Place de la Republique, Arles, Bastille Day, 14-07-16
First, a passing mention for Arles’ Bastille Day; this ‘parade’ was a bit low key – though nice to see the Arlesienne costume – but by 10.45pm, this ‘Place’ was packed and ‘rocking’ to a Peruvian band who play ‘Cumbia’ – Bareto. Sadly, when we left at about 12.15, it was to discover the sad news of events along the coast in Nice.
Back to reflections on the Rencontres. ‘Systematically Open’ is a multi-curator/multi-artist exhibition in the brand newly designed (and massive) space in the Mécanique Générale at Parc des Ateliers (here). The exhibition was subtitled ‘New forms for contemporary image production’ and was billed as exploring “… new structures for the presentation of the photographic image …” and examining “… relationships between photography and its various forms of display …”. Its ambitious objectives include “… a new framework for experiencing the image as a reproduction …” and prompting “… a structural rethinking of the photographic medium …” (all quotes from the English translation in a specially produced booklet given free on entering the show. One could say that in the context of those bold ambitions, there is only one way the exhibition could go …! On the one hand, it is good to see Arles acknowledging, in a manner that has been in short supply previously, contemporary developments in the presentation, use and experience of the photographic image; but there have been other attempts to embrace the breadth of what the photographic medium is today and the result is often a confusing kaleidoscope that dazzles but then falls short of its ambition. In some ways, of course, that is, in itself, a fair reflection of our understanding of the medium in 21st century culture!
‘Systematically Open’ is in four parts, and the first certainly fits this kaleidoscopic description. Walead Bashty has curated ‘Picture Industry’, with work from perhaps the widest array of photographic artists ever to come together in one place – from Jacob Riis to Hito Steyerl and, it feels, everywhere along every other dimension available! So it’s perhaps over-ambitious and falls short of achieving any discernable and meaningful statement beyond something like ‘Wow, it’s all, like, so amazing!’. Of course, one of the challenges for both curator and viewer at Arles is that there really is so much to see and the visitor can never really devote the time to research, view and engage with anything in sufficient depth. So the good thing about this show – that it hits you in the face with photography’s diversity and wonder – is also the bad thing – that you never really stop to fully appreciate any of its content (a bit like browsing Facebook and hitting ‘Like’ against everything and everybody!).
Elad Lassry’s element of the overall show is helpfully titled ‘Untitled’ and seems sedate and relaxing after the deluge that has just gone before – surprising, since it comprises a very large number of appropriated close-up images of teeth/gums (variously healthy, diseased, filled etc)! The images are all identically sized/framed (and I suspect processed to a common range of tones and colours) at around A3, and presented in ‘traditional’ gallery format, row after row. Extracted (!) from their original context/purpose and presented so, they form an exhibition of art – prompting us to think about all the art we observe in a gallery space and the artists/curators who choose to put it there. I appreciated the simplicity of this installation and found it quite a powerful contrast to the Bashty kaleidoscope – though I have to confess I didn’t linger long over any particular toothy image; not that that was the intention, I’m sure.
Zanele Muholi’s contribution is a series of carefully constructed and presented self-portraits, under the title ‘Somnyama Ngonyama’ a Zulu phrase, translated for us as ‘Hail, the Dark Lionness’. All beautifully printed and displayed in black & white, they are visually alluring and create quite a mesmeric, almost poetic experience. That said, they left me somewhat cold – mesmerised but not moved. In most of them, she is bedecked/coiffured in/by appropriated materials relating to the world cities in which the images were made. There is some sort of reference to the ‘selfie’ and some idea of a lonely reflection in a strange place away from home – all forming this into a very high quality body of work, but just a little cool for me.
And fatigue was setting in by the time I reached the final part of the show –‘Shutters, Frames, Collections, Repetition’, curated by Collier Schorr (and in ‘collaborative dialogue’ with Anne Collier). The exhibition seeks to posit “… a new dialogue between the nude and the cameras …”. I seem to have coincidentally encountered Anne Collier’s work in several different contexts in the last few weeks and must confess that I haven’t engaged sufficiently to ‘get it’ – my failure, not her work’s, I stress – and I was in that same situation with this presentation. I also happened to pick up and look through Collier Schorr’s book ‘8 women’ in an Arles bookshop, with more or less the same outcome. Without more research and engagement, I feel my responses are unlikely to have much value. Perhaps I just wasn’t ‘in the mood’!!
Finally, an exhibition that I particularly enjoyed was ‘Fabulous Failures’, curated by Eric Kessels and featuring a wide range of artists, including Joan Fontcuberta and Lucas Blalock, and based on the principle that artists “… like to fight perfection, embrace serendipity and search for fabulous failures”. Actually, I think I prefer the French version of the title – ‘Parfaites Imperfections’. There is way too much care and process involved on the artists’ part for this work to be so strongly billed as making serendipitous use of failures. I would see them more as embracing Flüsser’s notion of ‘playing against the camera’, perhaps subverting the perfection that it sometimes seems to demand. But regardless of that quibble, this is a combination of humour, subversion and general ‘playing’ that is both delightful and thought-provoking. Fontcuberta was represented through his ‘constellation’ images that turn out to be flies squashed on a car windscreen; Annegien Van Doorn’s mad constructions were great fun, as were Ruth Van Beek’s levitating dogs (constructed from folded found images), and Kent Rogowski’s Love=Love is a series of ‘collage’ made by mixing together elements of 60 store-bought jig-saw puzzles, many of which have been originally cut using the same factory tool. Is this exhibition open to a criticism of superficiality and lack of serious intent? As recorded in a previous post (here), I was ‘moved’ by Eamonn Doyle’s work that is most certainly serious and not superficial. But I see no contradiction in also finding ‘Parfaites Imperfections’ interesting and thought-provoking. Each, in their different ways, is interrogating the photographic image and its significance to human-kind in 21st century culture – posing/provoking questions, as art should.
I saw lots lots more in Arles that was worthy of comment in here and my chosen reflections may be somewhat arbitrary and personal. Hopefully, they do represent something of the diversity on offer at this years Rencontres, from which I have gained a very great deal that might, hopefully, inform and inspire my own work – not least, some inspiring exploitation of new and various ways in which to present work and create experience for the viewer.