A Review of Les Rencontres d’Arles – 18/09/2016. Trip Funded by the University of Edinburgh History of Art Travel Dissertation Award 2017.
by Pippa MacNeil
Since 1970, Les Rencontres d’Arles has exhibited works of photography across the small Provencal town of its namesake. This year, over forty exhibitions were held across medieval churches, warehouses and the emerging spaces at Parc des Ateliers, creating contiguous, conversational environments where the practices and concerns of photography are foregrounded away from their institutional and private collectors.
In unifying diverse collections of works and genres that span over a century, salient, thematic headings create an archival resonance and memory for the viewer: Africa Pop; Street; Monsters & co., along with Re-readings where one is implicitly guided by the curator’s observational alterations that provide critique and satire to the display and interpretation of photography. Eric Kessel, the Netherlandish curator and advertiser, leads the comic commentary in Fabulous Failures where a collection of works are united under a Dada-esque fashion of chance, accident and the celebration of antitheses. Although this exhibition highlights the collective pursuit of perfection in a digital medium, it temporarily extracts and unites works in an assumed context of happenstance by the curator. This assumptive extraction of the work provides thoughtful interpretation but leaves questions surrounding the initial provenance of the images. However, this may well be the objective in Kessel’s spectacle of carnival, where artworks recede inwards and outwards through space, illuminated by the erroneous strobe lights and fantastical music accompaniment.
The origin and onward reproduction and ‘appropriation’ of the image seeps into Julie Jones and Agnés Geoffrays’ curatorial re-reading Where the Other Rests. Held in the expansive warehouse site of Parc de Atelier, Jones and Geoffray present in a modern and ostensibly unmediated, ahistorical space that suits the contemporary critique into the exploitative potential (nature?) of digital media. In exhibiting across various artists’ film, photomontage and photography, the aspects of the original work and periodic placing are disrupted. Instead, the practice of copying, the mechanics of editing and reframing are implicit throughout. This method is particularly effective in Laurent Fiévet’s States of Grace 2 (2015) where Leonardo Da Vinci’s Madonna Litta (c.1490) and a mise-en-scene still from Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) unite in a projection piece where the female icons fade into one another, united in digital anonymity.
Away from the curatorial commentary guiding the viewer’s interpretation, there was breadth of analyses and investigations under Africa Pop where the links between European and African cultures were explored. Maud Saulter’s Syrcas series considered the genocide of Black Europeans during the First World War. Through the amalgamative technique of photomontage, a repellent material dialogue occurs between African and European cultures: natural stereotypes confront each other through insertion of the masked, black body into the canonical, ‘pure’ western landscape. Although focusing her work on a specific, historical event, Saulter successfully portrays an elastic critique into the perception of the black body in western history: the miniscule insertion of Manet’s Olympia into one photomontage further extinguishes the black maid featured in the background of the painting, allowing only the whiteness of the reclining female nude to achieve recognition. The masking and (un)masking of the black body was also depicted in curator Azu Nwagbogu’s exhibition Tear My Bra , exploring ‘Nollywood’, the Nigerian film industry, to reveal the cyclical structures of pseudo-dramatic storylines and personas. Accompanied by brash displays of promotional movie posters, Nwagbogu highlights the commercial production space of Nollywood, seemingly playing parody to the blockbuster, franchise culture in Hollywood.
Across other thematic tendencies at Arles, Monsters & Co. explores the verifiability of the image through investigative, documentary practices. In particular, Phenomena, A Close Encounter with a Reality of Aliens and UFOS is a series from a trio of Danish photographers analysing the aspects of belief and exhalation of extra-terrestrial life in parts of America. Through highlighting personal accounts, along with photographed individuals and landscapes, the digital medium is identified as a tool of evidence, building upon and justifying their beliefs. This cross over between the medium of photography and building of ‘evidence’ within a pseudo-science can reflect the self-consciousness of photography within art history, a practice that can be chemical, mechanical and overall dominated by debates of fallibility. This provided a thoughtful counterpoint to the captured landscapes of ‘alien and UFO’ activity, ostensibly designated sites of eccentric performance to the unbeliever.
Across these dialogues and more, Arles provides continual references to and discussions of the expansive practices in photography. By creating new dialogues around photography each year, Arles provides a platform of interpretation and exchange that escapes the impersonal proximity experienced at many commercial art fairs.
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