Writing on photography

Arles 2015 Dispatch #1: Discovery Award

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. To kick off, The Discovery Award is something I’ve heard people rave about in past years and so it was an obvious early point on my itinerary. The award tasks five curators with choosing two artists each who they believe deserve more recognition for their work. Here I pick out five of them that I think are particularly worth a look.

I’ve already written at length about Lisa Barnard’s book Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden, and it was nice to see it included in this award. I rate the work for a number of reasons, partly because of the politics that lie behind it and also because of the visual strategies Barnard uses to try and make those visible. Perhaps mostly I like it though because of all the artists making work about drones, Barnard is one of the few who’s work goes beyond purely mechanical observations about the technology. Given the complexity of the book the display for the discovery award packs an enormous amount into a relatively small space.

Robert Zhao Renhui’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was another nice inclusion. Renhui’s project blurs the line between fine art photography, scientific research and perhaps also advocacy, by creating an extensive account of species which have been altered by mankind. This ranges from fish purposefully bred or coloured to give pleasing appearances, to bees which have spontaneously developed an addiction to soda. Viewed together these examples make for a rather damning indictment of man’s effect on the planet and it’s other inhabitants. Perhaps inevitably given the subject and appraoch photography is very controlled, even rather cold, which for me rather limited the amount of time I wanted to spend with it.

Pauline Fargue’s No Day is another display worth mentioning (and since writing Fargue has won the Discovery Award). The display consists of a series of a number of Fargue’s notebooks, produced over a span of twelve years and which function as places for her experiment with images and text. Within these books she cuts and pastes photographs, blending them with text and drawing and in the proccess producing a beautiful and inspiring body of work, modest in scale but and epic in scope. The work touches on no epic issue of the day, and the method employed is very simple, but as a meditation on photography and writing in one of it’s most intimate forms the work is very powerful. ‘Let no day pass without a line’ wrote Walter Benjamin but, he concluded, ‘there will be weeks’.

The Shilo Group (Vlad Krasnoshchok, Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vadym Trykoz) are a Ukranian collective who’s work responds to the current state of their country and their display consists of three bodies of more or less inter-related work. Negatives are Stored consists of a series of crudely overpainted old photographs ‘restored’ as the collective put it, through the addition of surreal drawings some of which are varyingly touching, funny and entirely crass. The second project, Euromaidan, was published as a book last year and might be the group’s best known work. It documents the protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square in grainy black and white photographs, reminiscent of the photographs of 1970’s Japanese protest photography. Lastly ATO does similar with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and is for me the most problematic of the groups work given it’s allusions to photography of the Second World War’s eastern front.

The final space is occupied by A Kind of Display by The Cool Couple (comprising Niccolo Benetton and Simone Santilli) and deserves recognition if only for the performative side of it. Their work, which focuses on the political, cultural and historical dimensions of the beard, includes a barbers chair and live barber offering visitors free shaves in the exhibition space. Aside from this their display consists of a series of beard photographs printed on barber’s smocks and three 3D printed heads of historic beard wearers. A little disappointingly the display itself rather fails to live up to it’s promise and doesn’t penetrate very far into what could be a very interesting (if masculine) topic.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography