I am currently working on a project about post-traumatic landscapes – the sites where atrocities have occurred and yet where no visible sign of the event remains.
I am looking in particular at the work of Hrair Sarkissian (Execution Squares, 2008), Bruno Boudjelal (Bentalha, 2002) and Paul Seawright (Sectarian Murder, 1988), whose work forms a contemplative counterpoint to the dramatic spectacle offered up by ruin and aftermath photography.
As part of this broader project, I have just finished a paper on Bruno Boudjelal’s work in Algeria (1993-2003), including images from his visit to Bentalha – a small town just 15km from Algiers, where 400 people were massacred on the night of 22-23 September 2002.
Bruno Boudjelal’s journey to Bentalha is a detour, an unplanned deviation which takes him to a site where – unlike the documentary photographer or photo-journalist – he is unsure what to do, which visual information to look for or capture. He arrives – as is perhaps always the fate of the photographic project – too late, in the aftermath.
The massacre presents itself obliquely, in the gestures, poses and demeanour of those who remain; in the stubborn residues that are produced by, survive and encircle it and in the inscrutable (though for this no less resonant) reconfiguration of the everyday that attends what we might describe as post-traumatic landscapes. Boudjelal’s photographs show Bentalha as a town much like any of the others that cluster along the length and breadth of Algeria’s poorly maintained roads. Water and mud collect in the streets, which are full of potholes and alternately dilapidated and half-built housing blocks. Pylons and power lines punctuate a landscape dominated by an overwhelming sense of dirt and entropy, as human constructions appear to slide back into the miasma from which they have emerged. The interiors are basic and unadorned. There is little or no furniture and only minimal traces of any human presence (for example an abandoned pair of trainers or a mirror). A simple standpipe set against the wall provides water; televisions are omnipresent.
And yet this apparent banality is punctured by a number of ‘poignant details’ (I draw here on the vocabulary that coheres around Roland Barthes’ punctum [i]) or strange bodies that are at once meaningless and meaningful, and which attest to the presence within the broader landscape of unincorporated residues from the past. In one photograph, two fully clothed men sleep on a rug on a bare floor, using their rucksacks as pillows. They do not stir as Boudjelal enters the room but remain indifferent to his presence. Nothing in the image enables us to understand what their circumstances are, how or why they have come to sleep here or indeed who they might be; and yet they articulate, obliquely, some connection we cannot understand with Bentalha’s past and the ways in which that past continues to contaminate or make itself present in the present. The sleeping men are a kind of ‘fistula’, a term from the biological sciences meaning ‘abnormal passageway’ and which has been appropriated by the historian Eelco Runia to describe ‘holes through which the past discharges into the present’, ‘a kind of “leak” in time through which “presence” wells up from the past into the present’. [ii] Another photograph is filled entirely with an expanse of rough concrete floor, stained with brown patches that may or may not be traces of blood. The photograph evokes Jean Dubuffet’s sols paintings, [iii] both in terms of its textured abstraction and the way in which it draws the gaze into its irreducible detail, while at the same time resisting all totalising spectatorial appropriation. This is a fragment or detail that is at once complete in itself, yet which points also beyond its own frame to an experience that remains outside the cognitive range of the spectator.
The representation of sites like Bentalha and events such as the dirty war must negotiate an impossible path between both a surfeit and absence of meaning. The hermeneutic, semantic and affective networks in which Bentalha is enmeshed and through which it discloses itself to Boudjelal in the aftermath of the massacre – even if he cannot make immediate sense of what presents to him while he is there, in the midst of the (unclaimable) experience – inevitably inflects the way in which the site signs to him and how he makes meaning of the site. The very name – Bentalha – carries a powerfully resonant charge, functioning metonymically as a cipher for the worst atrocities of the dirty war and the state’s (hidden and disavowed) involvement in attacks against its own citizens. And yet when Boudjelal visits Bentalha, what he discovers is an incarnated negative space produced by what happened there and which now structures what remains as a potent presence in absence. Everything in Bentalha points to the event, yet the event itself remains a hole in cognition – a blind spot.
[i] Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire: note sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard, 1980).
[ii] Eelco Runia, ‘Presence’, History and Theory, vol. 45 (February 2006), pp. 1- 29, p. 16.
[iii] See, for example, Fruits de feu du sol (1959), a photograph of which can be viewed at http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/jean-dubuffet-fruits-de-feu-du-sol-5392548-details.aspx