Text by Muriel Enjalran for the exhibition Pavillons et totems (Pavilions and totems), CRP/, Douchy-les-Mines, France, 2016

“Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in a reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state.” Michel de Certeau1.

The CRP/ presents Pavillons et totems, a solo exhibition by artist Maxime Brygo, the product of research he carried out in the former Franco-Belgian mining region with the support of the Région des Hauts-de-France and the Communauté d’Agglomération de la Porte du Hainaut.

The exhibition presents a set of photographs along with a sound montage played in the art center space, forming an installation that invites visitors to consider various sites in Nord, in Pas-de-Calais and in Hainaut, plunging them into the stories and legends these sites echo.

For over three years, Maxime Brygo travelled through these anonymous spaces, which at first sight would seem to have no exceptional qualities in terms of landscape or history — the traditional criteria for the recognition of listed and preserved heritage. The artist took an unusual photographic inventory of these suburban landscapes, which he first showed to inhabitants of the region who either did or did not live near these sites, inviting them to express themselves freely on these images, to talk about them and describe the thoughts they summoned. At the edge of a forest, at the end of a road, behind a curtain of trees, monuments that are sometimes ordinary speak to the inhabitants and open their imagination, making them evoke a biblical tower, a memorial, a historical vestige or even a cosmic one. The images are above all memory triggers for those who read the photos by summoning their past and their personal memories. Some of them displace the sites they describe to sites in other countries, getting them mixed up in their memory.

Through the eyes and accounts of the inhabitants, these places teeming with true and fictional stories acquire a singularity and an emotional dimension. In the art center space, their accounts are offered to listeners as “micro narratives”, brief stories that form a discontinuous chronicle. These voices — through their musicality, the diversity of their accents from here and elsewhere, as well as the different language registers used — offer rich linguistic material and a necessary counterpoint of sound. Even in their hesitation and awkwardness, even in their silences, they bring these places back to life, restoring them for the duration of an evocation that is by turns moving, serious or extravagant, inspiring us to enter the images. This succession of digressions, which does not really enable one to attach any specific story to any particular image, envelops visitors and stimulates their imagination.

Through this installation, Maxime Brygo questions our relationship to history and myths by exploring little-known, suppressed or evolving heritage, conveying experienced or legendary stories that stem from the construction of a collective narrative. Being tied to a region, his anthropological approach is that of an ethnographer of humble places. In nature marked by the haunting presence of trees, one finds the stamp of human activity. These singular structures seem to have been abandoned in deserted places, forming forgotten, corroded, even hidden heritage. Local heritage stands next to imported heritage: on a roundabout, there is the incongruous presence of an arc de triomphe eclipsed by a giant pylon and a high-voltage line. These landscapes and buildings lie in geometric spaces: horizontal and vertical intersections, perspectives reconstructed by low-angle shots, interlocked triangles. This kind of abstraction gives them a strange aura, raises questions about their origins and history, and becomes the pretext and material of vernacular stories.

The places and landscapes are like phantasmagorical or totemic objects with their aura: a halo of fog in an undergrowth, trunks reflected in a pond sketching a grid, the mouth-shadow of stone blocks assembled like a dolmen.

Walter Benjamin defined the aura, whose disappearance through photography he prophesied, as “a peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be”2.

And it is this spatial and temporal web that is revealed in these photographs and accounts, through the stratification of the stories and customs of these places. As in that den in an undergrowth, giving off a strange white smoke, we detect tectonic forces, still-active underground sources. These landscapes are alive, shaped not just by natural phenomena, but also by humans and their industries. The mining history still determines them today, just as it determines their inhabitants, and one can discern its stigmata even if nature has reasserted its rights and would seem to have swallowed up that memory.

Like the earth, which shapes objects and brings them to light, these photographs exhume stories that irrigate a territory, suddenly giving a universal significance back to these sites.

With Pavillons et totems, by superimposing images of places and stories of inhabitants like a mosaic, Maxime Brygo poeticizes spaces by opening them to a multiplicity of perspectives and voices. Through these micro narratives, he allows the inhabitants of these places to reclaim their history and the history of their territory.

1. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (page 108), University of California Press, 1984
2. Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, in Screen, Vol. 13, n°1, Oxford Journals, 1972

Translation by Matthew Cunningham