Inspired by the work of the German writer W. G. Sebald, the exhibition L’Image papillon (The Butterfly Image) addresses the complex relations that link image and memory. It gathers together sixteen artists whose work, like Sebald’s, explores the realms of memory and history through the concepts of experience and overlapping temporalities.
Borrowing its title from a recent essay on Sebald’s work by the writer and literary researcher Muriel Pic, the exhibition uses the figure of the ‘butterfly image’ to examine the questions this kind of relation to the past asks in the context of the visual arts. Tracing its recurrence in Sebald’s books, Pic considers the butterfly as the allegorical image of a dialectical relation to memory – on the one hand the scientific gesture of collecting and archiving, in which the past is frozen or ‘pinned down’, and on the other hand a more emphatic relation to the past, which sees memory as the place of experience, of an ‘observation of the past as movement’. Or as Pic describes it, ‘we follow the memory with the gaze, it twirls like a butterfly.’
One of the characteristics of the four works of fiction Sebald published between 1990 and 2001 – Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz – is the presence, in the main body of the text, of uncaptioned black-and-white images of mostly imprecise origin and nature, which act like memories punctuating the narrative as it unfolds. Similar to these images, the works in this exhibition explore different possibilities to materialise the images of the past in the realm of experience. They share several key motifs of Sebald’s books, including the crossing of temporalities, a sensible relation to documents and archives, the interweaving of personal and collective history, destruction, the fragment and the trace.
The exhibition takes the shape of fifteen monographic presentations, each comprising a group of works or a large-scale installation and introduced by an image from Sebald’s books. Through the connections they establish with the works on display, these images attempt to emulate two modes of relation that lie at the heart of Sebald’s writing – montage and coincidence – in the exhibition.