THE KNIGHTS OF THE DEVIL
September 10 to October 10, 2015
Through his visual research, Jacques Pugin probes time, space, and the complex relationship between humans and nature, capturing both natural elements and the traces left by humans in a unique and sensitive way. In Les cavaliers du diable (The Knights of the Devil) (2009–13), Pugin decided, for the first time in his career, to work with pictures downloaded from the Internet instead of taking his own photographs. The reason was simple: after the civil war in Darfur, it was difficult for reporters to get into Sudan. Although not deliberately, satellite cameras had documented the ravages of the Janjaweed (the knights of the devil), as the villages burned by the militias had left an indelible mark.
In order to draw attention to the evidence of this barbarism, Pugin saved Google Earth images and processed them twice: first, he deleted the colours, and then he inverted them. In this way, he symbolized the fundamentally dark and negative nature of the savagery that the images evoke.
With this post-photographic testimonial, Pugin raises the unresolved controversy of the aestheticization of horror. By converting each image into its “negative,” he makes a rhetorical gesture that clearly expresses his dismay at the atrocities. Responding to certain moralizing critiques that claim that beauty is an obstacle to ethical vision, Les cavaliers du diable shows that aesthetic value is not based on the image, but is truly dependent on the eye that beholds it.
Jacques Pugin was born in 1954; he lives and works in Paris. His works have been exhibited in many galleries and museums, including the Galerie Esther Woerdehoff in Paris (2015), the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne (2009), the Museu de Arte Moderna of São Paulo (2009), the Grand Palais in Paris (2007), and the Carrousel du Louvre (2004). Many of his works are held in collections, such as the Polaroid Collection in Cambridge, United States, the Bernard Arnault private collection, France, and those of the Musée Nicéphore Nièpce in Chalon-sur-Saône, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Fondation de la Photographie in Zurich. He has received several grants, such as the Swiss Arts awards, the Bourse Berthoud and the Bourse Lissignol-Chevalier, both awarded by the city of Geneva. He is represented by Galerie Esther Woerdehoff in Paris.
This exhibition is presented with the financial support of the Service de Coopération et d’Action Culturelle of the Consulat général de France à Québec, the Consulate General of Switzerland in Montreal, and Pro Helvetia, Swiss Arts Council.
Interview with Jacques Pugin
(free english translation by MPM)
GENERAL QUESTIONS ON THE ARTIST’S CREATIVE PROCESS
What is your artistic process? What is your starting point for creating a new work of art? What inspires you?
My type of photography is an experimental one in which artistic research is combined to a reflection on time, space and the complex relationship that man has with nature. My process is characterised by my interventions on my images, while shooting or after via different techniques, digital tools, drawing, painting. I redefine photography and its subjects. I pay particular attention to the traces that testify to man’s presence and to natural elements in the landscape.
It is often during trips and nature treks that I find my inspiration. Walking allows me to confront nature, to be in harmony with it. It puts me in a creative state.
It also happens, and it is the case with Les cavaliers du diable, to dream about my projects. I wake up in the morning and I start my creative process.
Which artist had the most influence on your practice and why?
I don’t know if I can speak of influence, it is sometimes very subtle effects in the path of an artist, and the influences are often unconscious.
What I can say, however, is that people find that in my work Sacred Site there can be an influence of Richard Long, an artist I incidentally appreciate a lot. That being said, my process is very different from his, because he constructs his sculptures in space whereas I photograph the traces that sometimes, in fact, are circles. But I don’t create them.
To these people I answer that I would very much like to photograph a sculpture from Richard Long, if I could find one in my multiple walks.
Do you work on many projects at the same time?
Yes, it often happens that I work on many projects at the same time, leave aside one project and come back to it later, maybe sometimes with more distance.
Describe a typical day in your life as an artist. I wake up in the morning and I go to bed at night! In between, it depends of the days….
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
No 1 tennis player!
Jokes aside, photography is my means of expression, it allows me to express what I don’t know how to put into words. If I were not a photographer, I would probably practice another art form, why not pianist?
ART WORLD RELATED QUESTIONS
What work of art do you wish you owned?
I don’t particularly wish to own a work in particular, but I really like an artwork that was realised in 1920 by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s Dust Breeding.
A plunging photography on the dust accumulated on Marcel Duchamp’s artwork can make me think of an aerial view or traces or lines that are highlighted. We were speaking just before about inspiration… J
What is the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery?
Maybe visual artist Deborah de Robertis who reinterpreted Gustave Courbet’s work. This young Luxembourger proposed a very personal interpretation of Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, a painting from 1866 showing the genitals of a woman. At the Musée d’Orsay, where this painting is exhibited, she chose to pose in front of the painting, sat and legs open, in the same position as that of the painter’s model.
The Internet can be thought of as a universal mirror in which the paths of our experience keep on forking: we can decide to exist and act in the tangible world, or in the virtual world, in which case the screen becomes the permeable membrane that affords us passage between one side and the other.
But in re-examining our notion of reality, we must also reconsider the meaning of the documentary genre as such. We can speculate, in deliberately tautological fashion, on the basis of two hypotheses, one holding that reality is what appears on our screens, which act as an interface between subject and object, and the other that in documenting the world in the form of images, we are actually generating more reality.
What is your relationship to the Internet in relation to your artistic practice ?
First of all, I don’t systematically use the Internet. I used it to create Les Cavaliers du diable and for another ongoing project.
In the series Les Cavaliers du diable, my relationship with the Internet is double:
-On the one hand, I use it as a TOOL that made Darfour accessible, through Google Earth, and that allowed the realisation of my project.
-On the other hand, Internet becomes the SUBJECT of my work, it is an integral part of my intention, because through this series, I question the role of the Internet as a journalistic tool of modern times and as a memory tool.
Finally, I distorted the image from its information role to make become pictorial photography.
How can we document reality in the Web 2.0 era in which all can be falsified and rigged ?
First of all, you ask a question about reality…. Reality does not exist, everything is subjective. Even the news give a point of view, certainly factual, but that depends on one’s own interpretation. Yet, we did not wait for the Internet to falsify information: Christian Caujolle in his foreword on my work shows clearly that in reporting and in documentaries, war pictures can be great propaganda tools.
QUESTION RELATED TO THE ARTIST’S WORK
Why did you choose to work with images from the Internet for the first time of your carreer for Les cavaliers du diable?
It was the only way I could realise this project, and at the same time, Internet is the OBJECT of this work, since my series questions the role of the Internet as a journalistic tool. (cf. Infra)
How did you create this project and what does it represent?
I chose not to work on my images, but to use pictures taken from the Internet. They are satellite photographs of Darfur taken from Google Earth, taken from thousands of kilometers from the Earth.
They represent traces from burnt down villages, remains from the civil war in Darfur. At first glance, these images are very graphic and do not presage the underlying subject. My intention is to draw attention to the aesthetic appearance, then to raise questions, “what is it I see? The celestial vault? A city seen from the sky at night? Before revealing the eminently violent and hard subject of genocide.
Why did you use black and white for this work ?
In their original state, when I extract them from Google Earth, these images are in colour and represent black marks on an orange sand background. This is what the satellite sees.
I chose to apply a double treatment to these images: I removed the color and I put them in negative, in order to signify symbolically the fundamental black character of the negative and the inhumanity that they witness.
This process transforms the black lines in white marks, symbol of light, of the passing of fire.
Some people think that the circulation and transmission of « beautified » catastrophe and destruction images is problematic. What do you reply to them?
I think that this comment does not apply to this work.
I do not propose beautified images, but a presentation that makes them abstract. My intention through this work is to show a different form of journalism. I do not show, like it is often the case with war journalism, mutilated bodies, dead people, etc…images that are so violent that one looks away and goes to something else.
My process is different: I show an image that, on the first level, seems aesthetic and attracts attention.
Then, it raises questions.
What is the future of the still and moving image on contemporain art according to you?
I don’t have a crystal ball to answer this question J