Sunday, 4 August 2013

Les Rencontres d'Arles - Part One


Place de la Republique, Arles
'Arles in Black' is the theme for the 2013 Arles' Rencontres.  It should perhaps be 'Arles in Black & White', and even that might not be strictly accurate, since there is plenty of colour around, but that's about the extent of the significant criticism I would make of what is a marvellous and extensive celebration of photographic art.  Located partly in a variety of sites around the delightful and historic city itself - all within ten minutes walk of each other, even in mid-30 degree heat - and partly in the Parc des Ateliers - a collection of disused and partly derelict factories, within five minutes walk of the city - the festival must offer the best concentration of photographic exhibitions anywhere in the world.  And these are not small exhibitions.  That is one aspect that surprised and pleased me most.  Exhibition Space 12 at the Parc des Ateliers, for example, has sizeable shows of John Davies, John Stezaker, Antoine Gonin, Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, as well as a collection of prints of Hollywood personalities.  It wouldn't be difficult to spend two or three hours at this location alone.
Parc des Ateliers, Arles

Therein lies one of the challenges!  With over fifty exhibitions in total, it is impossible to attend all of them within any reasonable amount of time.  And we were there on holiday, so there was no likelihood of spending an entire week at photographic exhibitions.  So, I had already consulted the official website - Les Rencontres d'Arles - and read some reviews, including Sean O'Hagan in the Observer, of whom more later.  I had decided that I definitely wanted to see Davis and Stezaker, plus Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wolfgang Tillmans, Christina De Middel, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Gilbert Garcin; and also, following O'Hagan's powerful recommendation, Alfredo Jaar.  We managed to take in all of those, plus a reasonably serious look at four or five others and a fairly casual 'skim' of another four or five.  I don't think I could have coped with many more than that - so planning and selectivity were crucial.

Recording reactions to all of that is another challenge!  I kept a notebook of initial thoughts, which largely informs what follows, together with subsequent reflection, a little bit of further research, and the chance, during the week in Arles, to have some discussion with one fellow student - John U.  I'm going to start, in this first post, with three exhibitions that produced strong, but quite different responses in me.

Wolfgang Tillmans - Neue Welt

I mentioned 'big' exhibitions; this one is really 'big' - large spaces, a lot of images, and some very big prints (some so large that they were actually made up of two prints joined together, which seems a pity, given the obvious expense behind the whole show).  It is also in colour - high colour, intense and saturated - and it is 'digital' - shot on digital cameras and, at times, printed to a level of intense detail that seems well beyond 'reality'.  Tillmans is asking himself "... whether the world can be seen 'anew' in an era characterised by a deluge of media images ..." says the accompanying text (from the Rencontres website).  I noted afterwards that this is an exhibition likely to produce mixed reactions.  Certainly, it feels to be as much or more about process and photography as it is about subject matter or the world - a 'New World' of photography rather than a genuinely 'New World'.  The subjects of the images, be they a toucan, car headlight, Ethiopian market or digital monitor screen, (and that short list gives a flavour of the eclectic range on offer) seem almost irrelevant to the splendour of their representation.  In that respect - and I think this is why I liked it and enjoyed it - it is a totally 'Second Decade of the 21st Century' exhibition, totally 'now'.  Tillmans pushes the digital capability and explores how the world can be represented, is being presented, in the digital age; pushing it past what the 'normal' human eye might see, into something 'ultra-real'.  The outcome isn't necessarily pleasing from an aesthetic viewpoint, and it seems to overwhelm any documentary context for the subject matter, which is why it may not appeal to everyone.  It could almost come across as a 'hyper' version of the camera club print competition - but I sense that this is the point.  It is asking questions - as the above quote suggests - and should certainly provoke discussion.  Is the "deluge of images" in this neue welt, splendid and overwhelming as it might be, telling us anything new about the world?  Or might it be so overwhelming that it drowns 'reality'?

Alfredo Jaar - The Politics of the Image

As the title of this exhibition suggests, Alfredo Jaar is also asking questions.  The accompanying text states that he is "... questioning photography when it plays the role of the supposedly objective journalistic witness."  That alone might have been enough to entice my interest, even though I had no previous knowledge of Jaar's work, but Sean O'Hagan's article, to which I linked above, describes it as a 'must-see' show and says that, in his view, Jaar's "... dissection of the famous White House photograph in which President Obama, Hillary Clinton and their national security team supposedly watch the mission to kill Bin Laden live is alone worth making the trip to Arles".  I have to say that, had I followed his advice and gone to Arles just for that purpose, I might have been asking Sean for a contribution to my fare!  This exhibition underwhelmed me, I'm afraid; and O'Hagan's star attraction amounted to nothing more than a suggestion that the Presidential team might have been looking at nothing but a blank screen.  I imagine that many observers will have sensed, from the moment it first appeared, that this infamous image would have been staged.  Jaar's take on it is a valid and interesting one, but it hardly feels radical in the world of art photography in 2013 - not to me anyway (and Stezaker's collages from B-movie stills play with just the same idea).  And I think this was my problem with most of this exhibition.  There was nothing at all wrong with the message, nothing wrong with the questions being asked, and I certainly mean no disrespect to a well-established artist such as Alfredo Jaar, but I felt to be in a kind of 'time-shift' back to the eighties.  Whilst the Tillmans work was very definitely 'now', the Jaar exhibition feels like 'then', and as such, it lost some of its relevance and currency - to my view, at least.  Replacing a series of images of the Rwandan conflict with textual descriptions of the images and where they were taken - in French - is all very well, and makes a point, of course.  But I for one wasn't in a position to read them - having limited French - so it could just as effectively be making a point about the limitations of language as about the limitations of imagery.  Surely, also, the 'Politics of the Image' is a much more complex issue today, with the ever-increasing digital, internet-based imagery of the 'citizen journalist' with i-Phone, for example, and this exhibition seemed to be rooted in a slightly outdated question, with little or no reference to 'today'.  My reaction is, of course, partially derived from my sense that O'Hagan 'oversold' it - but I remain underwhelmed.

Could also be, I guess, that it was very, very hot that day, and there was no air-conditioning in the Eglise des Frères-Prêcheurs!!

Gilbert Garcin

Again, I had no knowledge of Garcin before my preparation and planning for the Arles visit, but I was immediately attracted to the prospect at a personal level.  He did not take up photography until he was 65, and he is now 84.  So - there is hope for all of us!!  Various publications and exhibitions have followed along the way, but this is a big exhibition, covering a large amount of his work from the last eighteen years.  His approach has been a relatively simple, but powerful one.  On a more or less weekly basis, he produces a photo-montage, black & white image, featuring himself (and sometimes his wife), as a character called 'Mister G', something akin to Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot, or Alfred Hitchcock appearing, briefly, as himself, in his own movies.  Here are the accompanying notes; and her is a link to his website -  This, to use a colloquialism, was 'right up my street'.  The montages involve all manner of ordinary objects - string, tape, ink, a dandelion - together with 'Mister G', manipulated into strange, imaginary scenes and landscapes, which, when combined with a thoughtful titles, present the viewer with wry comments or questions about life.  They are visually interesting, whimsical, sometimes 'laugh-out-loud' funny, but also strongly observational, thought-provoking, even philosophical - all in a very engagingly human and personal way.  If I have said that Tillmans exhibition felt like a 'now' and Jaar made me feel like 'then', Garcin is 'always'.  It is timeless.  The presentation is simple - smallish, framed prints, and lots of them - but the impact is strong, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The montage angle interested me, too, in the context of the direction I'm taking with Assignment Five, and (most unusually for me) I have to say that the black & white is perfect for these images, adding to the feeling of timelessness.

(More to follow.)

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