Matthias Bruggmann’s exhibition, ‘An Act of Unspeakable Violence’, is installed in an underground gallery. Low-ceilinged, stone-walled, quarry-tiled and arranged around a central chamber, the space could have been custom-made for the photographic record of Syria that Bruggmann has kept since 2012. The dust, fire, blood and ruins depicted in these shots feel familiar; in the context, a window-like aperture in the gallery wall resembles a sniper’s vantage point. But as is evidenced by this exhibition, both framing and perspective can be unstable things.
Near the entrance of the space is a life-size portrait of Abdel Basset al-Rajab, the military leader of a tribe that was once loyal to ISIS before establishing itself as oppositional. The photograph, stamped with the watermark of an online media outlet, was not taken by Bruggmann, but passed on to him by Al-Rajab some time before his death in 2015. It shows the commander in full uniform striding over a beheaded corpse, head bowed, pistol in hand. Following this are 31 landscape photographs, titled by location and date, which were shot by Bruggmann himself. The majority of these were taken in Syria, a number in Iraq and one, depicting journalists at the 2014 Syrian peace talks, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. In most of these, the artist offers a broad and sometimes messy perspective rather than honing in on one central action. We have little choice but to trust the information that Bruggmann gives us, even as he stresses, in both his images and accompanying texts, how unreliable they are as documents. Take, for example, Military Intelligence Interrogation Department, Damascus, March 5, 2014 (2014), in which a young prisoner warily faces the camera. Government officials orchestrated the photo opportunity for Bruggmann, so he was unable to show the torture wounds he saw on the hands and feet of the man, who later died in custody. Is there more or less stage management in an image depicting a captured regime fighter cowering against a wall on the day before his execution? Or in the photograph of a suspected ISIS member, kneeling, blindfolded in a room containing little but a photocopier? Wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts, his pose evokes the religious iconography of Christ crucified.
The violence captured in these images is not just physical: Bruggmann also documents deception, corruption and injustice. In Marmarita, Reef Homs, September 8, 2013 (2013), the young accountant for a regime-loyal militia sits at a desk, below a flag emblazoned with a picture of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, laughing happily. Her handbag, like her jacket, is camouflage, but overprinted with lacy gold script – as if the war were a catwalk. Another photograph from the same town, Marmarita, Reef Homs, September 13, 2013 (2013), depicts young men swimming in a hotel pool while a neighbouring village is besieged. Iraqi Cultural Center, Damascus, July 25, 2013 (2013) seems straightforward: a modestly dressed, concerned-looking woman peers around the heavy wooden door of an office. But note her improbably precise makeup; she is, in fact, an actor on the set of Najdat Anzour’s soap opera Under the Homeland’s Sky (2013), which offered a regime-friendly version of recent history and was aired during Ramadan. Yet, even when we are aware of how misleading every image may be, much store is still set by the power of visual communication, by warring factions as well as outsider viewers. Access to many of the sites was granted by officials on both sides of the conflict, keen to convey their version of events. Thus, the more Bruggmann’s depictions of Syria accrue, the more his documentary becomes entangled with fictionalization and propaganda. Nevertheless, Bruggmann persists in seeking evidence: he still believes in the importance of photographic proof and we want to believe in it, too.
Matthias Bruggmann, 'An Act of Unspeakable Violence' runs at Musée de l'Elysee, Lausanne, until 18 January 2018.
Main image: Matthias Bruggmann, Industrial City, Deir ez-Zor, May 5 2015 (detail), 2015. Courtesy: the artist, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, and Galerie Polaris, Paris