I must be getting cranky in my old age. After being a complete curmudgeon about last year's installment of the photo festival Les Rencontres d'Arles (RdA), I was looking forward to really enjoying it this year. After all, gone was the dispiriting game show, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Curator?", featuring Christian Lacroix as the losing contestant, and in was an all-star crew of former "commissaires" of the festival. What could go wrong?
Somehow, it didn't quite work out as I had hoped. I'm afraid I detect a marked trend in RdA towards the commercial and safe. The evening projections read more and more like ads for the big magazines and agencies or veer towards edgy work from the past that has gained sure-fire approval over time. Sure, they showed Nan Goldin's landmark work, "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" and Duane Michals held court in his usual anti-establishment way, but we've seen this all enough times for it to have lost some of the sting it had 25 years ago.
What was more disturbing than Ms Goldin's document of counterculture excesses was the vanity fair of Vanity Fair's parade of portraiture from it's 300 year history. What? You say VF is not 300 years old? How on earth could they have found THAT many boring pictures in less than 300 years? As I say, I must be getting cranky, but really, do we need to see every single Madonna or Cher cover that has ever been recorded by mankind? The precipitous drop in photoghraphic quality as the covers moved into the 60s, 70s and 80s was dramatic and disheartening. As Dave Barry once quipped, Froot Loops are not part of a complete breakfast, they are adjacent to a complete breakfast. Putting other photographers in the same slideshow as Steichen, Muray, and Horst doesn't make them great photographers, it makes them adjacent to great photographers. But I concede that I have lost this argument. Mark Seliger will have a a retrospective at the Guggenheim before I die, I'm betting the Met will host a VF covers show, and the Liebowitz canonization has already begun.
But all was not lost. There were pockets of pleasure and interest to be found. The retrospective of Duane Michals' work was engaging and smart. Like a perfect Noel Coward number, the surface sarcasm only partially disguises the real emotion underneath. Likewise, the show taken from Nan Goldin's personal collection was a treat. I had almost lost hope of seeing a collection like this - one or two examples by each artist, three at the most - that would make sense to anyone but the owner. Personal collections are often like dreams: only interesting to the one who has them. But Ms Goldin's collection was an exception in the extreme. In every case her choices showed a line of thought, a visual clarity, and intelligence at every turn. It's not that I doubted that she has these qualities, it's just that I think it's even more difficult to represent them in a personal collection. I hope some version of the show will find a place in the US.
Elsewhere I was happy to see Naoya Hatakeyama's "Maquettes" series. While the original work dates back some 10 years, Mr. Hatakeyama has been toiling at perfecting his mode of presenting this work. This was the premiere of the final version. They are light boxes showing manifestations of light in black and white. Somehow the artist has found a way to make the blacks black and the light white even though there is a lightsource behind the work that would tend to make everything go gray. The effect is to create the most luminous, contrast-y black and white abstractions one can imagine. I love them.
In previous years at RdA, the Prix Decouverte had been problematic for me. Not because the work was weak necessarily, but because many of the artists weren't really discoveries. It would be hard for me to argue that Marilyn Minter is an art world unknown, for example. This year, though, I am happy to say I had not heard of a single one of the artists in the Prix Decouverte show. I hope it marks a trend in this part of the festival. It really should be a place of discovery for unrepresented, less well known work.
Among the many choices in the Decouverte show were two that I thought were notable: Yang Yongliang and Magda Stanova.
Yang Yongliang mines familiar territory for contemporary Chinese artists, the ancient ink drawings and scrolls. However, I find that he does so in a notably organic way and one which rises above the mere historic reference. Mr. Yongliang uses photoshop to create distopian landscapes of a future China; one in which there is endless building on top of the remains of previous buildings. The photographs have a remarkable level of detail that recall ink landscapes but are photographic in the extreme. To add to the cross-historical reference, his photos are "stamped" with owner stamps like traditional scrolls. But on further examination one finds that these "stamps" are corporate logos probably relating to the maniacal building projects. I'm not sure if these are works that are staisfying for the long haul -- it's a bit of a one liner -- but it was a treat to be introduced and he seems an artist to watch.
Magda Stanova was nominated by Joan Fontcuberta, so it was no surprise that this was very intellectual, and conceptual work. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to call it photography since the exhibit contained drawings, video, text, and animation. I quote here from the artist's statement:
In the visual essay, titled In the Shadow of Photography, I attempt to answer these questions. The work consists of three chapters. The first is searching for the specifics of photography; the second investigates photographic world; and the third is examining how the behavior and thinking of people has changed since the invention of photography. The work is including topics such as: photography as a time traveling machine; why a person has a stage fright while being photographed; how the present is becoming a stage for the future; or how are we loosing the possibility to get an authentic memory from a photographic attempt to conserve it. These reflections are presented through the mediums of drawing, text, collages, photographs, objects, video and animation.
Definitely Ms Stanova is someone I'd like to watch. It was a compelling debut.
Denis Darzacq was first mentioned in this blog when I met him at Houston Fotofest in March of '08. I have continued to run into him through mutual friends, and to track his career in a casual way. He was part of a group exhibit at La Capitole during the festival. On view was his "Hyper" series showing dancers suspended in space in the isles of big box grocery stores (called Hypers in French). I have always liked this work but I'd only seen work prints and online versions. Mr. Darzacq swore to me that the work was only at its best when viewed in exhibition size, approx. 30x36 prints. I'm very dubious of artists' claims like this. For me big prints are not necessarily better and often artists don't have the best perspective of how their work projects in larger spaces. Well, this time I should have listened to the artist. Mr. Darzacq's prints were a model of kinetic energy which projected the soul of the work in a perfectly well-chosen scale. I don't know why he doesn't have US representation, but this exhibition certainly made the case that he should.
So, in retrospect, maybe I'm not quite as cranky as I thought. While there were distractions and disappointments, there were also plenty of examples of great or thought-provoking work. While I may give the festival a pass for a couple of years in order to come back to the scene with a fresher perspective, there's no doubt that vital, interesting work was on display. Even a cranky guy like me can't quibble with that ratio. And I didn't even cover all of the work I liked. Leigh Ledare, Roni Horn, and a vernacular show called "Without Sanctuary" were all worth noting but which I won't discuss for lack of space. They can all be viewed on the Rencontres d'Arles website.
Check it out.