Jean-Gabriel Périot – Eût-elle été criminelle…


The French artist presents a montage of documentary materials examining the public punishments and humiliations suffered by French women who were reputed to have had relations with German men during World War II. Accompanied by the distorted notes of the Marseillaise - in renditions by Mireille Mathieu and others, the video at first fast-forwards through the chronology of events from the eve of the war to the liberation of France in the summer of 1944. The joy over the German retreat, however, quickly gives way to a desire for retribution, leading to the public stigmatization of these women in ways that recall the persecutions of the Third Reich. The gesture of the victory sign resembles the Hitler salute; the symbol of the ashen swastika, the Yellow Star. Périot draws on a universally intelligible visual language created by the media that renders events such as World War II legible irrespective of cultural specificities. This immediate classification of the images comes to be questioned only in a second step when, as in Périot's video, the displacement of the roles of perpetrator and victim profoundly unsettles the viewer. It is only then that he or she considers the individual subtext in order to arrive at a new understanding and evaluation of what is seen. Considered in this light, Even if she had been a criminal... (2006) also expands into a universal statement against the hubris of those who strip others of their freedom and dignity.

The title of the work appeals to the beholder to complete the sentence, demanding that he or she take a stance regarding what is happening. How would we finish the sentence? Is the punishment too harsh, a human life too valuable, a love too pure and utterly unconnected with politics? Or is the way these women are being treated appropriate, perhaps even too lenient, given that they fraternized with the enemy in a time of war?

As we watch the video in today's perspective, the answer seems unambiguously clear. No human being has the right to torment, humiliate, or abuse others: that conviction, to be sure, is widely shared. Still, context is decisive for our answer. The widespread use of violence in order to prevent violence at once implies its legitimization. Here, again, the question of justification arises. Périot illuminates the poles of human existence at the historic moment of liberation. The overwhelming joy of freedom regained collides with the still dominant emotion, a hatred that has had no outlet. Passions run high after the triumph people had long yearned for; mixed in with their pride is the urge to humiliate and punish a scapegoat. The artist examines the revenge of the individual within civil society against other individuals who have been found guilty. Yet it is not subjective offenses against another's body or life that are at issue. What is taking place, rather, is a form of expiation, legitimized by the crowd, on the meta-level of a collective guilt. Membership in the national community bars the individual from a positive or constructive exchange with those who have been proclaimed by the state to be the enemy. The parameters of individual action and the standards of evaluation that are in effect in peacetime are suspended in war in favor of a nation united in the shared struggle; forms of action are assessed in new ways.

The artist's work follows in the footsteps of C. G. Jung: "We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied, because we are the origin of all coming evil."*

* C.G. Jung, Jung on Evil, sel. and introd. Murray Stein, Princeton: Princeton UP 1995,1.


By Nadia Ismail
Krieg 2010