Arles 2016 Dispatch #5: Overall Impressions

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Girl from Contact Sheet 2 (Darkroom Manuals), 2013.
Courtesy of the artist, Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

This week I’ve been in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ve been posting a series of rapid fire posts summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which examine ideas about European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. For the next post I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I looked some of the ten photographers shortlisted for the the annual Discovery Award, and for this final piece I thought I would sum up my general feelings about the festival this year and mention a few final exhibitions I didn’t have time to discuss in previous posts.

In summing up the 2015 festival my chief complaint about Recontres Les Arles was that it’s exhibitions and displays all concieved of photography in a very traditional way and gave little space for new ways of thinking about the value of photography or the ways in which it might be manipulated and displaued. Despite the new director Sam Stourdzé’s proclamation that the festival is not a museum, there was little in 2015 that challenged prevailing thought about what photography is, thought which remains rooted in the idea of it as something which exists in isolation as a discrete object, which be held, bought, sold. While this conception of photography might be comforting for photographers and artists, it is far from the reality of photography as it is experience by the majority of people in the world, for whom the medium become something binary, networked, both ever owned and ownable, and constantly prone to being mutated or changed. That absence was perhaps was understandable last year since it was a moment of transition for the festival, so the 2016 festival is maybe a better opportunity to test the extent to which the festival and it’s new director are loyal to the present as well as the past of photography. Certainly new practices were noticeable in the numerous exhibitions of the 2016 festival, whether in the anarchic multiple projections of Christian Marclay’s Pub Crawl, in the distorted scans of Sara Cwynar (pictured above), in the fragmented pixel and Photoshop art of Nothing but Blue Skies, or in the 3d meshes of Hito Steryl’s computer generated video The Tower, part of the Systematically Open exhibition which has inaugurated the new La Mecanique Generale building in Parc des Ateliers. These types of works were though were still relatively few and far between, and where it occurred the focus was invariably on experimental work by relatively safe, collectible, name artists rather than younger or earlier career photographers.

One thing which was very noticeable this year was the sheer number of exhibitions, and their scale and opulence. Looming over Parc des Atelier this year was the LUMA foundation’s new premises, a twisting tower block, ten stories of concrete and steel which looks unforgivably out of place on the very traditional skyline of Arles with it’s red roofs and innumerable church spires. The tower seems like an apt symbol for the problem with many of the exhibitions I saw, which were overlarge and sometimes staged in ways which felt unsympathetic to the work. This was the case of Yann Gross’s The Jungle Show, installed in a darkened space on a series of massive stacked light boxes, the installation was superficially compelling but did the work no favours. In other cases, it was simply a matter of scale, with many exhibitions which would have been utterly engrossing if they been half the size, but which scaled as they were instead only encouraged fatigue in a viewer. Sincerely Queer, a potentially fascinating exhibition of historic photographs of transvestites would be an example of this, with twenty fairly similar photographs often used to illustrate each of the curator’s ideas, when five carefully selected images would have done the same job and given a viewer the breathing room to really study each image. Similar issues abounded in more contemporary issues like Yan Morvan’s Battlefields, which was an interesting if conventional documentary work on battlefields around the world, but was again just too big to properly enjoy or to engage with the extensive and detailed wall texts. I could list quite a few other exhibitions this year which in photographic terms felt like an all you can eat buffet, when what I and many I spoke to at the festival felt a hunger for was more like nouveau cuisine. In terms of complex staging, Eamon Doyle’s End was one of the few that I felt justified it’s elaborateness, with a cleverly thought out use of large wall vinyls combining with a freestanding Family of Man style grid of images in the center of the space which caused wall and grid to align with each other in intriguing and unexpected ways as a viewer moves through the space.

A large part of what made the 9/11 exhibition Nothing but a Clear Blue Sky stand out for me was that rather than filling a massive space with a vast number of images on a loosely connected theme, this show essentially asked visitors to engage with just one image, that of the burning twin towers, but to do so repeatedly and in way which was cumulative across the breadth of the show. While there were certainly things I didn’t like about this exhibition, this key difference felt hugely refreshing and it is one of the reasons this is one of my top exhibitions of the festival. Similarly the small display of Maude Sulter’s Syrcas series was engaging in part because with so few pieces on display it felt manageable to really spend time with each one and study the subtlety and thought that went into their making. This same problem of scale was also really evident with the book awards. Last year a relatively small number were on display and it was feasible to look through each one, and to look through some of them in depth. This year not only has the number of prizes expanded to include a new Photo Text award, but also the system of displaying shortlisted works has gone out of the window and there were such a quantity of books on show (shortlisted and not) that it would probably take most of the week to look through them, hence why I have not attempted a best of the books post as I did last time. Amongst such scale there were also some appalling mistakes, including some books installed cover down to the reading tables. As I wandered through the vast space of the Grand Halle of the Parc du Ateliers I did start to wonder whether the problem with the penchant for art exhibitions in such mammoth disused industrial spaces is that the curators feel the irresistible need to fill every inch of them.

In conclusion, Recontres Les Arles continues to stage consistently strong exhibitions, which are generally well curated and which are almost always executed to the high standards of display you would expect from a permanent, professional gallery. Photography is well represented both in terms of historically significant art works, archival and vernacular photography, and in certain forms of contemporary photography, but I feel the festival needs to run faster to keep up with the way photographers and artists are employing digital forms of image making, and even moving beyond these into employing technologies and methodologies which might be a hard sell to describe as photography. The money and venues keep coming, but what the festival needs far is more thought about what it means to show the work that it does in that way that it does, and also a careful consideration about the experience it wants visitors to have. The problem is with such a considerable amount of money clearly flowing in from sources like the LUMA Foundation these questions may be difficult ones to ask, let alone answer, and with all those massive spaces to fill it may continue to be overwhelmingly tempting to commission shows which are oversized and initially eye catching, but which was in curatorial terms weaker than they might have been. Above all what is really worth pondering is what happens to the festival if that flow of money on which it seems now to depend should ever comes to an end.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #4: The Discovery Award

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Seeking to Belong, Stranger in Familiar Land series, Kibera, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. The day before yesterday I focused on two more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western. For my penultimate post I want to look at some of the ten photographers nominated by five international selectors for the the annual Discovery Award shortlist, a €25,000 prize for photographers who ‘have recently been discovered, or deserve to be’.

First up, Florian Ebner head of the Photographic Collection at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, has selected Stephanie Kiwitt and Frank Berger as his nominees. The latter’s series Weissenfels responds to the oft repeated observation by Bertolt Brecht that a photograph of an armaments factory reveals little about the relations that take place inside it. Berger’s answer to this problem is instead to rephotograph the same locations outside a German slaughterhouse repeatedly over an extended period of time, which are then shown as a multi-screen projection. While these images certainly tell us a little more than a single image (if only in that we can see the passage of livestock in one direction and lorries of schnitzel heading in the other) they don’t really offer a solution to the problem Brecht identified, nor do they at all critically examine what his idea actually means when applied the best part of a century later to a world already awash with repetitive images.

Independent curator Mouna Mekouar has selected Basma Alsharif and Daisuke Yokota as her nominated artists. As someone often on the lips of curators and critics at the moment my money would be on Yokota to win the prize. His use of space is certainly the most ambitious and engaging in this year’s awards, with long rolls of half developed photographic paper coiling down from a ceiling gantry (still reeking of developer), and walls padded with spiky acoustic foam. Unfortunately, the descriptive text on the wall which describes photographing at night and relying on senses other than sight to identify subject matter seems to bear little relation to what is presented in the space and I felt rather disengaged with the work despite it’s scale. I sometimes wonder if it is Yokota’s adherence to comfortingly old fashioned analogue processes in an age of digital uncertainty and dematerialisation which appeal to his adherents as much, or perhaps more, than the actual ideas his work claims to explore.

Critic, curator and director Stéphanie Moisdon has choosen Marie Angeletti and Christodoulos Panayiotou for her selection. Panayiotou’s work which explores ideas about power, capitalism and globalisation manages to be engaging and subtle without being overly oblique, thanks in part to some short but useful wall texts for each piece (notably absent in some of the other displays which are desperately needed them). Three improvised water sculptures create a calming aural backdrop but also have a serious point to make about the value added by clever arrangements of objects or proccessing of natural materials. The perception of power is also another central idea in Panayiotou’s photographs of underwater piping systems constructed to feed the fountains of the French palace of Versaille, a potent image of the monarch’s power and one which reputedly consumed as much water each day as the city of Paris. The last of the three pieces in his display is a photograph of artificial flowers in Hong Kong, taken as part of what the photographer describes as a sort of reverse pilgrimage to the sites of globalised power.

Aida Muluneh founder of Ethiopia’s Addis Foto Fest has shortlisted Nader Adem and Sarah Waiswa as her two nominees. Adem’s series Life as a Disabled Person is a surprise amongst a shortlist of photography which, as last year, is very much more on the conceptual rather than descriptive side of things. By contrast Adem’s work is traditional documentary, black and white photographs of Ethiopians living with an array of physical disabilities. In the context of a prize like this one it might be seen as rather brave to nominate a work which many in the contemporary photography world might see as quaintly naive. Probably my favourite of the Discovery award was Muluneh’s other nomination, Sarah Waiswa, and her series Strange in a Familiar Land, a series of portraits of an Albino woman in Nairobi’s Kiberia slum. Alongside a print each frame contains a pertinent object, in the most touching case a tear stained letter in which the author speaks desperately of wanting to belong and to be considered beautiful. In many of the photographs the jeers and goads of passersby are palpable in the background, although it is unclear if they are aimed at the subject or the photographer.

Finally Stefano Stoll, the director of the Swiss Festival Images, has selected Beni Bischof and Sara Cwynar as his two artists. Bischof’s display is an anarchic assemblage of defaced and reworked images from mass culture. His appropriated images are burnt, daubed with chewing gum, and Photoshopped into monstrous pastiches of their original purpose. Garish signs scattered around the space invoke audience members ‘Detox your thoughts’ and ‘Disturb reality’. Despite the complexity of the display and Stoll and Bischof’s attempts to talk up the work it is remarkably underwhelming, like a weak update of the First International Dada Fair held in 1920 in Berlin, but with little new added in the interim and no real challenge posed to the audience, an assessment which might stand for quite a few of the other works in this year’s shortlist.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #3: Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western

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Kent Rogowski, Love = Love. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which consider European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Next I discussed two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and 9/11 focused the group show Nothing but Blue Skies. Today I want to look at two slightly more humorous exhibitions, Fabulous Failures and Camarguais Western.

Fabulous Failures, which has been curated by Erik Kessels, bills itself as a celebration of experiments gone wrong but which in a way have also right and revealed something odd, funny or thought provoking. I love the idea and was hoping for an exhibition of photography which is unintentionally mistake ridden, but instead this is generally more a case of photographers turning their lenses on other people’s mistakes or manufacturing them artificially, rather than acknowledging their own unintentional ones. An example is Thomas Mailaender’s Toilet Fail, a book of photographs of badly thought out arrangements of toilets (awkwardly facing each other, barely accessible behind the stall door, and so on). Likewise Joan Fontcuberta’s Constellations series is, like much of his work, an intentional misleading of the audience, less his mistake than ours. Jochamin Schmind’s Purple was for me one of the highlights of the show, a series of images taken with a digital camera in it’s death throes, the photographs are all cast in a purple hue and distorted by extreme artefacts.

Other artists rework existing material into things which look like mistakes. Kent Rogowski’s Love = Love mixes jigsaw puzzles together to create images where two different subjects merge together into a fragmented form. Despite the very analogue, physical means of creating these images they have a strangely digital, pixelated look. Another nice inclusion is Ruth van Beek’s series The Levitators a series of vintage postcards of dogs which have been cleverly folded on themselves to make it appears as if each animal is levitating. In many cases this means they also lose many distinguishing features; legs, eyes, mouths, and the result is a typology of strange mop like bundles of fur hovering a foot off the ground. If I had a criticism it would be that the individual works in Fabulous Failures are sometimes overshadowed by the staging which plays on the idea of failure to a slightly ridiculous degree. Anyone allergic to the recent trend for objects to be propped up against the gallery wall as if their installers had forgotten to finish the job is advised to stay away from this. In the case of Rogowski’s series it actually looks a little as if part the installation has collapsed into a pile on the floor and no one has bothered to pick it up. The layout is amusing for a while but sometimes gets in the way of just enjoying what’s on show, something exacerbated by the confusion amongst some of the visitors about how to transit the chaotic arrangements.

While Fabulous Failures is unashamedly quirky in content and form, Camarguais Western tells a strange story in a straight way. This exhibition curated by Estelle Rouquette and Sam Stourdzé, looks at how the Camargue region of France became an unlikely backdrop for a series of western style films, made from the birth of cinema through until the 1960’s. Initially the Camargue acted as a double for the wild west, passing for genuine American locations in films like Drame Mexacain (1904) and the brilliantly named Le Railway De Mort (1912). With it’s rugged and inhospitable landscape it makes a convincing replacement, even if the architecture of the frontier town sets and many of the actors appear unmistakably European. Camargue in this period remained very much a frontier even within France, its inhospitable terrain, bulls, and numerous mosquitoes (which, trust me, remain numerous today) making life difficult for this interpreid film makers who resorted to guzzling quantities pastis to ward off illness. The stills on display, both publicity images and behind the scenes photographs are wonderful and are supported by some brilliant posters and clips from the featured films.

Work on these early films were stalled by the coming of the First World War but following it’s end French directors began to assert a new confidence. During the interwar periods the location for these epics was increasingly acknowledged to be Carmague as in films like Roi de Camargue (1934) and the brilliant Mirelle (1933). Inspired by a Frédéric Mistral poem, this film depicts a landscape and people every bit as wild as that of the Far West. In one particularly brilliant scene the antagonist cowhand Ourrias wrestles a bull to the floor with his bare hands in a display of compelling brute force made all the more incredible by the abscence of stuntment or special effects. What’s also interesting is the way some of the more complex and questionable politics of Westerns were replicated in their French equivalents, for example in the way Roma characters often took the equivalent role to Native Americans. Later films including the campy D’où viens-tu Johnny (1963) which stars Johhny Halliday as a Parisian forced to flee to the south after dumping a case of someone else’s cocaine in the Seine. Cue some brilliantly naff musical numbers and great behind the scenes stills photography by Claude Schwartz. While the popularity of the Carmague as France’s wild frontier waned in this period, the show ends with a small display showing it’s continued influence in the form of several bizarre images of modern leaders emulating the cowboy lifestyle. Perhaps the most brilliant is a photograph by Dominique Faget of former French president Sarkozy riding a placid horse down a road while pursued by a tractor pulling a trailer full of journalists It’s an piece of media every bit as surreal as those early silent films of cowboys roving across the South of France.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #2: Looking Beyond the Edge and Nothing But Blue Skies.

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Reeve Schumacher, #1, from the Nothing but Blue Skies series, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. Yesterday I looked at Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in different but complementary ways. Today I’m focusing on two conflict exhibitions, Don McCullin’s Looking Beyond the Edge and the group show Nothing but Blue Skies.

Looking Beyond the Edge curated by Tate’s Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian is a sizeable show of work by veteran war photographer Don McCullin, however what makes it a little different is the way that it studiously avoids the imagery of war, famine and disaster that he is best known for. Instead the exhibition brings together series made before and between the overseas assignments which made McCullin’s name. It opens with photographs taken in his native north London, a decayed and battered place when seen through the photographer’s viewfinder. Despite the similarity in time, place and subject to other photographers, say Roger Mayne, there is none of the same lightness. Indeed viewing these smoggy streets and lost looking people it’s immediately striking how McCullin’s photographs have a knack for making everything look like a war, and this is an idea which repeatedly emerges with almost every set of images in this show. The closest we get to actual conflict are photographs taken in 1961 as the Berlin Wall began to be constructed. In these images armed soldiers faced each other across this most unnatural of borders but the real focus is on the ordinary Berliners who look on with a mixture of quiet curiosity and mounting concern.

The majority of remaining photographs are from the United Kingdom. McCullin’s photographs of the north of England, covering cities like Bradford and regions like Northumberland, seem to depict a society which is in the process of tearing itself apart. In this sense they are strongly reminiscent of work by contemporaries like Chris Killip, indeed at times their subject matter perfectly converges, and one wonders if the two photographers ever passed one another on the same half abandoned street. Also on display are photographs of homeless Londoners taken in Whitechapel in the 1980’s, which call to mind Moyra Peralta’s photographs taken in the same period. One thing that’s immediately obvious though in this comparison is the distance in McCullin’s work, these are very much the photographs of a photojournalist, taken at a respectful range while Peralta’s photographs put you right up with the subjects, as if they were sitting alongside you. Because of this and more I find her photographs moving while McCullin’s often actually feel more uncomfortably distant, even when a face fills the frame. Lastly and maybe most out of place are McCullin’s landscape photographs, many taken in Somerset where he now lives. Lacking captions or titles, these images feel out of place next to the more issue based work, especially since like all his other works they have the foreboding tone of place where a war or similar cataclysm might have just passed by, or perhaps is just about to arrive. In all Looking Beyond the Edge is an interesting show, a different look at a familiar name and altogether a more convincing coherent use of this space by the two curators than the show of Japanese work which appeared here last year.

If Looking Beyond the Edge studiously avoids images of conflict, then Nothing but Blue Skies might be seen as a consideration of the opening salvo in an entirely new type of conflict, one where the role of photographers like Don McCullin remains hugely uncertain. Curated by Mélanie Bellue and festival director Sam Stourdzé, the exhibition draws together artists who have looked in very different ways at the impact of the attacks of September 11th 2001. The show opens with a room consisting of dozens of newspaper front pages collected by Hans-Peter Feldmann and spread across all four walls. This simple but powerful display underlines both the heterogeneity of media responses to the attack, ranging from the hyperbolic to the measured, and also hinting at the complex role that the media played in perpetuating the shock of these events through their reporting of them. Headlines scream of a ‘World under attack’, an ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘40,000 dead’. The media’s ambiguous role in this event is picked up in a short text by Jean Paul Curnier, one of several that sit in the space alongside the works and which each briefly examine pertinent issues around the visualization of the attacks. The prescience of these texts in the gallery seems to me like a tacit acknowledgment by the curators that to allow images like these to ‘speak for themselves’ is inherently fraught, and that even after mediation by artists they still require further context and explanation.

Proceeding further into the show the works become more meditative and more about the aftermath and memory of the attacks. Cotton Under my Feet by Waalid Raad charts his fraught attempts to recall the colour of the sky on the day of the attacks. In order to do so the artist starts to collect images of the New York skyline which he then proceeds to digitally cut away at, removing everything in the image but the sky itself. The cuts are jagged, violent and the white patches left behind where areas have been removed are both resonant of absence, but also suggestive in their outlines, hinting in many cases at the shape of the World Trade Centre, in one case the outline of an airliner impossibly similar to the one which was immortalized by countless cameras as it curved gracefully into the second tower. The works in this show also rove far wider than photography. Save Manhattan 2 by Mounir Fatmi is a model cityscape roughly similar to Manhattan, but constructed out of VHS cassettes. The magnetic guts of these tapes spills out onto the floor around the sculpture like the cloud of dust which settled over the island after the collapse of the towers. Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski is the final piece of the show and in many respects the one which left the greatest impression. In it, video clips extracted from Hollywood movies are montaged together into a narrative reassembling the chronology of the attacks. The effect is strangely powerful, as disparate clips extracted from American Psycho, Wall Street, Die Hard, Independence Day, Marathon Man and many others combine with the viewer’s memory of that day to create an account which recalls documentary films like 102 Minutes That Changed America but hovers uncomfortably between fact and fiction. Lurking behind the work is a commentary on the United State’s dark fascination with images of it’s own destruction and the subtext that before the day which ‘changed everything’ these same images had already been rehearsed on the silver screen a thousand times.

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Arles 2016 Dispatch #1: Methods of Loci and Syrcas

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Alas The Heroine: Madame Laura Is at Home, 1993, from the Syrcas series.
Courtesy of The Maud Sulter Estate and Autograph ABP.

This week I’m in France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. Like last year I’ll be posting a series of rapid fire posts over the next few days summing up some of my festival highlights. First up are Stephanie Solinas’s Methods of Loci and Maud Sulter’s Syrcas, two exhibitions which look at ideas of European history, race and empire in very differnt but strangely complementary ways.

Methods of Loci by French photographer Stephanie Solinas was one of the first exhibitions I visited, partly because it is housed in one of my favourite of the town’s venues, the former cloisters of St-Trophime in the centre of Arles. The work’s title refers to a mnemonic technique, also known as the memory palace, which originated in ancient Greece to aid orators in the memorization of complex speeches (by coincidence I have an exhibition on exactly the same theme opening in London next week). The methods of loci technique exploits the power of spatial memory in order to improve a person’s ability to remember much more abstract information, the sort of thing we normally struggle to recall. In Solinas’s work this method becomes a strange sort of metaphor for her examination of the Lustucru Hall, a monumental industrial derelict on the edge of Arles. Originally constructed by the Eiffel Company for a colonial exhibition held in 1905 in Marseille, this grand building was dismantled at the end of the exhibition, relocated to Arles and served as a rice warehouse with periodic uses for other purposes including as a barracks for the French, German and American armies during the Second World War. In 2003 it was flooded, it’s use as warehouse ended and today it faces an uncertain future.

Solinas’s work investigates the space of this structure and in doing so also it’s history, both it’s specific, local history and also it’s place as part of a much broader world history. She employs a diverse set of strategies to probe the space, examining it through archive imagery, through interviews with those who have worked in or studied it, through an exploration of it’s natural history and even through sound. As these examinations are layered upon one another a building which at first glance appears to be a relatively neutral one is revealed in fact to be a complex symbol of successive and interlinked economic and political eras, of ninteenth century colonialism, twentieth century capitalism and finally twenty-first century globalisation. The ambitious, complex layout of the work in the space creates a strangely compelling spatial and thematic loop around a dense island of images. Visitors start with original imagery from the Detaille Fund Archive which show the building under construction (the prints buckled and warped by water damaged caused by a flood in 1938), they then loop around the display as it covers the buildin’s uses over the following century, before concluding with objects from the 2003 flood which put an end to the buildings use.

Still processing this complex work I moved across the road to a small exhibition of work by the Scottish-Ghanian artist and writer Maud Sulter which has been curated by Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP where this series was recently on display. In her photomontage series Syrcas, Sulter examines the murder of Europeans of African descent during the holocaust, an episode which has attracted relatively little scholarly or public interest relative to other victims of Nazi intolerance. To do this she uses collage to juxtapose photographs of Africa sculpture and imagery against European art, ranging from kitsch landscape paintings of alpine mountains mixed with African masks, to a photographic portrait of Alexander Dumas overlayed with the morose face of an African elephant. The resulting images are uneasily surreal, calling to mind some of the collages of the feminist artist Martha Rosler, and also more directly echoing Hannah Hoch’s 1930 series An Ethnographic Museum. What unites three artists is an interest in the imagery of ideals, and how those who do not fit with these images are often systematically persecuted, excluded from history, and sometimes ultimately excluded from exsistence.

Alongside this work is a recording of Sulter reading the text of her 1993 poem Blood Money. The poem was inspired by the German photographer August Sander’s photograph Circus Workers (1926-32) which is notable amongst Sander’s oeuvre for including a black subject, non-whites being otherwise noticeably absent from his epic project to document the inhabitants of early twentieth century Germany. This image offers a starting point for Sulter to imagine the experience of black Germans in this period as the Nazi party became increasingly influential and racial discrimination became not only the norm, but a legally constituted fact of life in Germany. If there could be any doubt about the message in Sulter’s collages, this poem removes it with it’s sadly poignant words. It is strange to view something so dark in the bright sunshine of Arles, but it is right that there are no good feelings or resolved narratives to be found in this work. As Sulter muses towards the close in her thick Glaswegian accent; ‘There is no way I can make this poem rhyme.’

My attendance at this event was supported by London College of Communication, University of the Arts London’s Continuing Professional Development fund.

Art in the Age of Individualism

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Unidentified artist,
Seattle Municipal Archives, 1955

Towards the end of last year I read an interesting piece by Caroline Douglas which considers the relationship between art and the resurrection (or perhaps just the continuation) of the sort of aggressive neo-liberal individualism that came to the fore in the United Kingdom during the era of Margaret Thatcher. Douglas’s piece illustrates that it’s worthwhile to consider the ways that these attitudes might continue to influence our lives, not only in the obvious domains of politics and economics, but also in realms traditionally considered antithetical to it, like education, or the art world. By recognising how this might be occurring, we might start to also recognise ways that we can do things to combat or counter it. In this short piece I specifically want to discuss two aspects of the culture of individualism in the United Kingdom, first in relation to some of the material realities of working as an artist in such a climate, and second in terms of it’s possible effect on the public perception of artists and their role in society.

First to clarify, by ‘the art world’ I don’t here only mean the rarefied white walled galleries frequented by those with significant disposable income, in other words the sort of place this ideology might be expected to find a natural home. It often seems that neo-liberal thinking permeates British society so totally now that it seeps into areas one might have considered naturally hostile to it, and it has a significant influence even at the very distant level at which the real majority of artists and other creative people exist. As Douglas points out this is a place of economic uncertainties and precarious existences, where the need to make and create often subsists in awkward balance with need to secure the material essentials of life. I choose the word ‘need’ in relationship to creating art quite pointedly, because the denigration of the practice of making art, it’s popular characterisation as some sort of self-indulgent distraction from life as a properly productive citizen, and the common suggestion that artists ought to ‘get a real job’ are all very much connected to this world view.

The difficult reality of trying to make a living and make art has many affects which entwine with an emphasis on the individual. As Douglas suggests, the economic instability that runs alongside creative freedom often involves a level of dishonesty. That can be dishonesty about the true precariousness of one’s position, a precariousness which in turn often precludes honesty about the wider state of an industry, or society. “Fake it ‘till you make it” is a common and rather questionable piece of advice dispensed by tutors on creative courses and by people who position themselves as experts in getting ahead in a notoriously challenging set of practices (in my experience the most lucrative position to occupy in the arts is that of an alleged expert). Photographers who have both commercial and artistic practices are often cagey about admitting to the former, concerned perhaps that the necessity of dirtying their hands by making an honest living or relying on others to give them work will impinge on their artistic credibility, and by association saleability. It seems fairly typical for art courses to shun the responsibility of equipping their students with any sense of how they might make a living outside of art, and I think at least a small part of that must be because of the low regard working artists are held in.

I’ve also noticed that the struggle to make a living from one’s art can lead to an aggressive competition between artists, a sort of cancerous careerism which can lead people to trample over friends and colleagues in the pursuit of opportunities, contacts, and so forth. It’s something I became acutely aware of at the Arles Festival last summer where I saw it happen repeatedly, although it took me a while to figure out what I was witnessing, when people would sidle away from conversations to seek the ear of someone influential without wanting to risk bringing friends (read: competition) along for those conversations. Douglas also identifies this tendency in relation to social media, which certainly runs the risk of becoming a platform for tediously individualistic self-promotion. I would dissent here however and suggest social media can just as well be used to promote the activities of others, and indeed is often most effective when it is used like this. It does certainly generate other problems though, for example the prevailing view of artists as producers, content creators and the like, with the attached expectation to endlessly generate and post new material, and the erosion of the idea that not producing is just as valid a part of being an artist (more on that in a future post).

Individualism also seems to influence mainstream narratives around what art and artists are. Aside from the previously mentioned tendency to view ‘unsuccessful’ i.e. unprofitable artists as social drop outs or parasites, mainstream discussions about art and artists which have a positive tone often emphasise individual achievement and the idea of the artist as a visionary creator apart from society, at the expense of the idea that art is in many senses a communal project which involves myriad influences, influencers and collaborators. Exposed to scrutiny, the myth of the solitary genius artist rarely holds up and much more often falls away to reveal a web of collaboration, influence and exchange. The recent Turner Prize win by the architecture group Assemble is maybe an interesting example of collaboration being for once recognised, but it was interesting also to see this win being characterised as a celebration of art as utility at the cost of the idea of art for it’s own sake.

Popular histories of important artists often seem to be less successful at recognizing the myriad ways that even really great artists are dependent on others for everything from ideas to physical and emotional support, nor do they seem very good at recognising (let alone celebrating) those who provide this support. There have been attempts to reclaim this idea, the Whitechapel Gallery’s recent Hannah Hoch retrospective made much of how she was essentially relied on to play the part of a mother to the largely male circle of Dadaists she was a part of. At the same time these narratives can easily get twisted to emphasizing the achievement of the individual despite the demands of the group, rather than celebrating someone for being generous with their time and energy. Instead artists like Hoch are almost implied to have been naïve or gullible for having not been more ruthless about keeping their time and energy to themselves. In short the narrative of the artist as visionary outsider is an attractive one, and one on which a great deal of myths about art have been built, but it’s also one I think artists, photographers and anyone who occupies these creative territories should take efforts to resist, in favour of a view of the work of making art that recognise shared influences, ideas and efforts. No man or woman is an island, and art never exists in a vacuum.

 

Review – Predator by Jean-Marie Donat

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I was relatively underwhelmed by Les Rencontres d’Arles this year, but one of the highlights was an exhibition housed in an old church and simply titled Vernacular. Curated from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat, the exhibition consists of three series of vernacular photographs each of which focus on very particular and rather eccentric subjects. One consisted of photographs of people in blackface, another featured images of people dressed as incongruous and slightly threatening polar bears, but for me the stand out was a series of images simply titled Predator.

This series had such an impression on me that I found myself still thinking about it three months on, and I finally decided to buy the book of it. Predator consists very simply of a series of vintage vernacular photographs where the shadow of the behatted photographer has intruded into the frame from the bottom of the photo. As a concept for a short series, let alone a 200 page book, that might seem very slight, but Predator is a great example of how a simple idea can be repeated and varied in subtle ways that gradually build up into a strangely engaging narrative.

As a viewer you know that the photographs in the book are all taken by different people, but a part of your brain can’t quite release the idea that it’s the same individual behind the camera each time. The photographs themselves are often so so sparse and the information in them so repetitive that one searches each new image carefully for significant information, incorporating anything that stands out into the mental image that you have started to construct of this odd and dimly threatening photographer.

An early group of photographs are all of children mostly smiling or bemused but occasionally more ambivalent or crying. While you’re already wondering what the photographer’s relationship is to all these very different children might be, the appearance of crying children starts to seed the thought that it’s something sinister. After all who stands there and takes a photograph of a crying child, rather than attempting to comfort them? The hatted shadow starts to call to mind a film noir villain, perhaps from Peter Lorre’s sinister if pitiful child murdered in M or Orson Welles’s kingpin Harry Lime in The Third Man. Later photographs of young men similarly conjure the image of Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.

I never thought I’d praise a book for providing it’s viewers with almost no information besides photographs, but this is exactly what makes Predator work. Because information is so scant the interpretation of the book is left very much to your imagination, and that might be the only weakness of the book in that to those with little imagination it will just appear like a catalogue of visually connected images. The structure of the book hovers somewhere between an actual narrative and a series of loose themes. It starts with photographs of children, then animals, then adults, before breaking into a mixture towards the end. In truth there probably is no real narrative, but because the photographs aren’t strictly typological I found myself irresistibly drawn to search for one.

In short the conceptual simplicity of Predator belies a book of surprising depth, which I found myself spending far more time with than I imagined I would. It illustrates so many things about photography, from the way context alters meaning, to the irrelevance of a photographers intent, in defining how a viewer understands an image. If you have the imaginative energy those photographs can act as springboards for all sorts of strange narratives, and the book is a great reminder that a photographic series doesn’t need to be complicated or even consist of particularly different photographs to have a powerful narrative effect.

(Critical transparency: review copy purchased myself)

Arles 2015 Dispatch #6: Overall Impressions

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Markus Brunetti, Facades

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. I’ve also looked at the excellent Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality, and rounded up some of the great books I encountered in the various book awards. In this, my final post, I sum up some of my overall impressions of the festival as a first time visitor.

As you can probably judge from my previous five posts, the photography, curation and discussion that I found at Arles was almost all of a very high quality. But what was being displayed and discussed was also photography of a very specific sort. That is the sort of photography which has been practiced more or less constantly since the medium’s invention, the type of photography that involves a person operating a camera, taking photographs of things which are physically in front of them, and then arranging the resulting images into linear sets to be displayed on a gallery wall. And yet few would deny that the excitement of photography lies in the fact it is becoming vastly more than this now, and all those once concrete certainties about meaning, authorship, and even the definition of the medium have broken down.

For the most part I did not find this brave new world represented, or even very often discussed. Even where the work on show had the potential to raise these sorts questions, it felt as if these issues were brushed aside as if they were slightly embarrassing or even a little vulgar. While I wasn’t particularly keen on Markus Brunetti’s Facades series, the composite nature of the work raises interesting questions about the integrity and limits of the digital photograph, questions which were relegated almost to a footnote in the exhibition’s text. Beyond the conceptual conservatism of quite a few of the shows, there was also what felt like the usual preponderance of white, American and European male photographers on display.

There were moments where the festival branched into more innovative and international terrain. The Discovery Award was a notable example but it was equally notable for being an award with a shortlist selected by five independent curators unattached to the festival. Talking to people with a few more years of Arles trips under their belts than me the judgment seems to be more varied. It is hard to get a sense if this is just an off year, or par(r) for the course. This year’s festival is notably marked by a change of festival directorship, and under those circumstances the temptation might be to play it safe rather than take the risk of trying to make a mark or a statement. And yet new director Sam Stourdzé made a very public statement that ‘a festival is not a museum’, a sentiment I fully support but which seems not to have been realised this year.

Looking back I have to acknowledge that I maybe went to the south of France with unrealistic expectations. For successive years before my trip I had heard Arles talked up by friends and colleagues who had been and come back with glowing stories about the festival, and I may have taken these too much to heart. Socially the festival was great, and for some that might be enough. I was hoping though to come away feeling inspired about the possibilities of photography and energised to make new work, but that feeling never quite developed. All the same I’ll certainly be going again next year and it will be interesting to be able to compare the similarities and differences that I find. Here’s hoping that even if we still don’t quite manage to escape the museum, that we at least get a little closer to the exit.

Arles 2015 Dispatch #5: Best of the Books

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Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words

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 my last post I looked at two small but wonderfully formed exhibitions, Souvenirs of the Sphinx and Alice Wielinga’s North Korea, A Life Between Propoganda and Reality. For my penultimate post I turn to some of the photobooks I encountered at the festival.

To start off with the Luma Book Award, there was a host of interesting books on show. Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces immediately stands out from the crowded tables, both for it’s simple materials and bold cover, and for the way it wears it’s politics clearly on it’s sleeve. Emulating the grainy CCTV photographs released by the Metropolitan police of looters in the wake of the 2011 London Riots, Mayrit employs the same strategy for the one hundred most powerful political and economic leaders in the City of London. Many of these images are then scrawled with hand written notes revealing the subjects complicity in dodgy dealings and criminal cases. It’s a nice example of the broader trend of great books emerging from Spain at the moment, many with an unashamedly political slant which stands in contrast to the photobook scenes in other countries.

Aptly Mayrit’s book is located right next to Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s The Heavens, Annual Report which corresponds to the festival exhibition of the same name. Where I felt the exhibition sometimes fell short on revealing the links between tax havens and the world’s problems, the added space and possibilities of the book goes helps to ameliorate this and slightly better reflects the vast complexity of this topic. I still feel that slightly more abstract visual strategies might have been better suited to a topic which is so abstract, but still I would definitely recommend checking this book out.

A diminutive book which caught my eye was Jana Romanaova’s Azbuka: The Alphabet of Shared Words, and it’s title and form called to mind Zdnek Tmej’s bleak and brilliant Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. Like many other photographers, Romanaova travelled to Kyiv from her native Russia during the Euromaidan protests to make portraits, but her approach differed in that she asked each of her subjects to think of an object with the same name in Russian and Ukranian, before photographing them with that thing. The resulting book is open to multiple interpretations, whether viewed as a reminder that Russians and Ukranians have more in common than in difference, or perhaps more problematically as a suggestion that Ukranians are underneath it all basically just Russians. The book itself is beautifully fragile, composed of tissue paper and delicate inserts, hardly a thing one can imagine being born in the smoke and fire of Independence Square.

From the Luma Dummy Book Award (disclaimer: I had a book in the shortlist) a few titles caught my eye. First of all the winner, The Jungle Book by Yann Gross is a competently photographed and constructed documentary work which explores the contemporary Amazon. Although I think not ground breaking in topic or execution it’s not hard to see why it won because it’s well made in every respect. Two former students of mine also had work in the shortlist and although I’m clearly biased I recommend checking them both out. Carl Bigmore’s Between Two Mysteries is a great dive into an almost absurd Lynchian vision of America where everything hovers between reality and fiction, while Miriam Stanke’s And the Mountain said to Munzur: You, River of my Tears is a powerful account of the remote and trouble fraught Turkish region of Dersim.

For reasons I’ve sometimes discussed here, I’m generally not keen on books that are overly complex in form or design, but Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery has to be mentioned as a remarkable piece of book construction. Featuring a series of complex paper pop-ups, the portraits within burst off the page in ever more surprising ways. Lastly Mark Duffy’s Vote No.1 is almost the opposite of Cosmic Surgery in that the book construction is ridiculously austere but perfectly suited to the subject matter. Consisting of rephotographs of politician’s portraits as they appear on their campaign posters (complete with unplanned additions like flies and staple holes), the book is a funny jab at the unjustified self-importance and fleeting lifespans of politicians and political hopefuls.

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.