Essays:

> Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016

Magali Avezou / Les Rencontres d’Arles 2016

July 2016

 

The photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles opened earlier this month in southern France under the direction of Sam Stourdzé for the second year, who succeeded Francois Hébel.

In his press kit editorial, the director states: ‘Photographers are investigators … They are neither historians nor sociologists, but artists who construct a visual cosmology out of still or moving images, texts or sounds.’ With this statement, Stourdzé clearly sets out the new premise on which he intends the festival to operate from now on; one in which photography is no longer a discipline or field but a visual medium alongside others used by artists to explore and express ideas.

The exhibition Where the others rest, awakening forgotten images is presented at Atelier des Forges, next to the future Luma Foundation, and is certainly central to the new direction that Stourdzé is taking.

Looking at images from a contemporary art perspective, the two curators Agnès Geoffray and Julie Jones, relocate the festival discourse in a wider art context relating more to Aby Warburg’s concept of image than to Cartier-Bresson’s idea of photography. They ask, ‘How do images haunt our individual memories and feed our collective imagination?’, and thus allow for a historical and contemporary enquiry into images and our relation to them. The exhibition displays works by artists known for working with photography such as Broomberg & Chanarin but also by Eric Baudelaire, curator and writer David Campany, collector Mrs Merryman and the much celebrated diaporama Ombres Chinoises by Marcel Broodthaers. The show not only displays still imagery but also videos, drawings, installation and sculpture. The diversity of approaches and mediums opens up philosophical reflections on the multiple ‘forms’ of images and their place in today’s culture.

Similary, Nothing but blue sky curated by Mélanie Bellue and Sam Stourdzé explores the representation of 11 September 2001 through works with various approaches: Hans-Peter Feldmann has covered a room with newspaper front pages dated 12 September 2001 from around the world; Gerhard Richter has painted, and wiped, the twin towers on a small format canvas; Walid Raad has collected 96 sky views of American cities which together draw an imaginary post-attack horizon.

The Discovery Award, dedicated to up-and-coming talent, this year presents a refined choice of selectors and artists. Though some inclusions seem already a bit too well known to be considered discoveries ­– Sara Cwynar, Daisuke Yokota and Marie Angeletti, for example – overall the display shows quality work, and employs installation and photographs on the wall to develop a meaningful discourse. Basma Alsharif, selected by Mouna Mekouar, has created a mesmerising installation where still images and videos inhabit a three-dimensional living-room, creating an ambiguous sensation of comfort and uncanny through the cumulative layers of representation.

Luma Foundation’s installation in the city is certainly not totally foreign to this essential bridge with contemporary art that has finally been built by the festival. However, a more traditional approach to photography persists in the rest of this extensive programme, mainly in the centre of Arles.

From a focus on street photography, including Garry Winogrand and Eamonn Doyle, to the post-war era, with exhibitions of works by Don McCullin and Yan Morvan, Les Rencontres displays photographers working with the medium as a testimony of the real, albeit with a more conceptual approach than in previous years. The other exhibitions in the centre of the town similarly address a wide audience, with shows on subjects such as Charles Fréger’s work with Japanese traditional dress or the broadly appealing Fabulous Failures curated by Eric Kessels. A little demonstrative and conceptually loose, these displays are clearly conceived to attract a wider audience less familiar with contemporary art. Two shows also intend to root the festival in its context: Camargue Western recalls the surprising time when the region provided exotic scenery for French cinematography. Stéphanie Solinas, first president of the festival, investigated and reinterpreted the history of Lustucru Hall, a 120-year-old building conceived by Gustave Eiffel for the 1906 Colonial Exposition in Marseille and abandoned when the Lustucru factory in suburban Arles closed down in 2003.

The festival clearly intends to offer photography to all possible audiences, from the ‘Arlesiens’ to the international visitors, from enthusiasts and amateurs to artists, curators and critics. This is a complex and ambitious task for a festival that has became the most important for photography in France and probably in Europe. It is a central element of Arles’ economy and cultural scene, bringing 93,000 visitors who sleep, eat and consume in the city, and simultaneously attracting professionals including international curators, artists and writers. This probably explains an oversized programme that would sometimes benefit from greater concision.

Overall, the festival responds proudly to the many challenges it faces and this edition opens up possibilities and exciting directions for the years to come.

 – reviewed by Magali Avezou