A crossing — a term that means the “passage” as much as the action of “passing through”— rarely involves choosing an easy or conventional path. In Mathieu Pernot’s work, this crossing takes the form of an adventure made up of meetings with people, situations, and objects, which lead him to a permanent questioning of our relation to the world and its representations.
—Marta Gili, curator
Although rarely exhibited outside of France, Belgium and Switzerland, Mathieu Pernot is a masterful photographer, an artist whose beautifully executed work is worthy of broader attention. What impresses most about Pernot’s body of work is his range: he uses cerebral, conceptual methodologies to capture personal and moving subject matter, creating photographs that simultaneously stimulate the mind and tug at the heart. He combines mediums and crosses genre boundaries: his work jumps from portraiture to archival research to architectural photographs and many things in between. He accompanies his photographs with a trove of related material, from personal journals to audio interviews, to hand-drawn maps. Not only that, but he displays a sincere connection with many of his subjects, following the same individuals from their youths in the mid ’90s to their adult- and parenthood today.
With a thoughtfully curated exhibition showing at the Jeu de Paume, Pernot’s impressive oeuvre has been made available almost in its entirety. The show strikes hard from the opening room, beginning with Photo Booths, Mathieu Pernot’s first series of photos. Taken between 1995 and 1997, these portraits of Gypsy children were created in a photo booth in the railway station at Arles, near the families’ camp. As the subjects strain against the frames imposed by the lens of the photo booth (with their eyes closed, their mouths grimacing, their bodies moving to blur the image), we see how these young subjects unwittingly frustrate the rules of identity and attempts at containment by the state.
The exhibition continues by juxtaposing the 2001 series, The Shouters, with Panoptic, a series showing the interiors of French prisons. The Shouters depicts individuals in theatrical poses who are photographed while they shout in an urban setting. The men and women of different ages, each one photographed and framed from the waist up, all evoke an ancient chorus shouting a silent truth we cannot hear. In fact, they are communicating — by shouting — with their imprisoned kin. Their impassioned, though silenced, communication is contrasted with the absolute emptiness of the prison cells depicted in Panoptic nearby. In these images, the empty spaces are defined by the perspectives lines: of the metal bars, the cables and the nets, all of which draw the eye inevitably towards the wall, from which no escape outside the frame seems possible.
The exhibition culminates with two especially strong series, The Migrants and The Fire. In the former, sculptural and fragile draperies disguise hard to distinguish bodies that could be dead. These Afghan migrants are trying to sleep, very early in the morning, before being rudely awoken and shooed away by the police. Created quickly, the images show the ghostly presence of clandestine people in Paris, and in all of our cities. Finally, in The Fire, a project created especially for the exhibition, the photographer portrays a Romany custom in which, following a death, the deceased’s caravan is burnt. As the caravan burned, he photographed people (subjects whom we recognize from Photo booths and The Shouters, many years later) with their faces lit enigmatically by the light of the flames.
Editor’s Note: The exhibition “The Crossing” was shown at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in the spring of 2014.