Saturday, April 22, 2017

Josef Koudelka, The Making of Exiles @ Centre Pompidou

Josef Koudelka, Ireland, 1976
The exhibition of a series of Josef Koudelka’s photographs at the Centre Pompidou focuses very intently on what it means to be in exile. How to define an exile? It’s a question I have thought about for over 30 years. I was raised in a middle class suburban oasis where the closest thing to political upheaval was the queen’s dismissal of the Prime Minster, and where war was practiced on the parade ground by the university regiment. I left an apparent paradise by choice. I have always thought of myself as an exile, geographically removed from any place I could call home. But others would say that’s ridiculous, exiles have no choice. But even if we are not fleeing war or dictatorship, famine or poverty, sometimes what looks like a choice, is a necessity. La fabrique d’exils confirms my self-understanding as exile.

Josef Koudelka, France, 1980

The Czechoslovakian, Koudelka wandered around Europe in the 1970s and found a world in exile, not just people displaced. The photographs themselves exquisitely portray not belonging through light and shadow, mainly throught the overwhelming coldness of shadow, the sparsity of the background, the solitude of the human figures. As he travelled, Koudelka found poverty even where there was none in Europe: in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France. In images of shadows on the Paris cobblestones that another photograph would make romantic, the cropping of the image at the legs of the human figures empties out the humanity and leaves everyone alone with his shadow as he walks in different directions.

Josef Koudelka, France 1987

There is also a silence and a stillness to a continent better known for its congestion, intensity and noise. In the many shots filled with snow, the stark whiteness made by the weather also expresses a passing of time, in a familiar world seen from a different perspective. The snow photographed, is example of how even the weather makes for a Europe in exile: Koudelka represents the sumptuousness of light and shadow on stark white snow made visible literally in the grain of the image, thus giving texture to exile. Shadow in some images becomes the substance, and not just at the end of day. An image of hard shadows in Italy next to a worn piece of fabric in closeup makes shadows violent, the torn fabric striated by its own tears.

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, 1975

For someone photographing exile and nomadism, there’s an ironic focus on place. Every photograph is given a title and every title consists of the country where it is taken. This complicates their curiosity because we don’t recognize, Spain, Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy or England in any of the images. The Europe Koudelka discovered is poor, empty, fragile and filled with sadness. And because this is what he is looking for, the images could be taken anywhere, and yet, he insists on naming their location. I know this: home becomes even more important when there is no home, when home is a place we cannot go.

Josef Koudelka, Autoporträt, 1986

And in an addendum to his photographs of the exiles, there are a series of previously unpublished images of Koudelka himself. When he was sleeping rough with the gypsies, on friends’ floors, park benches and under a solitary tree, Koudelka found home wherever he went. Home was where he lay for the night in his sleeping bag. And this I have found to be true as well: as exiles, we make home wherever we are, but also, find it inside of us, away from any physical place that might give us meaning. These photographs and the Europe they represent capture a concept of exile that is defined by the metaphysical place-less-ness experienced by those who leave, irrespective of the reason why. 

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