Reality is what resists

Bruno Latour

The eruption in 1815 of the Indonesian volcano Tambora covered the world with ash-filled skies, entailing unprecedented climatic consequences for the planet, and plunging millions of peasants into famine, from Yunnan province in China to Europe. But that cataclysm was not mighty enough to upset 19th century man’s course, already involved as he was in the first industrial revolution. That eruption would have a powerful impact in art and literature; for many, it was even the catalyst for the invention of science-fiction—Mary Shelley, a well-off young Englishwoman on holiday in Switzerland, would make the most of that “sunless summer” to shut herself away in her chalet and write Frankenstein: a terrifying tale which, in a strange premonition, opens with an encounter with a man adrift on a block of ice… The spectacular sunsets painted by the British artist William Turner are also indebted to the presence of particles in the air.

In the years that have elapsed since that event, human beings have plunged head first into a form of modernity that has never been satisfied. A modernity lulled by collective utopias, splendid inventions and scientific advances, as well as atrocities. People have prospered thanks to the cannibalistic exploitation of the earth and other people. The acceleration of technologies and changes in our societies has proceeded apace, to the point of verging on becoming carried away: demographic explosion, movement of peoples, profound alteration of the world of labour, artificial intelligence, high frequency trading, unparalleled erosion of biodiversity, exhaustion of religions and ideologies… The age of the Capitalocene seems, today, to be reaching its climax, as it offers glimpses of its limits. Photography has been brought up by this age: both contemporary and consubstantial, it has been its product, actor and witness. Young people and future generations are now faced with the incredible challenge of a future that has to be rehabilitated and reinvented, with the exhortation to react to a situation which they are merely the heirs of. Far from the humanist photographic tradition and the reportage culture, bequeathed by the golden age of postwar illustrated magazines—often focusing on the consequences of this world’s tragedies, and playing on the sensitive chord of the spectator’s compassion—, today’s artists are daring to deal with issues in a deeper way, which their detractors will object to by referring to a form of coldness and distance. They are investigating a world far more than describing it, not to offer us its keys or dictate a moral stance that is too obvious, but to give us the factors capable of questioning the present—and thinking about the future. Their activities reside on the fringes of anthropology, the documentary, and art, and offer us a reading of the offbeat world, breaking with the one suggested by political argument and media commentary. Like the photographer Yann Mingard, who sees in the skies above our cities a strange correlation with William Turner’s skies after the Tambora eruption—like another harbinger of a cataclysm in the offing, which, this time around, will not be the outcome of a blind unleashing of the forces of nature, but rather the result of the irremediable impact of human activities.

The projects of the artists on view in this show each have their own existence, their autonomy and their grammar, but they are also seen as a global proposal whose issues and aesthetics respond to and echo each other, and are part and parcel of a way of thinking about our day and age. The themes broached interlock with one another. Movements of stock markets, the evolution of landscapes under the effect of human beings, modifications to the world of labour and industry, the economic crisis, globalization, population flows, young people numbed by a globalized world, surveillance, the dictatorship of algorithms, the manipulation of the living world… all are factors in one and the same equation.

If only the sun would rise where it should,

And the dragon with his dark clouds disappear.

O our free hearts then !

But when I ask if tomorrow will be fine,

The flower under my feet says nothing.

Li Yuyang

(early 19th century Chinese poet from Yunnan province)