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Notes on Emeric Lhuisset’s most recent work by Philippe Dagen

Emeric Lhuisset is an artist of a kind that did not exist only ten years ago; or at least not with such reasoning and complexity. Faute de mieux, it could be said to be the way of artists historiens. Since it is recent, it has no recognised label. Should one say “artist historian,” “artist analyst,” “artist archivist?” No term is sufficient in and of itself, because, in Lhuisset’s works, as in that of a few of his contemporaries, archives, historical narratives, political and economic analyses are necessary and indivisible. Different types of knowledge, and varied experiences have to meet at a point, that point being their art work. Their activities are in themselves of different orders. Sometimes, Lhuisset intervenes in seminars, as commonly do university lecturers and researchers. Kader Attia does it too and Pascal Convert has written a certain number of historical books on French Resistance. To them,  being an artist is not necessarily to stick with traditional modes of expression of the object and of its exhibition but going without any hesitation through lectures, books, or documentaries to make themselves heard. It is thus to be closely investigating scientific disciplines and to reinvent the figure of the savant artist, as opposed to the banal myths of the inspired and instinctive.

Second observation: as the history of the last decades evidently explains, Lhuisset —along with Attia or Convert— often devotes himself to recent Middle-Eastern events. Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, civil wars, islamic radicalism in all its forms: these zones and subjects are today essential. They have been so since the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the islamic revolution in Iraq, the unending conflict between Israel and Palestine. But, since 9/11 and the US intervention in Afghanistan and in Iraq, they are even more essential and the Middle-East is now pretty much the center of the world. Refugees influx into Europe and terrorism constitute the most visible manifestation of this change. Also, the inventory of artistic interventions that directly or indirectly refer to this part of the world and to its events, would list, had it been exhaustive, a great variety of artists, Jenny Holze and Sigmar Polke, Mona Hatoum and Barthélémy Toguo, Tacita Dean and Ai Weiwei, etc.

Which leads us to a question already implied in the first observation: what can an artistic intervention do concerning these subjects in the present context? How can the artist act? Can he reasonably hope to exert influence whatsoever, outside of the limited realm of art today, an art world which is moreover not necessarily ready to devote itself to such subjects loaded with suffering and anguish? (Besides, there is an essay to write on the flourishing trade of futility in the art market, a fair aimed at westerners, devoted to entertainment and narcissism…) The question is vast and complex. It leads to interrogating the moral responsibility of the artist, the legitimacy and relevance of his postures, his degree of knowledge in the field he tackles, the temptation to stand as righter of wrongs with the help of the media and the risk of being accused of exhibitionism and opportunism.

The media: a single gaze at the situation is enough to be certain that the posture of the present artist can not be considered outside of what conditions our relationship to the present time, the media apparatus. It produces and diffuses the images and stories that we receive as daily news. Yet, neither these images nor these stories can be received —or should be received— without being subjected to a critical examination. These are the well-known questions of objectivity, completeness and neutrality of “Information.” Which image would be neutral, that is, free from human intervention? Maybe that which, automatic, is taken by a surveillance camera or a drone, if it has not been tampered by military  or civilian authorities that have access to observation technologies.  Yet, from the moment when there is an author, whether it be a passerby or a reporter, a novice or a professional, the document is, to some degree, marked, by the conscious or unconscious decisions made at the moment at which the image was taken. The documentary purity of the image is affected. Framing and out-of-frame, close-up and background, color and black and white: these decisions are decisive. What is seen, from a certain angle, would appear differently from an other angle. And which elements situated outside of the frame, yet fundamental to understanding the image, do we fail to see? The news image pertains to precise analysis, all the more since its diffusion is also an economic decision that has effects in terms of audience and thus of financial outcomes.

On this subject; Lhuisset has accomplished works of great critical effectiveness, amongst which Warriors in 2010 and Theater of War in 2011-12. Visual, narrative and symbolic rhetorics, which  strongly influence the production of war images that the media diffuse and that cinema and TV shows recycle immediately, are rendered visible through the use of incongruous measures, a Kalashnikov stuck in a net of decorative embroideries in the series War pictures in 2010, pose and lighting effect of a Theater of War gathering lively pictures which moving composition is borrowed from old historical painting. Each image is a trap for tricks. But, without lingering on the details of these series, extremely bitter parodies which bitterness rises with the seductiveness of the image, it is time to move towards the consequences of these images. The most certain consequence is that the image consumers that we and our contemporaries constitute, are feasting on set and fabricated representations, and have neither the time nor the distance necessary to detect the tricks –tricks fuelled by a daily dose of images. Dose or dope: you choose the proper word. Besides, Afghanistan is the major producer of both commodities, equally stupefying.

This activity is one of the forms of analysis of what the society of spectacle has become lately. This is not the place to engage in a long reflection on Guy Debord’s theses and on the confirmation of their relevance way beyond what he could have expected from what he assisted to during his life.  We will simply put up with noticing that part of present creation —its most lively and interesting part, from far, very far— is inscribed, with or without it being informed, under this label, “society of spectacle.” This phenomena being best verified by Islamic terrorism and its online screened propaganda: staging kamikaze attacks and executions, others’ deaths and one’s own, in order to obtain, with the technical means needed, the psychic and political effects that one wishes to attain in the Western world, which is, historically, the first Empire of spectacle and thus the best audience, so to speak.

Lhuisset thus brings to light the functioning of the main present imageries. In doing so, we will be tempted to say, with the risk of overusing military vocabulary, that he clears up the field. He works on making clearer and therefor less harmful the rhetorical figures that are being deployed in what we call information in areas such as the industry of nervous entertainment like American sniper, Strike Back or video games. He who has seen Lhuisset’s Theaters of Wars must now be a wary and reluctant viewer. A man more attentive to the part of Lhuisset’s work that concerns archive and history.  In other words, teaching after disillusioning. The project Last water wars, ruins of a future is essentially composed of photographs, panoramic views at human height, and aerial views of a same site, Girsu, in South Iraq. Many only give to see vast rocky and dried out areas. On others, one can recognise piles of dark bricks and the lines of what once was a city and canals of an irrigation system diverted from the water course of the Tigris: once, during the third millennium BCE, when occurred a water war we can perhaps predict will start again, in the same region. The ascent of salty water increases, the earth becomes sterile, cultivating it will soon be impossible. The inhabitants of this area will have to emigrate towards the north to find fresh water. Territory conflict, religious conflict: considering the present state of Iraq, we can imagine what will happen. A few articles on the probability for water wars to occur in the Middle-East were published, but they remain far from catching general attention – probably not even that of many politicians. 

It is because this data is not spectacular, no more than Lhuisset’s photographs, which nudity is as distressing as this gray desert. No matter how disturbing this data is, it is not being read in newspapers,  or at least not in the ones that are supposed to instruct public opinion, and it does not give rise to broadcasts during rush hours. Lhuisset, whose geopolitic of the Middle-East is a long-standing speciality nourished by his investigations and travels, carries out the task that should have been accomplished by ordinary information services. His artistic activities are developed from and with archeological, historical, and political knowledge, the main part of which he crystallises into visual forms as different as possible from the imageries that invade the world. These forms have to be irremediably different in order to be given a chance to being seen and understood. The dimensions of these “landscapes” –quite inadequate term,– the banishment of the picturesque and the exotic, the rigorous absence of human figure, the reduction of chromaticism to ashen shades and blue sky, are the means of this irruption.

One can easily suppose how strongly incongruous, these photographies of Girsu will look in a fair or a contemporary art biennal. It is that they do not play the game, so easy to win, of fascination. We have recently seen a few plastic artists, such as Thomas Hirschhorn with his series Pixel-Collage, accumulating enlarged photographies of massacres, sometimes partially blurred, and displaying the good intention of willing to alert. The ambiguity of such work is troublesome: in order to denounce the business of screened horror, they cover walls with the risk of catching attention for the same disgusting reasons that make the success of these very images and that is called morbid delight, unspeakable pleasure of the obscene spectacle of violent death. This approach is dangerous. When it is merely about taking pornographic images online and blurring them to arouse pleasure and frustration, sceptic drive and failure of voyeurism, as Thomas Ruff recently did,it stays harmless. When it concerns wars and carnage one remains unable to demonstrate the same indulgence. The photographies of Last water wars are not seductive? Their simplicity is disappointing? It must be. Or else, it would be a spectacle, again. Maybe this is the beginning of the explanation of the phenomenon we first noticed, the apparition of these savant artists most probably epitomised by Lhuisset: a just work of art must be based on a long and carful reflective work. Or else, the work is merely a recycling or reorchestration of pictures, it teaches nothing and brings nothing – if only the comforting feeling of easing one’s conscience. In front of Lhuisset’s works, it is difficult to ease one’s conscience. The opposite will probably occur: the works leave us in a lasting embarrassment, make us feel ill-at-ease, take each and everyone of us back to our comfort of Western spectator. It is the most certain sign of their pertinence.


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Documentary (7"23) produced by Arte TV - 2015.