What if the imagination made mountains rise up? Georges Didi-Huberman poses this question in Soulèvements (Uprisings), a new exhibition at the Jeu de Paume National Gallery in Paris. Throughout the museum’s galleries, contemporary artworks, books, historical documents, and photographs present a potent survey on the theme of social rebellions in the West, ranging from Victor Hugo’s call for the abolition of the death penalty (in the preface to his 1829 novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man) to Maria Kourkouta’s 2016 video, Idomeni, March 14, 2016, Greco–Macedonian Border. In the latter, the artist documents the silent passage of groups of burdened refugees across the landscape—the kind of image that, through repetition in the worldwide media, has acquired a disturbing normalcy.
Based on Didi-Huberman’s extensive research, the exhibition guides the viewer into an iconographic exploration of what makes humans revolt. Apparently the answers are in the uninspired organizing themes—“Elements (Unleashed),” “Gestures (Intense),” “Words (Exclaimed),” “Conflicts (Flared Up),” and “Desires (Indestructibles).” The exhibition opens with Dennis Adams’s Patriot (2002), a large-format photograph of a red plastic bag floating against a white and blue background—a partly cloudy sky. Striking in its literal nature relative to the exhibition’s ethos, Adams’s work also exemplifies what the show achieves by requiring the spectator to imagine the possible curatorial narratives (which were previously and lengthily developed in a text that is absent from the show and only invoked in the aforementioned categories).
With colors reminiscent of the French flag, Adams’s photograph activates a chain of associations that demonstrate the appearance across time and geography of what Aby Warburg called the “accessories of movement” and what Didi-Huberman terms “aesthetic formants” and identifies as gestural markers of uprising. In the exhibition, these include Man Ray’s Moving Sculpture (La France), a 1920 black-and-white photograph of white drapes and airing garments, full of weightless movement under the drying sun; Hélio Oiticica and Leandro Katz’s Parangolé–Encounters in Pamplona (1972), three photographs of a performance—in which large pieces of red, green, or black fabric were worn and perceived as colors in motion—staged in Pamplona three years prior to the death of Francisco Franco; and, on an opposing wall, Roman Signer’s video Rotes Band (Red Tape) (2005), a metaphor of uprising, in which a reel of red ribbon is unleashed by a wind coming from the floor, depicting an exhilarating moment of tension between order and anarchy.
The body in its political dimension has a prominent role in the next section, “Gestures (Intense),” in which connections between works of art and documents are made through the identification of other aesthetic formants—in this case, the gestures of the body resisting subjugation and ultimately, literally, rising against it. The human hand is significant in some of the show’s most memorable art works, like Jack Goldstein’s A Glass of Milk (1972), in which the artist hits with increasing intensity the surface of a table holding a glass of milk until it falls and spills, or a series of four images by Gilles Caron documenting demonstrations in Redon (1967) and Londonderry (1969), in which different men are photographed in the act of throwing stones against an invisible or blurred Other. With subjects that at times rise almost entirely from the ground, as if throwing their whole bodies as extensions of the rocks, these images sum up the notion of the uprising as a collective moment of rupture, in which the irrational forces of turmoil become contagious.
The works of art lose some of their primacy as the exhibition further explores the dynamic essence of uprisings: often chaotic and violent actions. Powerful photographs of 20th-century barricaded strikers in France, Spain, Mexico, Bolivia, Greece, and the United States have in common the communities that constitute them: people working in unison and risking their lives to act toward a shared goal. Images like the anonymous portrait of the stoic Fortino Sámano (1917), taken an instant before he was executed, and the nearby photograph by Manuel Álvarez Bravo of a Murdered Striker (1934) placed alongside works like Robert Filliou’s Optimistic Box No. 1 (1968)—a wooden box containing a cobblestone with the label, “We don’t throw stones at each other any more”—make conceptual art seem like a naïve footnote of life; they make one wonder about art’s capacity to respond and interpret the severe problems of the present through the intrinsically individualistic practices of contemporary artistic production.
In the exhibition’s final section, “Desires (Indestructibles),” Estefanía Peñafiel Loaiza addresses less visible uprisings. Working in proximity to a detention center in Paris and informed by the stories of abuse and internal upheavals suffered by the center’s population of undocumented immigrants, the artist created a video, And They Go into the Space that Your Gaze Embraces: Smoke Signals (2016). In this work, the artist’s shadowed hands move over a light box, revealing a series of transparencies related to her research of the center. The background is simultaneously illuminating and blinding, creating such high contrast that even when the images can be seen individually, they remain indistinguishable—much like the frequent abuses in the center that, although documented in oral histories, remain hidden behind closed doors and in plain sight.
Soulèvements is an important exhibition, summing up a year of uprisings of all kinds. At the end of this year of surprises and fiascos, much inspiration and awareness of history are needed to believe again in the power of imagination—not to move mountains (for it is men and women working together, risking it all, that move mountains), but rather to create a different future, one of fewer uprisings and more revolutions.
Soulèvements is on view at Jeu de Paume National Gallery, Paris, through January 15, 2017.
 Georges Didi-Huberman, et al., Uprisings (Paris: Gallimard, Jeu de Paume, 2016), 295.