Monday, 5 August 2013

Les Rencontres d'Arles - Part Two

Rue de la Calade, Arles

Back home and reflecting on the week in Arles, I come to the conclusion that the experience must provide a series of starting points from which I might pursue further research and exploration, as a when.  That's a pragmatic thought.  Even with a high level of selectivity, I seem to have seen so much that attempting to go beyond an initial, personal response would take an enormous amount of time.  I notice, for example, that last week, a series of videos have appeared on the Rencontres d'Arles blog - here.  They are mostly of use to those who have good French, of course, but there is a great deal of material for further exploration - quite apart from the temptation to go off and do further research via the regular routes.  So this post will just summarise my own reactions to several of the other exhibitions visited, not necessarily supported, at this stage, by further research.  In no particular order ...

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Japanese photography is something of a 'thin' area in my own knowledge & experience, so I was keen to take the opportunity to look at the two Sugimoto shows.  His colour show - Couleurs d'Ombre - is a commercially supported work, in collaboration with the Hermès brand.  Colour Polaroid images, created by Sugimoto with a prism to refract the natural sunlight and a mirror to focus on the particular hues, are printed onto silk scarves.  The presentation, in the Église Saint-Blaise, a small, disused chapel, where the scarves are suspended either side of the knave, reminded me of heraldic banners.  They are beautifully printed and presented, but I couldn't seem to get far beyond the notion of brand positioning and the commercial realties of what was on show.

Entering the space where his second show - Revolution - takes place also feels akin to a religious experience.  Tall black and white prints, getting on for 3 metres high and of immaculate quality, line each side of a long room - maybe 5 or 6 each side, I didn't count them; and there are two smaller prints, one at each end.  The lights are relatively dim - with a strong spot on each image - and the room is air-conditioned, which adds to the sense that one has entered a special (sacred?) space.  Perhaps, thinking back, one is immediately led to consider form and presentation, and into a mood of contemplation, meditation and detachment.  Sugimoto's intro notes discuss out-of-body experiences and dream-like sensations - so there is a very clear intention behind this very careful staging.  It seems almost irrelevant to discuss the subject matter and content of the images.  They are from some older negatives of his - seascapes, mainly, often long exposures that show the track of the moon or stars in a night sky; and the exact locations are available in some separate notes, if you want them and can read them in the dim light.  But the images, originally in a panoramic framing, have been stood on their ends ('revolved' through 90 degrees) and printed on this monumental scale to produce huge monochromatic abstracts that reminded me of Rothko's 'black' paintings that I saw some years ago.  (Then I discover that there was a joint show last year - (from the Guardian) - and that Sugimoto acknowledges a Rothko exhibition of 1978 as a major influence, so no great surprise!)  Sugimoto also refers to humans of the future looking back at the limitations of our 'geocentric' thinking and, despite the scale and the abstraction, I feel something strongly humanistic about the experience (a slight qualification of my reference to religion, perhaps).  And, reflecting afterwards, I make a link to another exhibition seen elsewhere - the British Museum's presentation of art from 20-40,000 years ago ... a continuum, maybe.  It seems, though, to be form that matters here - abstract forms; immaculate prints; muted, moody, monochromes ('yes' - black and white is relevant today, in answer to the Rencontres' overall question); carefully staged presentation - there is a lot to take away and think about here.

Jacques Henri Lartigue - Bibi
Lartigue Show, Église des Trinitaires

Another large exhibition in a church, the show comprises prints of Lartigue's photos from 1918-30, mainly featuring his first wife - Bibi.  They are accompanied by some limited text quoting his written feelings about her and some more detailed curatorial and contextual boards.  It is a visual narrative of his life, at a time when very few, if any, were doing such a thing.  Often, these are intimate shots and family photos - but all to a very high standard of composition and framing that is characteristic of Lartigue.  There is also plenty of evidence of his remarkable ability to capture movement with superb timing (can't help feeling that he must have wasted a lot of film practising ... though the truth is probably that he was just very, very good).  In this context, one has to respect his vision in being able to see what might be possible, let alone his ability to carry it off.  At another level, of course, one has to be aware of the privileged young man who can have the time, the equipment and opportunity to mess around with his camera; and the back-story of the relationship with Bibi, for whom he claimed to feel so much and yet let her down and cheated, so that she eventually left him.  It is, though, a privilege to have the chance to see the original work of a very talented and innovative photographer.

Viviane Sassen - In and out of fashion

In this video, Vivianne Sassen says that the show is of her fashion work, not her personal work, and that it is fashion, not art.  She is very best person to make that judgement - so, it is not art!  I did enjoy her show, particularly the light show/installation in the final room, which I tried to capture a little of in these two photographs.


It combines projection, angled mirrors, a white floor and walls, a slideshow, and more mirrors - very 'fashion', I guess, but certainly an experience.  She is surreal; she is edgy; she is also funny and provocative; and I enjoyed the show - yet another contrast with so much else.  There is one question that lingers - largely emerging from subsequent discussion with John U and with my wife.  How would some of her work be viewed if it had been shot by a male photographer?  Does it, and should it, make any difference?  There was, of course, a lengthy discussion in a not dissimilar vein on the OCA's WeAreOCA blog - a hugely complicated, and at times delicate, issue that I'm not going to explore further here.
John Davies - France England
The exhibition spans two rooms - one containing the familiar landscape images of England - mostly changing urban environments, photographed from 1980s to early 2000s; and the other, images from Northern France, also about changing environments, but this time more rural and relating to the arrival of the A26 Autoroute.  The prints are all black & white, characteristically large scale, and typical of Davies' 'stand-back', non-committed, democratic view.  There is, on the whole, a clear difference of 'scale' between the complex UK urban pictures, usually shot from an elevated position, and the more intimate, less complex, and not always elevated views of France.  In the context of the Rencontres' question about black & white imagery, i do wonder whether Davies' work has a dated feel about it.  The photographs from the 1980s have a very definite feeling of their time; but then, when one comes across a photograph of Sheffield in the 2000s, in the same style, it can be confusing.  Of course, Davies is, I assume, seeking consistency, but I feel less comfortable with the more contemporary views.

John Stezaker - Working from the collection
This is the first time I have seen Stezaker's work 'in the flesh', and I enjoyed it very much.  There were plenty of the 'familiar' 2-image split collages - portraits; some B-movie stills; some replacing the direction of gaze with a 'cut-out' looking like a blank projection screen (note the Jaar image mentioned in my previous post) - and a fascinating series of tiny 'cut-outs' of people walking, looking, standing, all of them details from what must have been much larger images that we will never see, plus a video comprising rapidly changing images of horses, over 3000 of them collected over several years.  Not only have I not seen much of his work, but I haven't research too much background either - so a book is 'on order' to put that right.  The use of found images is helpful in informing what I' trying to do with Assignment Five, and I note the significance of 'line' in his collage combinations.  The human eye seems to look for some link or line between the images - often, in Stezaker's portraits, an eyebrow or a hairline - which is then 'challenged' by the disparity elsewhere in the images.  I note the high quality aesthetic at work - the quality of the original images, the precision and care in the cutting and matching.  As I say, more research needed here, to get a better understanding of his process and intention.
Sergio Larrain - Retrospective
This was another new name, to me, very much in the mould of Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Bravo etc, a sensitive and artistic street documentary style, familiar but also with some differences.  I found some of his framing and compositional choices interesting.  He had no problem with breaking the rules - leaving things outside the frame for the viewer to imagine, whilst presenting a detail that hinted at what lay beyond.  Interesting, also, that he chose to 'drop out' of the world of art photography, choosing from the late 1970s to live in isolation in his native Chile, and only, it seems, agreeing late in his life to the principle of a retrospective such as the one on show here.  I'm glad to have seen it.
Christina de Middel - Afronauts
I missed the OCA study visit to the Deutsche Bourse finalists, so this was a chance to see de Middel's nominated series.  The context is the unlikely, but apparently factual, premise of the 1964 Zambian space mission, combined with her interest in challenging the "veracity of photography as a document" (exhibition notes) and turning a 50 year old fact into a photographic history.  The presentation worked well for me - some 'blow-ups' of what purported to be contemporaneous black and white 'evidence'; images of mistyped letters, echoing and older, slower form of communication that might just have allowed this idea to develop; big prints with rounded corners on the framing, that seemed to refer back to 1960/70s transparencies or a TV screen; images hung on boards covered in silver foil, a historic signifier of 'space' suits and reflective materials.  There was a gentle humour about the whole thing - though I could see how it might be read as somewhat patronising to Africa/Africans.  Then again, is that deliberate?  More a reflection on the delusions and extravagance of some African leaders? I'm not sure, and I haven't had the opportunity to follow through with further research/reading - but it's an interesting project.  Worthy of a nomination for a major photographic prize? That's open to some question, I think.
Marion Gronier - The Glorious Ones
This is a BMW supported project, in conjunction with the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce, in which Marion Gronier photographs circus performers just after they have come out of the ring, following their performance.  The slightly odd-ball nature of the somewhat motley crew of performers and the presence of vast amounts of make-up with bright costumes, together with perspiration and tiredness, make for interesting portraits.  They are all head-&-shoulders,  in full colour, large square-shaped prints, mainly mounted before framing, but some not.  There is an accompanying video in which there is some discussion between Gronier and the Musée curator about framing, prior to the first showing of these images at Paris Photo.  She seems to prefer no mounts, but the BMW-backed curator holds sway!  He also wrote the accompanying notes, which are here.  Far be it from me to question the validity of his comments - and it is clearly a translation from the French, which may not help, but good as the work is, his hyperbole seems to me to go a little way over the top!  Watching the video, one can empathise with Gronier and the moment she is trying to capture.  It is interesting to see her at work and I like the outcome - but this seems to me to be one of those occasions when the curator's words don't provide a great deal of help to either artist or viewer.  But it might just be me?  Seeing her working did take me back to some portraits I did for People & Place and made me wonder whether it would be interesting to return to 'people' at Level Three - something to think about.
We did see several other exhibitions - Eric Kessels interesting exploration of the family album; Stéphane Coutourier's intriguing montage of stage-preparations for the Avignon Festival; the SFR Emerging Talents series, with a theme of 'Manipulation', notably Vincent Fillon's beautiful and intricate merging of pairs of 'before and after' images of the same interior during demolition/construction; Antoine Gonin's 'abstract landscapes'; and so on.  Arles has been a really positive and inspiring experience, with so much to take away and consider, too much to document fully.  I hope I get the chance to do it again another year.

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