Roland Recht, “A story of suffering humanity” published in “the Atlas in motion” edited by Textuel, 2022.
The name “atlas” was first given to a book in 1595 when Gerardus Mercator published his Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura with a frontispiece depicting a large architectural niche with a monumental Atlas contemplating a celestial globe while a terrestrial globe rests beneath him on the ground. The work was comprised of magnificent illustration plates representing the earth and the sky.
Mathieu Pernot opens his Atlas in Motion with astronomical plates captioned by a Syrian refugee, the astronomer Muhammad Ali Sammuneh. It thus immediately establishes itself within a publishing tradition that is, in part, devoted to cosmography; in this sense, it is similar to Aby Warburg’s renowned Mnemosyne Atlas, in whose lineage Mathieu Pernot deliberately positions his own work. I would like to evoke some convergences that I have noticed between these two atlases.
The atlas by Mathieu Pernot bears the sign of a handprint, a clue to a living presence. Above all else, the hand reveals an identity, but it is also an indication of activities that produce meaning. It leaves traces of its movement in time and space. It sketches out the itinerary taken by the migrant since departing their country of origin. It points to the conjunction of the stars at a certain moment of the journey. The hand writes or draws so that the exile’s sense of language gradually appropriates that of the host. As a result of this process, it becomes necessary to rename the world.
“I have known – I still know! – the suffering caused by the inadequacy of words and things,” writes Tobie Nathan. “I am an immigrant. For a long time, this was shameful for me. It remains painful.” And he continues, “To emigrate always entails losing one’s certainty of the world, the belief in its reliability and the sensation of one’s own identity – I mean the illusion that one is identical to oneself, that there is the same self that was there yesterday and that it will still be there tomorrow … When one emigrates, this sensation disintegrates in just a few moments, like those mummies that crumble into dust when a ray of light grazes them. We are quickly dominated by the feeling of our own contingent nature. One learns that if one is oneself, it is by chance and that one could just as well be another, that perhaps one will be another tomorrow.”
When migrants leave their makeshift boats and reach land, footprints are left in the sand before being erased by waves. These footprints mark the threshold of a new, often hostile world, a step along a path that will prove long and perilous.
A footprint is always a clue to a story. Like Daniel Defoe with Robinson Crusoe, a story can unfold from just one. The trace demands a story. This is why, as Carlo Ginzburg notes, “the hunter would have been the first ‘to tell a story’ because he alone was able to read, in the silent, nearly imperceptible tracks … a coherent sequence of events.” The trace is never the mute residue of something: it can give access to a world. But most of the time it’s an enigma, the only clue that a history has been de-posited there.
In the wild, Mathieu Pernot captured traces of clues: pieces of clothing or blankets hanging on the vegetation of Calais’s “jungle”. On the island of Lesbos, clothes abandoned in landfills. In the destroyed houses of Mosul, faded photographs that are traces of existence onto which we can project the faces of children. We perceive this lost identity in the bodies covered with shroud-like sheets near the Jardin Villemin in Paris. And when Mohamed Abakar cloaks statues or vases in public gardens, he trans-forms them into replicas of his own anonymity – an identity that can longer be seen by passers-by. Around the fire: the fire that revitalises. The flames dance and form strange figures, sometimes lying down, sometimes vertical, that emerge through several layers of colour. The joy of a family gathered around the fire, the only time the photographer is able to capture smiles. But there is also the fire that destroys, that sets tents ablaze or burns the dormitories in Lesbos, and that loses all of its beauty, leaving vast spectres to rise in the night. And then, there are the school notebooks with scorched edges. A few words have refused to be erased by the fire. Here Mathieu Pernot’s work is more like that of an archaeologist: with extreme care, he collects fragments of intimate histories and integrates them into a sort of stratigraphy that reveals what the fires of the past have brutally torn and disfigured. Fire creates a dividing line between what was lived, what defined the days, and glimpses of an ancient narrative that can no longer be reconstructed. Because the traces are so minute, it is more important than ever to find meaning within them. Over thousands of kilometres, clothes were scattered piece by piece to the four winds. It was what remained of a life that one wanted to leave behind that was being stripped away. Then, moving further north, one tries to overcome the cold with the help of new garments.
In truth, there are different entry points to The Atlas in Motion. We could approach it through the maps of the Mediterranean, of this “sea cemetery” where thousands of migrants have perished. Similar in appearance to portolans – the charts used by navigators in the Middle Ages that indicated the landmarks they could rely on – the maps here provide coordinates of the deadly sites where boats sank.
Tortured bodies: with a trace of agitation, Najah Albukaï recounts what he suffered in the jails of Damascus. And suddenly the swollen, amputated olive trees of the Mória camp read like huge tragic hieroglyphs. However, despite their apparent decrepitude, solid roots continue to hold them to the earth.
From one atlas to another
Now for the other atlas, the one Mathieu Pernot had in mind: the Mnemosyne Atlas of Aby Warburg. It follows the nineteenth-century publishing tradition that included, among others, ethnographic, encyclopaedic and anatomical atlases. It is a collection of plates illustrating themes arranged in a systematic manner. One of the examples that Warburg would have been familiar with is the Ethnologisches Bilderbuch by Adolf Bastian, the founder of a folk art museum in Berlin (1868). And it is true that the pages of an atlas bear similarities to a museum gallery. The double principle of offering perceptive simultaneity and an overview is common to both showcases.
In 1926 Warburg spoke of a picture atlas for the first time; just prior to that, he had taken a great interest in the atlases of the great shipping routes and the history of trade. Before being published as a book, his atlas was initially composed of a set of panels. These were large wooden frames with black canvas stretched across them and photographic reproductions of images stapled to the canvas: paintings, sculptures, engravings, drawings, press illustrations, etc., and often there were several dozen per panel.
What did these frames represent? Images grouped by themes. For example, panel 23a bears the following heading: “The regular body as a micro-universe: dice thrown to cast lots. Leafing through a book as a reading of the universe … Representation of the Wheel of Fortune as an inescapable fatum.” The ten images that appear on this panel are taken from, among other sources, the Libro delle Sorti by Lorenzo Spirito, which was published in Perugia in 1482.
Placed around an oval library, these panels were used to illustrate Warburg’s lectures as well as those given by the scholars he invited to speak. In his eyes, this simultaneous vision offered a great advantage over images projected by light. Often the panels were not removed after the lectures, but instead remained in place for those who came to hear subsequent speakers, or for readers who used the library. Very early on it became clear that the library and the panels were complementary. Warburg envisioned the project of publishing the panels in the form of an atlas that was accompanied by the catalogue of his library: this editorial endeavour had an encyclopaedic goal and was in perfect coherence with the broader project. The title that was chosen, Mnemosyne Atlas, was a reference to the goddess of memory.
For Warburg an image is not the fixed representation of an action, but rather a field of forces. It thus acts in a dual capacity, as both a representation and as a represented action. The form is tasked with conveying an energy that subsists in the guise of tropes that emerge throughout its successive migrations: for example, the force acting in the depictions from antiquity is in some sense revisited in works created by the Florentine artists of the Renaissance when they carried out commissions for the bourgeoisie. The paradigm of this migration is the figure of the nymph, whose expressive force is shown in the drapery and the hair stirred by the wind, both of which Warburg characterises as “formulas of pathos” (Pathosformeln). The “pathos formula” is the setting in motion of a part of the body or of a material accessory to reinforce the expressiveness of an action. It makes thought and emotion visible. Without it, the attention of the observer would not be engaged; it is through this that the observer, in a certain way, is drawn into the represented action.
The journey of emotions
Above all, the analogy between The Atlas in Motion and the Mnemosyne Atlas lies in the relationship to the body that is established by both works. And what they have distilled are two aspects of civilisation that Warburg calls orientation (both spiritual and physical) and expression. For him, the image is both an instrument of orientation and the ultimate register of expression. The starry constellations were, for ancient people, a book in which they thought they could decipher their destiny and that of their loved ones. (One of the panels from the Mnemosyne Atlas groups together “Different systems of relationships – cosmic, terrestrial, genealogical – in which man is engaged”). This temptation to interpret was based on the profound analogy between the microcosm and the macrocosm that has been felt since the very beginning (another panel recapitulates “Different degrees of projection of the cosmic system onto man”). The body was understood as the model of the entire universe, thus opening it up as a subject for reflection. We find the same attention given to the body in Mathieu Pernot’s compositions. With the help of his images, he takes us through an entire lexicon of emotions, even when the body – and therefore the expressive gesture – remains invisible: the destroyed buildings of Homs, the “roofs” that the migrants have rigged together as best they can, everything that was abandoned near the Stalingrad metro station in 2016, the life jackets and lifebuoys in a landfill in Lesbos. Such dispossession reduces the migrant to their body. Against all odds they pursue “an identity that has not been lost but has taken refuge in a distant future”. The migrant is in search of a place where they can live, at last, that is to say, to freely exercise their faculties and sensibilities, express their emotions, occupy a place of their own that confers rights upon them. All things that their country of origin has deprived them of, most of the time in a violent manner. The first step in this quest may be to retrace the itinerary of their journey in a notebook or to “tell their story”. This presupposes a distance: “The conscious creation of a distance between oneself and the external world,” writes Warburg as an introduction to his atlas, “is undoubtedly what constitutes the fundamental act of human civilisation”. Culture, including art and science, would then have the function of placing everything people feel threatened by at a distance. The Mnemosyne Atlas presents itself as a corpus of the forms of people’s painful confrontations with other people or with nature. The figurative representations that Warburg collects in his atlas illustrate, as he himself says, a history of a suffering humanity. It is this suffering humanity that through his lens, Mathieu Pernot brings closer to us
Roland Recht, “A story of suffering humanity” published in “the Atlas in motion” edited by Textuel, 2022.