“BACK TO THE EARTH”
It was as an architect that Malala Andrialavidrazana took off for six months, in 2003, for a trip around the world which led her from Buenos Aires to Hong Kong via Montevideo, New Zealand, Australia and the great deserts of the Aborigines, Indonesia and Vietnam... The originality of Malala's approach lies in the gaze she brings to the contemporary city from the viewpoint of a kind of inversion or reversal constituted by the space of the cemetery, in the way that other artists have used the same strategy of displacement to find their privileged object of investigation in the architectural trope of the theme park. From Singapore to Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur with the highest skyscrapers in the world, the scalar relations of the business-district buildings are often present in the backgrounds of Malala's photographs, contrasting sharply with the funerary dwellings lost in a jungle that reclaims its rights over the supposedly inviolate space of resting. But the cemetery often reproduces the density and typology of the buildings, as though the one were the other in miniature. As it did for so many architects of the 1990s, the absence of plan and program, the jumble of lots, the accumulation, juxtaposition and fragmentation of the Asian city are fascinating. Rem Koolhaas in particular has insisted on the importance of stratification, of flows and unexpected insurgencies in Asian cityscape, seen as the counter-model of the European museum-city immobilized in its history.
But if Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, were the key destinations in Malala's journey, it is no doubt also because the inhabitants of that part of the world have common roots with the people of Madagascar, her native land. An investigation in that country, carried out ten years earlier, had already led her to seek out and systematically photograph these out-of-the-way places where the curious are not always welcome, places which in all the cultures of the world are reserved for the sepultures of the dead. During this early work, each type of space was brought into relation with the specificity of the funerary rights of Madagascar's eighteen ethnic groups. In short, it was an embryonic sketch of a veritable anthropology of the spaces reserved for the dead in Madagascar, a country – one of many – where the cult of the ancestors structures an essential part of the imaginary, and of social life.
Ten years later, the methodology has changed. It is no longer a matter of systematically conveying the correlation between the specific characteristics of a culture and its rites of the dead. It suffices to look briefly at the opening pages of this book to understand that these decontextualized photos, without captions, make no attempt to constitute an inventory, an ordered classification of cemeteries according to criteria laid out in advance, with the goal of scientific argumentation. Here it is contingency, the chances of wandering, the traveler's path and her encounters that have been the rule for the accumulation of seven thousand digitized photos, of which the few dozen gathered here stand as excerpts. Nor has the final form that will bring them all together been fixed in advance. Ordered by the linear framework of a book or a slide projection, they can also be exhibited in a gallery space, each time with a change of order, rhythm and vision, not to mention the size of the images. Even more importantly than its position entre les beaux-arts et les médias1 (between the fine arts and the media) – a characteristic of all photographic images – the work whose amplitude we grasp here can be identified neither with anthropological fieldwork, nor, of course, with the desire of the beautiful image for its own sake. Neither science nor art, a clearly perceptible recurrence nonetheless insists throughout the deployment of this sequence of images, giving us to understand that a particular kind of documentary work is being attempted here. First of all, it is not a matter of conveying a negative, dramatic, humanistic and finally complacent image of death. The spectacle of the macabre has been systematically avoided throughout the book, as it was in the slide projection. Hence the decision deliberately taken by Malala in the construction of her journey to avoid all the destinations where the cult of the dead – from Mexico to India – could not fail to appear to our Western gaze as a vector of exoticism. The unity of a world is sketched out across this sequence of images. A world of huge cities in countries of mixed blood and multiple religions, having known multiple influences which continue today. A postcolonial world marked by the end of the European imperialisms and the multiplication of power into different economic and financial centers which, in the absence of any transition, contrast violently with the remains of ancestral cultures, and sometimes with total poverty. A multiple partition that breaks and blurs the clear colonial divide between the wealthy and the wretched. Absorption, integration of the comportments of the former colonizers into the landscape, lifestyles, sociopolitical organization and economic management, in contexts where the traces and customs of former practices still persist, alongside other contributions, other hegemonies, hailing from distant historical and cultural horizons. Such is the reality of today's so-called "globalized" world, the postmodern reality of the juxtaposition and mixture of cultures which are not necessarily completely creolized. The kind of negative city that that is constituted by the cities of the dead that Malala constantly visits – the eloquent reversal of the cities of the living – in any case has more to do with patchwork than with hybridization. Each population, each religious confession has its space, its practices, its habits.
If the typological dimension persists here, beyond the cultural specificities carefully neutralized by the mix of images, it is because it fundamentally involves an order of what could be called a general semiology, a visual anthropology having no other principles than the indication of analogies, of differences within repetition. What are being questioned here are something like structural permanencies, "ideal types," to use the terminology of Max Weber: different ways in which the living take responsibility for the memory of their dead. First of all, everywhere the same approach, throughout the cities visited: the acquisition of maps including the suburbs, the location of the cemeteries which are often marked with a cross, the meetings with chance informants. Then the collecting begins. The permanence of offerings, with a propensity for a certain cemetery kitsch that knows no borders; the repetition of the fence, at once the sign of enclosure to avoid any contamination with the space of the living, but also the sign of deference and protection, a sacralized enclosure, separated from the rest of profane space; boxes for the dead in different formats, alignments, piles, depending on whether the body has been incinerated or not, between low walls, in stone huts, or simply organized along the much-decried straight lines of the modernist city; jumbled heaps of stones or soil, tumuli, flat paving stones, mineral gardens or constructions invaded by nature, more or less apparent depending on the part of the world where we find ourselves; crosses, points, divers and repeating signs, generic inscriptions, numbers. None of these formal variations can equal the sobriety, the elegance without artifice of the aboriginal sepulture. Often isolated, a simple, empty delineation against the ground of the desert, without any landmark, neither name nor symbol.
If there is a trope that is questioned by the multiplication of its occurrences in this book, it is the relation between what Malala calls "the personification of death" and the form of that rectangular parallelepiped – a veritable bloc de base (building block) of all human construction – in which sooner or later, and wherever we may live, we have every chance of ending up. The space reserved for our dead, which in principle is the sacred space par excellence, is perhaps the first legible form of globalization in the tangible order of built space. As certain anecdotes from Malala's journey show, even it does not escape from the petty calculations of real-estate speculation. Reversing the humanistic optimism of one of the most famous exhibitions in the history of the postwar period – The Family of Man2 – the family of the dead brought together in the cemeteries of the contemporary world constitutes an archive whose anonymity and whose paradoxical uniformity, despite all the cults and beliefs whose celebration is supposed to recall the diversity of cultures, refers us back to the inhumanity of a species which may well be in the process of losing the sense of filiation.
Translation: Brian Holmes
1 Expression suggested by Jean-François Chevrier.
2 The Family of Man, exhibition designed and produced by Edward Steichen, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955. Cf: Roland Barthes "La Grande Famille des hommes" in Mythologies, Le Seuil, Paris, 1957.
Text published in d'Outre-Monde, Editions Actes Sud, 2004.