemporary portrait. Another way for Mathieu Pernot to state the limits of the mechanical image.
And leaves us speechless.
It has been common knowledge since Foucault that the fringe is central to how society works by the institutionalisation of confinement.
The value of man measuring himself against the value of goods, we now think in agreement with J Bentham's idea that determining the value of conduct calls for an arithmetic of pleasures and pains.3 Since then, people have endlessly rationalised deviant forms of conduct by calling upon architecture, sociology, psychiatry and a hefty dose of chemical substances.
In designing his overall project, Mathieu Pernot could not dispense with the prison episode. While Piranesi accumulated the sufferings of a guilty humanity from a turbulent perspective, all that is left now are ergonomics and an objective analysis of the geometrical figure – non-life.
Echoing this, Les Hurleurs renew Mathieu Pernot's work and lead him to raise "a monument to pain" or at least a "silent theatre of pain".
The scenography is of the starkest. A character, alone, screams out to a close friend or relation in prison. A figure from an ancient chorus, the subject of a history painting structured by tragic oblique lines, each character declaims an episode of the tragedy.
The concern to fix the detail of a hand, or two, of an arm, the appearance of an small child, the angle of a body, the determination to confine the narrative, and even the washed-out tone of the colours in a ruthless geometrical network, everything reveals a tension. This tension does not just come from the inner life but questions the enigma with the utmost lucidity.
The disappearance of the landscape, the destruction of the prison as a subject making way for the perception of a "fluidic", silent moment, force us to reconstruct the scene and its dramatic effect.
Barcelona, Mantes-la-Jolie, La Courneuve, Meaux: squats or demolitions by implosion, architectural vulnerability and a world collapsing. In Barrio Chino and in the suburbs, the process of improving sanitation is stepped up. The technique purifies by means of a physical phenomenon, implosion: "phenomenon accompanying the rupture of an enclosure in which there is a depression"4… The passage from one state to another, from something to nothing, the implosion is a halfway stage marking the end of a condition. A cloud of composite elements spreading over the suburbs like a modern Pompei takes the form of incandescent ash-clouds. This splendid moment of eruption announces the destruction of a whole world. For a few instants, the formal perfection of the cloud and the disappearance of the solid principles present an absolutely perfect figure of eugenics.
A salutary exercise.
One cannot fail to note, and Mathieu Pernot makes a point of it, that experience of our contemporary world ties in with the destitution of its institutions, and the decomposition and dislocation of the social fabric go hand in hand with technology.
This might look like a monomaniac exercise in deconstruction or denunciation. But above and beyond the sinister observation, Mathieu Pernot in his salutary exercise of restitution, against any dispossession, confronts us with our ability to look and see. When many of his peers overdo redundancy, he experiments escapes routes away from the normative focus of photography. He is one of those who still get through to us a vision of man and his aims with no illusions. But there, as Foucault again reminds us, any form of resistance and creation stems from such awareness.
Head curator of the Nicéphore Niépce museum, Chalon-sur-Saône.