Wandering through cavernous 15th-century chapels, relaxing in Espace Van Gogh’s colourful garden, and exhaustingly declaring, “there couldn’t possibly be more” before happening upon open houses that turn out to be thoughtfully curated interactive exhibitions is all par for the course at the 50th edition of the Rencontres d’Arles.
Words by Eleanor Scott
Christian Lutz is obsessed with power, or at least what it does to people and places. In his Insert Coins series he visits Las Vegas and quickly discovers that the shimmering lights aren’t bright enough to hide the harmful nature of the city’s artificial extremes. Later, in the Pearl River, he tackles the immense wealth and gambling excesses of Macao or, as he refers to it, “the new Las Vegas”. Eldorado is a conversation between the two projects. On one side of the room there’s an image of a foil-covered homeless person staring up at a series of neon-lit Las Vegas billboards, while on the other side of the space a large-format print depicts a bored Chinese man in shorts and flip-flops lounging in an opulent, marble-covered lobby. It’s “once upon a time in America, now China”, but the cracks are already beginning to show.
The Anonymous Project and The House
When filmmaker Lee Shulman purchased a random collection of 35mm Kodachrome slides online he had no idea that he would fall in love with the people and the stories he discovered, or that he would eventually amass an 800,000-strong archive of these slides and launch a popular website dedicated to them.
Spanning 70 years of collective memory, the Anonymous Project features emotionally charged images that are both powerful and touching. The House exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles, curated by Shulman with the help of Emmanuelle Halkin, is a tangible extension of that digital space and the feelings each slide evokes. From the altar-like room dedicated to man’s best friend and the eerie 1950s dining room, to the ominous peepholes in the stairway looking through to a woman in her underwear and the stack of televisions depicting endless portraits of intergenerational life, the Anonymous Project and the House are a time capsule of family intimacy and nostalgia.
Máté Bartha’s Kontakt documents the phenomena of Hungarian Honvédsuli or “Home Defense Schools”, in which young children aged between 10 and 18 dress in military uniforms and learn extreme survival skills including the use of guns. The images offer a unique juxtaposition between the children’s camaraderie and joy during what is essentially, for them, a summer camp and the frightening normalisation of violence, while questioning the impact it has on them and the world at large.
“The film and stills are lyrical, calm and at times transcendent, taking the audience on a journey through the hidden world of the Belarusian convent to the harsh realities of rural farm life.”
The Faithful and Vera
British photographer Alys Tomlinson considers another of society’s most polarising topics: faith. Stark black and white photographs of European pilgrimage sites and their markers serve as an investigation into the narratives between people, their religion and the landscapes they inhabit in The Faithful. But it’s Tomlinson’s short film and subsequent stills, which focus on the life of Orthodox nun Vera, that are impossible to take your eyes off of. Rooted in Vera’s spiritual awakening, the film and stills are lyrical, calm and at times transcendent, taking the audience on a journey through the hidden world of the Belarusian convent to the harsh realities of rural farm life.
Philippe Chancel’s Datazone is a “work in progress” that has seen him take over 300 photos in 14 countries over 15 years. The elements that tie them all together are the complex issues that have some people turning off the news while others don’t have the privilege. The devastating after-effects of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, mercenaries and warlords profiting off insurgent terror in Kabul, the destruction of the Niger Delta’s ecosystem due to oil or “black gold” production, increasing violence and sepretism in the suburbs of Marseille – in every ‘destination’ Chancel merges his artistic method with traditional photojournailm to show how the “modern world has not kept its promise”.
Observing New York’s Streets
Espace Van Gogh is an important photography exhibition space for the Rencontres d’Arles and this year it was dedicated to pioneering female photographers. A retrospective of Helen Levitt’s street photography occupied the downstairs area and was an engaging look at how her body of work advanced alongside the world during the 20th century, with many of the images on display having never been shown before. Life in 1930s New York neighbourhoods like East Harlem and the Lower East Side is especially visceral, be it children wearing masks for Halloween, young men eyeing the lens of the camera in obvious challenge or roosters vying for attention in front of plastic-wrapped chairs.
“The staged images offer a sharp commentary of patriarchal archetypes, as well as capturing the humour and pastiche of heterosexual relationships.”
As a woman growing up in China, Pixy Liao used to think that she “could only love someone who [was] older and more mature” than herself. It was only when she met her partner Moro that her entire concept of romantic entanglements changed, and thus her 12-year-long and counting series Experimental Relationship was born. Comprised of playful self-portraits, the long-term work explores reversed traditional power dynamics – Moro is five years Pixy’s junior – as well as cultural expectations and differences – Pixy is Chinese, while Moro is Japanese. Sometimes subtle and other times uncomfortably direct, the staged images offer a sharp commentary of patriarchal archetypes, as well as capturing the humour and pastiche of heterosexual relationships.
If you’re in Europe and enjoying the last vestiges of warm, aperitif-filled nights then you can still catch some of these works during the last month of the Rencontres d’Arles, which runs until September 22nd. Of course, summers in the South of France aren’t an annual occasion for everybody – although if they are for you we’re certainly jealous. Regardless, whether you’re a professional photographer, an avid hobbyist or simply an engaged fan, if this year’s festival is anything to go by, and it is, then the 2020 edition will be worth splurging and booking your flights for.