Arles 2015 Dispatch #3: Dark Tourism and The Heavens

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Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report

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. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award and the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People. In this post I’m looking at two bodies of work I found very interesting, but which didn’t seem to quite do what they suggested they might. They are Ambroise Tézenas’s I was There: Dark Tourism and Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report.

Ambroise Tézenas’s Dark Tourism was on display in the Grand Halle at the sprawling Parc du Atelier on the edge of Arles, along with a half a dozen or so other shows and the Discovery Award. For me its promise to investigate the macabre tourist practice of visiting sites of disaster and destruction made it instantly stand out from the other shows. One of my strongest memories of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkeanu concentration camp several years ago was seeing people smiling, giving thumbs ups and taking selfies in front of prison blocks and gas chambers, and to this day I’ve still wondered why people would react to a site like this in that way. Was it ghoulishness, or embarrassment? I hoped Dark Tourism was shine a light on this and other rather more crass examples of the way the past is commoditised and experienced as a site of tourism..

While Dark Tourism did do this a little, I was mostly disappointed. About a quarter of the photographs on display do focus directly on aspects of dark tourism, featuring for example a former Soviet era military prison in Latvia where guests can stay the night as prisoners. Mostly though Tézenas seemed to turn his lens on the sites themselves, producing beautiful if generic images of blood stained sites in Rwanda, China, Ukraine and other countries. This seemed to turn a potentially very interesting investigation into more or less an extension of the very thing it set out at the start to critique. Also I couldn’t help but feel the subtext of Dark Tourism was rather unsubtle, and failed to acknowledge the myriad reasons beyond simple macabre fascination that might lead people to these sites. These issues aside it was still an interesting exhibition and a recommended one amongst those in the Grand Halle.

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report  sets out to investigate the pertinent topic of the global tax havens where billions in untaxed money are sequestered away by large companies. The introductory blurb to the exhibition promises to shatter the traditional image of tax havens as tropical island paradises, a promise which is somewhat fulfilled. It opens very effectively with a darkened room, the walls ringed with photographs of familiar products and brands, all of which made use of a single Swiss banking scheme to reduce their tax liability. This is a very real demonstration of how tax dodging permeates into all our lives, simply in the products we surround ourselves with. Following this the other rooms contain more conventional documentary photographs of locations and people who play a significant part in the international network. From massive company mailbox centres in the Cayman Islands, to secure vaults built in a legal no-mans land underneath Singapore’s airport. Woods and Galimberti seek to show how tax evasion engenders other problems, for example often generating inequality in the parts of the world where these activities take place. One of the more powerful photographs shows a man in his tiny ‘cage home’ a type of micro-dwelling in Hong Kong, the product of an overheated housing market and growing inequality between rich and poor.

The photographs and their range is pretty great, the only major weakness was the difficult of concretely demonstrating the relationships between the disparate things that these images show. Global tax evasion is defined by its networked state, its complexity, and the essential invisibility of it’s relationships, and to bring to light this murky world would seem to require a rather different strategy to the conventional photographic one employed here (the Hans Haacke work featured in this post is, I think, a nice example of an alternative). This exhibition felt like a constellation of dots on a scatter graph, where someone was yet to draw the line that connects them all. I also slightly amused to  see the exhibition sponsored by Olympus, given their questionable finance arrangements, outed by the company’s own CEO back in 2011. Perhaps by throwing weight behind this exhibition Olympus is looking to join the relatively small band of companies who are taking a stand against these sorts of shady financial dealings. In short, The Heavens, Annual Report is another very well photographed and well-constructed exhibition, a timely argument against tax havens, even if I rather felt it suffered in the end from the difficulties photographs find in showing the sometimes quite abstract relationship between one thing and another.

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