Thoughts on Arles

The Idyllic setting of the Photofestival has inspired artists for generations.

Les Recontres d”Arles is grande. Much more than I realised. Most of the work is documentary or editorial. This is of a very quality. There are also some scattered shows of a more experimental nature: Masahisa Fukase, Audrey Tatou, David Fahi, Roger Ballen, and a fantastic survey show of surrealism and its influences...The Spectre of Surrealism.

Agnes Geoffray form the Metamorphoses series
Agnes Geoffray from the Metamorphoses series in The Spectre of Surrealism

This exhibition to commemorate 40 years of the Georges Pompidou Centre, curated by Carolina Zeibinska-Lewandowska was surely the highlight of the whole Biennial so it was strange not to even have one image on the promotional materials to lure visitors there. The show featured a fantastic array of contemporary and vintage works, highlighting the influence of Surrealist ideas in photography for a century. My favourite discovery was Agnes Geoffray, whose works from the Metamorphoses series were both witty and dark. Another pleasing discovery was these strange masks by Patrick Tosani, which  when you look closely, reveal themselves to be simply trouser legs.

Patrick Tosani
Patrick Tosani from the Masks series

The Incurable Egoist

This retrospective of Masahisa Fukase co curated by Simon Baker of the Tate is a good example of how photography has been adopted by visual artists interested in more than subject and image. Photographs are drawn upon, pierced and played with, resulting in some striking results. The exhibition tracks Fukase's various stages of approach : poetic, abstract, portrait, landscape. His subject matter is hearteningly varied, moving from rather dreamy images of birds, through fascinating abstracts, an intimate family grouping, revealing an increasingly moving narrative over several decades and finally some rather funny self portraits with his friends touching tongues. This patiently curated exhibition occupies an opposite an inverse to the current demand for conceptually rounded photographic projects and insists upon a freer, more intimate love for a medium that has always been dominated by grand narratives and power plays.

Arles is still dominated by traditional photography - reportage, portrait and landscape genres. I found myself a little frustrated by the lack of abstraction, collage or new digital work. The exception is I am Everywhere by Silin Lui who has wittily inserted herself into a series of iconic images with famous people.

The VR Pavillion

Waiting to watch VR films was an exercise in patience

New media seems to be primarily represented by the VR Pavillion, as though Recontres d’Arles have decided to invest heavily in a future that is still unattainable to most practitioners. At VR Arles, the demographic is noticeably younger. Here, should you be willing to listen, debates were taking place all week on ideas around this new medium. This part of the festival felt quite seperate, and notably it was the only part of the program that remained untranslated into English, thereby relegated to an exclusively french annex of sorts. The program was wildly varied and could have done with being half the size. Access to the VR masks was hampered by a decision not to let users browse freely the options, resulting in a Byzantium process of requesting and then waiting for a specific headset, pre-programmed for your request. For those willing to patiently wait, therefore, the outcome may have been mixed, with no translation for the choices and little curatorial control over the choice.

By navigating the menu myself I was able to discover some wonderful items on the menu however : We Who Remain by Sam Wolson & Trevor Snapp is an example of how this new medium could revolutionise storytelling in remote and dangerous places. Crouch in a cave full of children waiting for government planes to drop bombs overhead. Stand in the middle of the map drawn by rebels in the sand and watch passively in the hospital as your narrator, a young Nuban man is lifted from the bed, his thigh bandaged, his health destroyed. This technology creates the possibility to be among those who, ordinarily would be staring mute from a photograph. They talk, move and gesture to you. Strange ghosts in a machine, they are more than subjects and a you are re than an observer. You are able to perceive their perception of you. Your presence (in the form of the camera) is more than simply that of a viewer. You are also, strangely a participant in a past event. The effect is both eerie and enlightening.

Shadi Ghadirian
Shadi Ghadirian, Iran, Year 38

Returning, somewhat eagerly from this revelatory experience to the other exhibitions, it was interesting to note the variety of exhibition techniques employed to vary the wear trudge around walls and buildings required of a dutiful visitor. Wallpaper was used to create splashes of photographic images and played a major role in Richard Mosse, Iran Year 38, and The Cow and The Orchid.

The Cow and The Orchid: Generic Columbian Photography by The Archive of Modern Conflict

David Fahi
's moving documentation of the final journey of The immortal woman' also relied heavily on wallpaper to carry the intense tracts of text, with statistics on racial segregation in America illustrated poignantly by a long list of laws passed by American states from 1867 to the present day. This historical perspective on current affairs was also brought to bear on the Arab Spring and its subsequent fallout, with the Iran year 38 a worryingly risk-taking exhibition curated by Anahita Ghabaian, Ghazal Golshiri and Newsha Tavakolian. Vintage images from news journalists at the time were combined with works by contemporary practising artists resulting in an oppressive realisation that we are living through similar times, albeit involving new geographies.

Mari Bastashevski State Business
Mari Bastashevski, State Business

In Atelier 22 there were some lovely chance collisions of ideas, within the New Discovery Award with Guy Martin's ongoing work on the political turmoil in Turkey chiming well with Norman Behrendt's documentation of the sudden revival in mosque building in Turkey. Here also were the winners of the Discovery Award: Brodbeck & De Barbuat whose film, In Search of Eternity combines words a series of slow pans through crowded streets in Japan to reflect on mortality. This, along with Juliette Agnel's glorious nocturnes provide a welcome resting place for the mind after the political angst of Philippe Dudouit's documentation of the political/actual desert and Mari Batashevski's investigation into capitalism's ability to profit from and maintain deadly conflicts.

Juliette Agnel's glorious nocturnes provide a welcome resting place for the mind
Juliette Agnel's glorious nocturnes provide a welcome resting place for the mind

The books are also a joyful place of repose, although seats would have been welcome. Some discoveries here: Rick Pushinsky, "Songs of Innocence and Experience: A Study Guide", GiulioPiscitell's "Harraga", Dornith Doherty, "archiving Eden" and Susanna Majuri's book, 'Sense of Water'. Undoubtedly Dudouit, Martin, Nouvelle et al are producing work that deserves recognition but the density of ideas in Atelier 22 required a full hour of recovery, accompanied by tea.

It seems a shame that the two main exhibitions by women were off in a monastery miles away from the main exhibition. There seemed to be only one bus, once in the week, which precluded engagement for many if not most of the visitors who had barely opened their programme before the bus left the station. Daily trips would have been fairer to Audrey Tatou and The late Kate Berry who's exposure undoubtedly suffered from this oversight.

All in all, women were well represented and the work was more varied and interesting that I had expected, having been cautioned that "Arles is mostly editorial' for many years I was pleasantly impressed by the scope and breadth of work on display. Having checked back to the website on my return I see that I missed at least half of the exhibitions but I feel I saw alot, experienced alot and enjoyed alot. And the weather was great :-)


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© Lisa Creagh 2019