Constructing History

What turns an historical fact into an event? The exhibition L’événement answers this question with a subtitle: Images as the actors of history. The curator of the show, Michel Poivert, has surrounded himself with a team of historians to address the notion of the event through the question of representation, selecting five examples: the Crimean War (1853-1856), the conquest of the air by the first pilots (1909-1911) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). There is no chronological logic, since the goal is not to trace the most important events that dot the history of the last two centuries but to examine how they marked it, compiling representations of them to see, through them, how their impact was recorded.

Unpredictable by definition, the event resists being thought. We can only address ourselves to its practical reality. Hence the rightness of the exhibition’s decision to deal with five concrete cases. Moreover, the idea of the event as appearance, incalculable spectre or apparition of something else, far from knowledge, situates it in a messianic becoming. The exhibition thus posits two impossibilities: the philosophical impossibility of thinking the event and the historical impossibility of thinking the present. Outside of language and time, the event can only be understood as that which forces us to get involved, to take a position and act. And this is the show’s wisest decision, since in this sense the production of imaginary, be it artistic, journalistic or historical, signed or anonymous, plays an active part in history.

Mediatised Relation

Poivert’s thesis avoids both the fetishism of the lived, where the image only illustrates, and the mediatised relation with the world, which negates and liquidates the real event. In an attempt to re-establish a dialectic between experience and representation, between evidence and the construction of the image, Poivert makes use of the event as that which joins the unspeakable shock of the unexpected and the reflective act that is its representation. Because the image creates, conditioning our perception of history, modifying our ways of seeing. Consequently, we take part in the evolution of the reportage, from the first photographs of war – deserted, devoid of action, landscapes after the battle – to the live television coverage that turns the present into history. And if these discoveries have diversified our capacity to visualise (the first aircraft invented the aerial view), the effects of globalisation have standardised information at the global scale, with 9/11 the event most seen and yet visually the poorest, given the uniformity and repetition of the images. The democratisation of the event is conflated with the spectacular scenographic vision of it. The mise en scène gives rise to the archetype (paid holidays create an aesthetic of happiness) and the captured event becomes a relic: from postcards of the first aeroplanes with their adventurers to the millions of souvenirs with firemen raising the stars and stripes over the ruins of the towers.

The wisdom of showing the circulation that exists between the different means of representation, from painting to cinema, with special attention to photography, confirms that it is visual culture which transforms facts into events. A single oil painting by Fernand Léger or a few photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Thomas Ruff suffice to tell us that artists have also contributed to the making of history, even if this artistic presence proves anecdotal, even fallacious, since if we follow the thread of the exhibition, the original work should not tell us more than a reproduction of it. L’événement is an interesting, attractive invitation because it situates itself in the realm of visual culture, this moving terrain that calls into question the rigid discipline of Art History. But if the curators have succeeded in expounding their proposition in the theoretical grounding set out in the catalogue, in its materialisation the force of the proposal diminishes, revealing what could have been and never was. Nevertheless, we end up assenting to the premise, accustomed as we are to the distance between the comings and goings of a living theory and the stagnation of the deaf expository system.