There is a strange but commonly used French phrase with no precise parallel in English: entre chien et loup – between dog and wolf. It refers to twilight, when the light has dimmed and one can no longer differentiate between a wolf and a dog (as if it were once so simple to tell the one from the other). But the phrase also points to another aspect of twilight – that brief daily wavering between the trustworthy dog of daytime and the treacherous wolf of the night.
I first came across this phrase in a little booklet published by Mucem in Marseille to accompany an exhibition of work by French photographer Anne-Marie Filaire. Entitled Zone de sécurité temporaire, the exhibition consists of several series of mostly black and white photographs shot in contested territories, border zones, and the no-go lands that so often separate one geopolitical entity from another. Over some twenty years, Filaire has travelled and produced work at the borders between Israel and Palestine, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in Yemen, Cambodia, Jordan, Algeria and Lebanon. “Travailler dans ces territoires m’aura demandé de m’installer dans la durée,” says Filaire in one of the exhibition texts: “Working in these territories requires me to embed myself for a length of time.” She writes then of “La rencontre avec cette violence” (the encounter with this violence) “et la nécessité d’en témoigner” (and the necessity of bearing witness).
Filaire has spoken of “une sourde violence”: a violence that is hard to hear but also that does not hear, or does not listen.
Mostly this is an exhibition of landscapes. People are occasionally present: crossing a track in the mid-distance or separated from each other by a chain-link fence. But Anne-Marie Filaire’s interest is not in the photojournalistic immediacy of the present moment, but in the traces left behind by violence. Instead of people, Filaire’s landscapes are marked, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes quite brutally, by the specific, complex, and frequently violent human histories to which they bear witness, and to which in turn Filaire does too.
Filaire speaks of “une sourde violence”. The English text on the exhibition wall translates this as “a muffled violence”. But it could also be “a deaf violence”: a violence that is hard to hear but also that does not hear, or does not listen. Might it be that this very inability to hear, this unwillingness to listen, lies at the heart of all the subsequent violence that Filaire is so attuned to? Certainly, her landscapes cry out loudly in their empty silences.
The exhibition opens with an image taken near the Israeli city of Ma’ale Adumim in the disputed territory of the West Bank. In English, Ma’ale Adumim – a city of nearly 40,000 people – is described euphemistically as a “settlement”, one of many considered an illegal occupation under international law. The French word colonie carries with it a greater and arguably more relevant weight of meaning. Filaire’s landscape is divided into three sections. The sky is flat and grey like paper or powdered snow; the middle ground has the texture of rubble, but hazily so. The foreground is very dark. It provides a dramatic contrast to a rhombus of bright white light that dominates the composition. To the right, a fine line of fencing is just visible behind the immediate foreground, silhouetted against the soft white beyond. Other than the title of the work, this is the first suggestion I can see that this is a place of division, of restricted access. In the distance is a white peak. It echoes the rubble picked out by the light in the foreground. I wonder where that light is coming from. Or rather, I wonder whether it is “the settlement” itself that casts such a dark shadow.
Like all of Filaire’s images, there is a beautiful clarity to the composition. It reminds me a little of Josef Koudelka, who is currently the subject of an intriguing retrospective at Centre Pompidou. But Filaire is less dramatic, less theatrical. Her textures are softer too – something to do with the way she develops the film perhaps… This subtlety reinforces the divisions that run through her work. Elsewhere in the exhibition are road markings partly obliterated by craters; wide stretches of desert that conceal a carpet of landmines; a ragged black flag above a makeshift city; a fallen fence among foliage; the broken top of an atomiser among rubble and leaves. Lines cut through her landscapes – invisible political lines, but visible lines too, the lines of infrastructure: roads, pylons, barbed wire, snaking walls of concrete posts. So many of her compositions are framed or cut across by telephone lines. The temporary security zone is always electrified.
The most recent work on show is a series from a Syrian refugee camp in Azraq, Jordan in 2014. Of the five images, four are in colour (the only ones in the exhibition). Roads cut swathes through these desert landscapes. In the distance stand row upon row of white-roofed metal huts. At first, they look like a solar farm – an industrial process happening far away. But there are people here, hidden inside or crossing a road in the distance. A road sign denotes the speed limit: 30. A familiar regulation: but who will enforce such things out here? Up above, the azure sky fades down to something paler, dustier. In one image, only a solitary piece of stray litter has managed to escape from a fenced-off compound. The image is in black and white again, as the present fades into the past once more.
On the train back from Marseilles, a French journalist explains her criticisms of the exhibition. By bringing together small groups of images from so many different locations and times, she argues, the exhibition becomes difficult to navigate. There is no accompanying timeline, no map. Apart from the titles of each work (always a place and a date), we don’t know where we are or when. Very little political or historical context is given. This is, I assume, a deliberate decision. The question is, why? It strikes me that the answer is vital in understanding what it is that Anne-Marie Filaire is attempting to achieve.
For Filaire is not here to keep us up to date about the present. Nor to teach us history. We can discover the facts for ourselves if we want to. Rather, the exhibition brings these diverse places together in one singular zone: a place that is in some ways the same, wherever and whenever it exists in the real world. In some ways, this very process is foregrounded in Filaire’s panoramas: multiple images joined together, almost perfectly but not quite. Look carefully and in places you can see the joins. They are well hidden but some trace always remains. The history of violence is never-ending.
Filaire’s crossings demonstrate both the porousness of human geopolitical boundaries and their violent power. As one thing fades from view, another stalks into focus.
Like the dog, Filaire’s photography provides a witness we can trust. And like the wolf, she – as (white, western) photographer – is able to cross many of the lines that she herself draws our attention to. Koudelka sees himself as an exile, but compared to those in these desert camps, he is a relatively privileged one. Filaire is a witness, protected by the law. Her crossings are therefore able to demonstrate both the porousness of human geopolitical boundaries and their violent power. As one thing fades from view, another stalks into focus.
Entre chien et loup: it is Elias Sanbar who uses the phrase in his booklet essay – to describe not the photography of Filaire, but an image that he himself has taken. Sanbar, a historian and poet and the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, presents an image from Naqoura in southern Lebanon. This is where Sanbar’s family settled after the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948. He was fourteen months old at the time. The image printed in the booklet is from 1994, when Sanbar returned to Naqoura after an absence of 46 years. To me, it is a blurry image of a coastline: to Sanbar a repository of memory and loss. It signifies déchirement, a tearing, or pulling apart between two (or more) places. It is this tearing that interests Filaire, and the scars that remain even when the tear has healed – scars as a bodily testament to a violent history that is hidden now, but never entirely silent.
Anne-Marie Filaire, Zone de sécurité temporaire is at Mucem, Marseilles until 29th May 2017.
Image credits (from top to bottom):
1. Anne-Marie Filaire, Zone de sécurité temporaire, desert du Danakil, Erythree, novembre 2001
2. Anne-Marie Filaire, Colonie israelienne de Maale Adumim, Palestine, juillet 1999
3. Anne-Marie Filaire, Camp de refugies syriens, Azraq Jordanie, juin 2014
4. Scénographie sans public – Anne-Marie Filaire, Zone de sécurité temporaire. Mars 2017, Mucem © Mucem / François Deladerrière
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.