There seemed to me two abiding themes in the overall curation of Arles this year. One genre being documentary the other being about the nature of photography itself. Maybe one could describe all photography as such, certainly the latter, but thematically the festival seemed cohesive in a way that made last years seemed disparate.
Two photographers whose work will abide with me from the visit to Arles this year will both be South African, Zanele Muholi and William Kentridge. Muholi’s work primarily looks at the LBGTI community and issues surrounding identity and persecution. It is stark and powerful, an unrelenting work in its depiction of the parlous attitude from local and national communities alike to this community. Muholi also presents two video works alongside which provide context to the work. I also took how she reacts against the structural racism associated with the means of making photographic imagery, how she finds the need to re-emphasise her skin tones that both the sensor and print combination give lie to. It is a reminder of the distance still to travel both in SA and in the wider world in general.
Muholi’s work is monumental in presentation and monochrome – perhaps better said: black and white! The scale of her anger metered by the scope of the prints – perhaps the largest in the city of Arles. And one large wall dedicated to poetry witnessing attitudinal reaction to the bias against those who live under that oppression. I first saw Muholi’s work in Arles in 2013 in what might be described as a South African pavilion, and whilst all that work then could be defined as documentary, Muholi’s voice seems angrier now.
Kentridge offered another monumental piece, depicting, for me, a kind of cultural heritage in the form of a documentary work on a series of six very large panels – a total of forty metres in length. The work is a video projection onto the panels and a series (or maybe a single interrupted) procession(s) of people file, walk, dance, drag themselves from left to right over a period of fifteen minutes. Make of their purposes what you like; political refugees, the plight of post-apartheid indiginuity, the plight of the victims of neo-liberalism. They are seemingly in exodus, perhaps from the land, perhaps from a former cultural life itself. Kentridge talks about the dance-macabre, and the symbology is dense, illuminating and quite mesmerizing. It was the scale that drew me in and I’m looking forward to a show coming to the Whitechapel later this year.
PJ Harvey/Murphy’s video installation travels to troubled lands to document and react to contemporary situations in Afghanistan, Washington, Kosovo. It is poetic, it is moving and it brought questions to mind in this viewer about how even the unfamiliar in an ‘other’ country can have so many similar fractures to that in what we, in the West, call normal society. There were a lot of echoes of Curtiss’ ‘Bitter Lake’, perhaps especially in the footage from Afghanistan.
What I really loved about ‘Swinging Bamako’ was the notion of narrative. On the one hand there was the story of the portrait and social photographers of the epoch – Keita and Sidibe are perhaps the most well known. How these early practitioners bridged the end of colonial days and explored the many facets of the growth of Malian popular culture and development. And in another room, the political struggle – post colonialisation – and the intervention of newer forms of colonisers; those of Russia and then in response the USA. In separate rooms the viewer is able to conjoin those narratives to form a third. Both joyful and tragic at the same time.
Alinka Echeverria’s work stemming from the BMW residency was, like the previous winners I’ve seen, an inspiration to students. Like Gronier and Caruana before, Echeverria’s work was accompanied by a video that documents the creative process around the work being made.
Among the many delights, I was particularly looking forward to seeing Bernard Plossu’s ‘Fresson’ process prints. There can’t be many photographers using the process anymore, Plossu maybe it’s last champion, but I wanted to see what layering this soft muted colour process provided the work, in the end I wasn’t sure, but the prints were gorgeous and that might be just good enough. Filmic certainly, romantic visions of the West certainly, they would certainly look good on the wall.
There were plenty of other stand-out works to view, Gross’ Amazonian documentary is perhaps the best of its kind I’ve seen. Katerina Ebb’s work of female identity informing the viewer of the distance still to travel. Doyle’s work had a feel of a Ballardian landscape transposed to Dublin. And whilst I was disappointed that Micheal Ackerman wasn’t as angry as I had hoped he might be, I didn’t feel the same about McCullin’s large retrospective. I suppose I would have wanted to be surprised but the heavy printing and slight narrative of a documentary photographer who very recently (photo London) said that he “always comes back from the North [of England] with a strong negative” describing that place as “desolate” merely confirmed. A master at ‘othering’.
The ‘photo book’ is fast becoming the preferred means by which photographic artists present their work. Many practitioners elect to make a book perhaps even before the work is complete. Arles has been featuring this form for some time, however I am still perplexed at both the volume of works on display and how they are viewed. Several hundred books, bolted to a table top at such a height as to induce lumbago and arranged in an almost incomprehensible manner doesn’t lead to a satisfactory engagement. I was hoping this year for a more creative presentation, that didn’t happen and I didn’t know where to start and so hardly tried.
Arles this year has so much to commend it, whilst it is changing it’s character it is certainly drawing people to the work; no venue was without viewers which is certainly different to last year