For over fifteen years, Emeric Lhuisset has carried out analysis and reflection on conflict-ridden territories and broad geopolitical issues. For the fiftieth anniversary of the Rencontres d’Arles, he presents an original series entitled Quand les nuages parleront [If Clouds Could Talk]. We present this interview with the artist who sheds light on the disappearance of a place, a culture, and a people.
What is your exhibition going to look like?
The exhibition was really designed as a work of art. There is going to be a magazine, a photography installation, documents, a film, as well as “symbolic objects,” such as trousers worn by certain members of the Kurdish population. What interests me in this project are certain issues, and I have thought of various ways of addressing them. The exhibition thus takes various forms.
What are these issues?
I started out by working on refugees. I had decided to investigate the fate of people who have become or who might become refugees. I wanted to pursue this idea further, and work on the origins of a situation that will lead to exile. The project that will be featured at Arles really deals with how such a situation is constructed. Looking at a particular territory, I was interested first of all in questions of freedom of expression and then, gradually, the deeper I delved into the matter, the more I realized that there was something more complex going on, something deeper, and that in fact we were in a territory that is being constructed around the notion of disappearance. The simultaneous disappearance of persons, of peoples, of architecture, of cities, of culture… So it is really the issue of disappearance at the heart of a territory that I have been exploring.
What sort of territory are we talking about?
I deliberately refrain from naming any territory. My work has also dealt with censorship and ways of subverting it: how to speak about something that you are not allowed to talk about, how to show something that you are not supposed to show… I thought it would be interesting to push the limits of this idea by not naming the place. Although, when one views the exhibition the territory in question is immediately obvious.
I wanted to understand how history was being constructed
Indeed, and we realize that this territory is located in a part of the world you know very well, the Middle East. Why are you interested in that region?
From the start I had a very specific approach in mind. It consisted in working on geopolitical issues. What compelled me to work on these issues was my background: I grew up in the suburbs of Paris and we never had any art books at home. The first works of art I saw weren’t in museums, but in history books. I think that this has had an impact on my approach. When I was young, I would often visit my grandmother who had held on to the history books from her childhood, that is, books dating back to the 1930s. I love books, and I would look through them, and I noticed that the narrative of historical events wasn’t the same as the one I was taught at school in the 1990s. I realized that there were multiple narratives and that they changed depending on the politics, geographic zone, and time period. I wanted to understand how history was being constructed. Now my work consists in going into areas where history is in the process of being written, and to try to bear witness to this process in the most objective way possible. I began by working in the Middle East because there is a lot going on at the geopolitical level, and because, when I was working on my first projects, it was quite affordable to catch a flight to Istanbul and then take a bus to Iraq. Then the Arab Spring came. I made connections on the ground, built a solid network, and continued working in the region.
You are willing to make time and space for an event in the face of an endless stream of images in the press and on the internet. Did your approach crystallize as a way of countering this stream of images and against traditional photojournalism?
My approach is not intended to be against anything. I’m not a photojournalist. I reflect on images, and thus also on photojournalism, but my work is not an argument “against.” Photojournalism is really a different beast altogether. There are photojournalists who are doing extraordinary work, at the risk of their lives. My goal is not to criticize photojournalism, but rather to show things through a different lens than photojournalism does. My purpose is to encourage people to take a deeper look at something that demands sensitivity, that calls for reflection…
Which is where photography comes in, images…
I am not trying to prove anything with images, but rather to narrate the emptiness experienced by people in areas where everything has been destroyed, where everything has disappeared. Areas closed off today, which no longer exist, which are secreted away behind palisades… Sometimes these are places where I was not allowed to take any images. And so I decided to photograph the clouds; hence the title of my exhibition, If Clouds Could Talk… I also made a video in which I can be seen going from one place to the next, but which doesn’t show those places, because it is impossible to film them.
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Emeric Lhuisset, Quand les nuages parleront
Cloître Saint-Trophime, July 1–September 22, 2019, 9am–7pm