Arles 2015 Dispatch #4: Souvenirs of the Sphinx and North Korea

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Wouter Deruytter, Souvenirs of the Sphinx

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 of the festivals highlights. I’ve already highlighted the best of the Discovery Award, the great exhibitions of historic photos in Vernacular and Spirits of the Tierra del Fuego People and the very interesting but not entirely resolved Dark Tourism and The Heavens, Annual Report exhibitions. In this post I’m looking at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propaganda and Reality.

The first exhibition is fittingly housed at the Arles Museum of Antiquities, a little walk away from the town but also playing host to an exhibition of Walker Evans photographs which makes it worth the walk. Curated by Luce Lebart, Souvenirs of the Sphinx draws on the collection of Wouter Deruytter, a photographer who has amassed an extensive collection of photographs and drawings of this ancient monument. Starting with rather fantastical pre-photographic illustrations presumably made by artists who had not seen the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza first hand but only heard them described, the exhibition then traces through the advent of photography and into the modern era, concluding with several of Deruytter’s own photographs of the Sphinx and it’s interior.

What is consistent in the exhibition is  obviously the desire of those who witnessed the Sphinx to make a recording of it, invariably with themselves in the frame. It is maybe not surprising that a monument which had stood impassively in the desert sands for nearly fifty centuries would make an impression, it is like a physical embodiment of history, a structure which wears the damage of time, and is periodically threatened with being engulfed by the sands that surround it. To stand on the Sphinx must have felt like standing on history, and one senses from many of the photographs that the subjects were making one of two statements. Perhaps simply attesting that they were here, and in sense this exhibition is an apt one to visit before or after seeing the Dark Tourism exhibition discussed last week. Or perhaps more complexly in photographing themselves with history these explorers, soldiers and tourists sought in some sense to claim it for their own.

The second small exhibition I want to highlight is Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, which is really one of the few bodies of work I saw during my time in Arles which really made me feel excited about photography. For this piece Wielinga combines her own photographs taken during an extended trip through North Korea with socialist realist propaganda paintings of fierce soldiers, noble workers and idealised Korean landscapes. Digitally manipulating the two together, the result is a perfect mix of painting and photography, one which much like traditional propoganda demands viewers take time and engage in careful investigation to separate truth and fiction from one another.

What I think is particularly clever about the work though is the way that by taking two forms of propaganda (the paintings, and her own photographs, inevitably staged managed by government minders) Wielinga manages in effect to short circuit them both. By revealing the incongruities between these two images she reveals the bizarre fiction that is North Korea’s public image, and hints at the bleak reality that lies just beneath the surface. The work is also being projected in a remarkable venue, a damp husk of an old church, but really the detail of the images is such that they need to be seen printed and viewed close up, and although the multimedia piece on display offers some interesting insight into the production of the work it dosen’t provide the same resolution. The high quality images on Wielinga’s website are a good alternative though for viewers keen to see these images in the detail they demand.

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