I dropped by Galerie Lelong this afternoon expecting to see a Markus Lüpertz and A R Penck exhibition. Alas I was a month early. Instead I saw Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s Prisons. A curious set of photographs in which the artist made ink drawings of the prisoners who were incarcerated in Saint Paul prison in Lyon during World War II. The prison was closed in 2009, and the prisoners transferred to a new location in Corbas. In 2012, the prison was opened for les journées du patrimoine, and to mark the occasion, artists were invited to participate. Ernest Pignon-Ernest made drawings of its former prisoners, some know, others not so well known, which he then placed on the walls of the old prison, having the prisoners “reoccupy” the prison walls.
|Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Linceul IV, 2012|
This exhibition at Galerie Lelong shows the drawings and photographs of Pignon-Ernest’s transformation of the prison walls. The prisoners of Saint-Paul include, most famously, Klaus Barbie, but also, members of the Resistance during World War II who were guillotined under order from Vichy, the writer Marc Bloch, Pierre Kropotkine. Ernest-Pignon draws their emaciated bodies and faces, sometimes exposed at others clothed, and the dead covered with a shroud. The result are highly graphic, emotionally overwrought images that call for a lot of pathos. While there is something compelling about the concept of memorializing through reinstatement of images of the incarcerated, at least initially, it comes as a surprise. It is intriguing because this is not the traditional form for memorializing those who suffer.
While usually memorials are created in which such walls are left to speak for themselves, with no attempt to reinstate images of those who suffer, Pignon-Ernest’s images create memories for us. The viewer of Ernest-Pignon’s images is not left to imagine anything as the artist has done our work for us, giving us highly charged images that, we are told, should solicit our pity. We are not given the space to reflect on what we see because the walls are reimagined for us. I liked the way the images of the incarcerated become a part of the walls, literally being merging with the fabric of the wall such that it is difficult to distinguish between representation and the wall itself. As I say, the idea is good: the prisoners are given back the walls that entrapped them. But wouldn’t it be better if they were set free of this nightmare? Instead of being integrated into it forever?
|Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Yoyos, 2012|
There is also something didactic and unimaginative about having our visualization of the nightmare of living in Saint-Paul prison done for us, especially when the same strategy was repeated again and again with little variation. I much preferred the large scale photographs of the drawings in place. as they had been pasted onto the walls. These seemed to have more tension and were aesthetically more pleasing and created more space for the viewer to see the prisoners in their environment. Rather than the drawings that elicited pathos a sense of the prisoners as submissive victims.