Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Crit: Frédérick Carnet , "Meine Heimat ..."

M. Carnet recently sent me a note directing me to his completed project "Meine Heimat hat nur einen Namen: Frieden." Before you click, allow me a moment to urge you to give it time. It may come across as "oh, another one of these fucking things."

Which, you know, isn't entirely wrong? I think that if you give it a chance, though, you'll see that it's maybe not one of those fucking things at all, but rather an example of what all those fucking things aspire to be and fail. You have to scroll right at least a little ways.

I am torn between telling you to read the text, and suggesting that you skip it until you've looked at the photos. It works either way, but you only get one chance to decide, and the experience will be different. I will say that the text pretty much describes the thing. With the text in mind, the photos will (I think) fall in to place, the project is just what it says on the tin. Without it, the text may offer you a kind of surprise at the end.

I like the project very very much, probably more than you do. Not because you're flawed, but because I like it so much. I think it is both simple and extraordinary, and it is very very beautiful. Perhaps as a father of still fairly young children it touches me more deeply.

Anyways, let's look at it and have a bit of a think.

We begin with what appears to be the usual "I visited a concentration camp/museum and it was super upsetting" visuals. Photographs of documents. If we're generous, we unbend enough to notice that at least the documents are about the artist's actual family member who was actually in Buchenwald for almost a year at the end of WWII. So it's documents, a couple sad photos, whatever.

But then we get what is immediately recognizable to people like me (parents of the Western World) as an ultrasound image of (probably) a baby. More documents (is the ultrasound a document too? It kind of is) and another sad photo probably from the Concentration Camp, and then another ultrasound, and so on. It occurs to us, if we're paying any attention at all, that we're watching this kid mature in its mother's womb.

The "Nazis Bad" photos thin out and peter off as the baby documents get more frequent, and we begin to see a theme of garden photos emerging, growing denser and at the same time the garden itself comes to life. I don't have to spell it out for you, it's pretty clear what's going on, really. An interesting point here is that it's not clear where the concentration camp photos end and the garden photos begin. This is surely deliberate.

This is not like the first two segments of the larger project. "The Last First Day" was a creepy tour of an imagined place, abandoned, the site of something unknown. That felt like we were there for some other reason, escaping, exploring, going out for a loaf of bread or for cigarettes. The photos felt like what we saw and felt as we did something else. The second segment, "The promise of a better world?" felt like we're being led on a tour, not to buy cigarettes, but to be shown specific things and specific places.

This last feels like we're being handed a series of documents. We're seated, in a sense, being given a series of objects to examine.

The first two were mysterious, perhaps opaque (the first maybe because the circumstances themselves are opaque, the second as if the artist, the tour guide, is mute and struggling to express something that is perfectly clear but impossible to convey). There is no mystery in this last. It is clear.

Here is the past. Here is the future. The future is better.

There is, I think, a bit more to it maybe than even that, something more bound up with the underlying culture. Carnet alludes to the word "Heimat" which is a tricky one, with no direct English translation. It means, literally, "homeland" or sometimes "home" but in the sense of land, not a house or apartment. It can mean a region, a patch of earth, a village, a country. It is not explicitly political, but romantic, although it can be and is weaponized as political (but "Vaterland" is the explicitly political equivalent.)

"Heimat" is more "America the Beautiful" and less "The Land of the Free, The Home of the Brave."

It's possible that there's something in this project that hinges on Carnet's own difficulty with the word. I think French, like English, has no exact translation.

In any case, this piece is also explicitly an declaration of Carnet's "Heimat." It is not the AfD's "Heimat" it is this ground, this garden, this life, however small, right here. The text makes clear that this project is a rejection of jingoistic, nationalistic understandings of "Heimat." This little garden, this little family, this is M. Carnet's homeland. I think if you're familiar with the idea-cloud around "Heimat" in Germany here and now you might not need the text.

The title makes it clear as well: "My homeland has only one name: Peace."

This modest yet firm declaration of purpose brings, to my eye, the series of projects down to earth with a gesture of great beauty.

Also, the botanical photos are exquisite all by themselves. I love these kinds of pictures, and I love much more that Carnet has found a way to imbue them with such meaning.


  1. I see some lovely, standalone photos on display here - well done! -- but aside from those, this project strikes me as being just another one of those fucking things.

    To be fair, though, I'm more of a trees-than-forest type of viewer, so most of these fucking things are lost on me...

  2. The project is an interesting, and potentially powerful statement. Potentially, because hamstrung by several factors:

    (first though, extra points for not making a monochrome dirge out of it)

    1) It is wrapped in a deeply personal code; a secret diary not meant for others' eyes (except it obviously is). But this is an over-used, tired approach. That it apparently still holds enormous appeal explains much about where we're at as a culture. Think Victoriana and cloying sentimentality.

    2) It badly needs an edit -- several recurring ideas/motifs might have considerably more impact and meaning had they not recurred. Less is more, once is enough (if you're thinking I'm referring to the plants and landscapes, wrong, those are the best parts).

    3) The web design is really retro, and not in a good way. Surely we have found better modes of presentation since 1995? (apparently not. blogspot lives). Also, I hate side-scrolling but that's just me.

    Holocaust-inflected projects. Remember when "Never Again" was a thing? A very, very short-lived thing? Depending on how you interpret the phrase and its context(s), it's either been a triumph, or a mockery of what was to follow; and the triumph has been unravelling at alarming speed in some parts. I suppose that could lend urgency to this project -- and all the more reason to get it right (the explanatory text specifically cites it as a motivation).

    In Carnet's project, there's a personal connection -- his ancestor was a victim at Buchenwald for being a Communist and resistance fighter, and this is a vital part of the story he endeavors to tell, by interleaving the sequence with assorted exhibits (documents) from a Buchenwald archive. It's a little hard to make out what is in these documents without close study, but we may infer the connection.

    As noted in your review, there is a linear progression from tragic past to idyllic present. I find it more than a little bumpy though. It feels like a crude mashup of three, distinct projects: documentation of a particular Holocaust victim (not photographs), a pregnancy scrapbook (not photographs), and Carnet's photographs. I'm not saying I think it's a failure, and that I don't 'like' it, as if that matters. There's some great raw material to work with and, as a totality, a plausible premise that should be fully realized, and given a polished presentation.

  3. I can confirm that "Heimat" has no obvious translation in French (I'm a native French speaker, I studied German at school). I think the word resonates with him in this project because he's a French man living in Germany. He asks in his text: "What place will she find [for herself] in this world ?". Peace would allow such a place (and even "be" such a place, according to the title of the project). I agree that this project has a "Nazi bad" feel to it... but it goes beyond it and doesn't dwell on it. As you mentioned, there's a future here, not just a dreary past.

    1. And we named our daughter Frieda (from Frieden - Peace in German) not for nothing ! ;-) Thanks for this comment which makes me feel that you understand what I meant in this work.