The Arts in a Time of Crisis
Reacting to a Situation Beyond Imagination

Reacting to a Situation Beyond Imagination

They are all artists immersed in immediate history. Raymond Depardon, Sophie Ristelhueber, Gilles Peress create images, both still and moving, both documentary and fiction. With their passion for politics, they have gone to battlefields, animated by a common question: How do you bring a hidden reality to light in order to gain a better understanding of the world? These artists tell Le Monde of their reactions following the attacks of Sept. 11.

Raymond Depardon, who has done much to promote dialogue between East and West, was getting ready to leave for Chad to make a film. Gilles Peress, who made an impact on public opinion with his shocking photos of the mass graves in Kosovo and Rwanda, lives in New York and experienced the drama of the World Trade Center up close. Sophie Ristelhueber, known for her photographs of Beirut in ruins in 1982, has accumulated the scars and wounds of our contemporary world. Her first retrospective, “Details of the World,” was about to open at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when the artist had to deal with concerns on the part of the museum management, which was tempted to cancel the exhibit on account of the attacks.

I live in Brooklyn. The towers had just collapsed....As an artist, I had to go and take some pictures. Art is found in history as it unfolds, not in some separate sphere. I didn’t have any time to think about it. The only thing I asked myself was what the world was going to be like after this. Being at the base of the collapsed towers is nothing like seeing the mass graves in Bosnia or Rwanda. I walked into a cloud. I was engulfed in dust, a primal, almost existential dust. Everything was completely pulverized. Without conjuring up any biblical references, the bodies were not shattered, but rather invisible, dissipated in the debris. As for the place, it was bathed in light, a whitish light that transformed the site into a sculpture of modern art until a more sinister light made the site seem more like the scene in some 19th-century paintings depicting Roman ruins, the ruins of a civilization long buried. I have seen wars. But how was I to react in the face of a situation beyond imagination? I sought to remain humble, making images that were as simple as possible, keeping the composition unadorned; then I submitted them to The New Yorker. Faced with such chaos, showing reality becomes difficult, because cultural and political problems sketch a world of oppositions. The United States, since the Vietnam War and because of its puritanical culture, has either hidden death or commercialized it..., while in the Middle East, people plunge their hands into blood and show them openly.

Even within the United States, two different nations are facing off: The first one has had a patriotic reaction, an enemy to be crushed and an inability to conceive that someone would desire a civilization other than its own. The other nation is striving to sort things out and is reflecting on its response. A friend, an attorney in Cameroon, recently asked me: Are America and the West entering into a conflict with Islam? Is this a conflict between the past and the future? To make sense of the conflicts that are taking shape, avoiding monolithic models and finding patterns of appropriate symbols will be crucial. An artist must take his time; he must be both active and careful. I wonder whether we might have to start photographing words.

After seeing the towers collapse, I said to myself: We have not done enough to depict the rise of anti-Western and anti-American sentiment throughout the world. The Palestinian problem was a wake-up call, and now we have embarked on something that terrifies me. I have often made photographs and films without any problem in the Arab and Muslim world. I think of Goukouni Ouedei [former president of Chad], who saw three of his brothers killed by Frenchmen, and yet he remains so tolerant. It is this base of tolerance that has been made more fragile in New York, just as it is becoming fragile in other places.

My life and my work are both thoroughly immersed in trips back and forth between New York and Peshawar, between East and West. I met [Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah] Massoud in 1979. Later, I made a short five-minute clip showing people coming out of their office buildings right near the twin towers; they were not speaking or looking at one another, walking quickly to get home. After the attack, the pictures on television showed people who were walking less quickly, speaking to one another and looking at one another, just like people look at each other in Peshawar. They had become different. I detest fanaticism and terrorism, but I am very Middle Eastern in my manner of acting. And, even if we are pushed by the efficiency of modern life, we in France must remain Middle Eastern as much as possible....In the future, I want to continue going back and forth between New York and Peshawar. I want to keep on looking; that is, if it is still possible to look.

The cancellation of my exhibition in Boston for 24 hours is understandable yet troubling. It reveals a country that wants to go on as before, but is having some difficulties in terms of the realities I have represented, even if only in allegorical form. Doubtless my work brings to light the extent to which the United States, so closed in on itself, has lost its bearings and now refuses to see the wounds from other places after experiencing horrible destruction. These wounds from elsewhere have been the focus of my work for the past 20 years. The exhibition was to open with a 3-meter by 5-meter image, which is the format for an advertising billboard in the United States. I made it in Sarajevo; it shows a house with a gaping hole from a bazooka, with a mattress that serves as its protection, like a bandage. I feel that reality has caught up with me doubly. For 20 years now I have been working on the notion of traces, which, for me, are more evocative than the action itself. For example, the most impressive document I recall from these last days is a black-and-white photograph I saw in your paper. It showed some minuscule human bits at the foot of the ruins, closer to a model than to reality....And we keep coming back to the raising of dust by Marcel Duchamp, a foundational image for me, which had pushed me to do my work in the desert of Kuwait six months after the Gulf War.

The situation in New York struck me by the invasion of emptiness: the disappearance of the towers that reminds us of the absence of bodies. An artist’s work, which peddles the experience of the world, as mine does, cannot be anything but allegorical. My work does not deal with war, but rather with the swing between construction and destruction, whether due to the ravages of time or power struggles or ideological conflicts. I spent one month in Iraq last year, and I ended up south of Fao, in front of hundreds of hectares of burned palm groves, where the blackened and broken trunks of the trees were reminiscent of an army fleeing in retreat. Doubtless these were traces of the war with Iran. A triptych is all I have retained of it. They are the images of the wounds left behind by a force beyond belief.

In the end, New York is an event that is too much, too concentrated, and too spectacular for me. I prefer to find metaphors of less violent facts: sutured bodies to evoke the civil war in Yugoslavia; demolished buildings in Beirut, close to ancient statuary to signify a modern city that has been destroyed. Or, in order to evoke the genocide in Bosnia, I have used images of lush plants, bucolic landscapes that, if you moved up close to them, contained demolished houses, trees strafed by machine-gun fire, muddy earth plowed over mass graves.