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The Ruin of Babel

Artist Bertille Bak questions globalisation, dependence and independence, and the inequalities that result. She denounces a society at the end of its rope, in a sort of parody of the myth of Babel, where the race for growth and infinite gain has replaced the desire to reach the kingdom of God.

“Bertille Bak doesn’t analyse society like an anthropologist,” was it explained to the press during a preview of the “Abus de Souffle” exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. “She adds a touch of fantasy, imagination and invention. Her desire to carry out immersive projects, within a community, comes from her final year project, which she carried out in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, immersing herself with fishermen.” The French photographer and visual artist takes a long-term approach to her work, weaving a special relationship between herself and her subjects.

“She immerses herself in a group’s way of life without a script.” Shoe-shine boys in La Paz, the crew of a cruise ship in Saint-Nazaire, a family of Indian, Indonesian or Thai miners, artists in the medina of Tétouan: from France to Morocco, via Asia, Bertille Bak immersed herself in local cultures. Living in communities allowed her to observe them in order to understand them better. To study their rituals, gestures and objects. She then added new rules, modifications and tricks of all kinds for the purposes of her photographic project. It is with the community in which she was carrying out this project that Bertille Bak determined the new rules and modifications.

“Bak creates collective rituals that produce an image [of these communities] that is emancipating and free of the clichés conveyed by miserabilist documentaries.” The artist does not seek to trivialise the often precarious living conditions of the communities she focuses on. But these realities are often modified and distorted by a collective imagination that does not correspond. She invites the subjects of her photography to take part in staged events, using theatre and performance to do so.

Entertainment Factory, 2016 © Bertille Bak
Entertainment Factory, 2016 © Bertille Bak

Abus de souffle 

The question of work is at the heart of the artistic approach. Know-how and the handmade, in contrast to the industrial and mechanised society in which we live, are “so many militant acts”. She questions globalisation, the proliferation of connections between countries and, surprisingly in the light of the previous point, withdrawal into oneself. It also shows “a globalised world with spectacularly asymmetrical relationships, highlighting fierce economic relations that bring together the near and the far”.

As much technical feats as technological ones, ocean liners are veritable floating cities. In a parody of the myth of the Tower of Babel, from which her work takes its name, Bertille Bak shows the cohabitation of the worlds of work and leisure. The cohabitation of many different languages and origins. “Come on! Let’s go down and scramble their language here, so that they can no longer understand one another”, said Yahweh, as he watched man build the Tower of Babel. But are we still capable of understanding each other, we who oppose each other between rich and poor, between men and women – among others – seems to question the photographer’s work.

With Mineur Mineur, Bertille Bak denounces child labour around the world, particularly in mines. In India, they extract coal. Tin in Indonesia and gold in Thailand. In Bolivia, children extract silver from the mines. And in Madagascar, sapphires. Far from feeling sorry for themselves, the children and the artist set up a scenography to transform their daily lives into a “disenchanted fair”. Their life and work become “a playful activity” for the duration of a video, before “they return to the bowels of the Earth”.

While the tourism industry tends to standardise cultures, as she denounces in Usine à divertissement, trade between countries also increases inequalities. Although incessant, their balance remains fragile. They are part of an “asymmetrical relationship of domination and subordination”. Bertille Bak’s projects echo her childhood – she was born in Arras in 1983 – when she witnessed the gradual closure of the mines in the Pas-de-Calais region, the last of which, Oignies, closed on 20 December 1990. Her work thus becomes a critique of this society of abuse, which is reaching the end of its tether.

La Brigada, 2018-2024 © Bertille Bak
La Brigada, 2018-2024 © Bertille Bak
Imposed figures, 2015 © Bertille Bak Commissioned by the Maison des femmes du Hédas, Pau, produced as part of the as part of the Nouveaux Commanditaires proposed by the Fondation de France. With the support of the Direction régionale des Affaires culturelles d’Aquitaine, the Conseil régional d’Aquitaine and the Fondation Daniel et Nina Carasso.

Abus de Souffle” exhibition is on at the Jeu de Paume in Paris until 12 May 2024.

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