The world’s leading photography festival is kicking off this week in the picturesque Provencal city of Arles. Against a backdrop of blue skies and Roman ruins, the Rencontres d’Arles presents the best photography from both big names and newcomers. With dozens of exhibitions taking place in venues across the city – including industrial warehouses, churches, an old school and an abandoned train station – here are ten shows that must not be missed.
Systematically Open? New Forms for Contemporary Image Production
Four artists—Walead Beshty, Elad Lassry, Zanele Muholi and Collier Schorr—were invited by the LUMA Foundation to curate displays that explore new structures for the presentation of the photographic image, all housed within an exhibition design by Philippe Rahm.
Presenting her own work, visual activist Muholi stands out from the crowd with her striking and politically charged series of self-portraits, Somnyama Ngonyama. A visual activist and champion of the black LGBTI community, Muholi continues to provide a powerful and critical commentary on political and cultural issues that affect black people in Africa and its diaspora.
Phenomena, A Close Encounter with a Reality of Aliens and UFOs, Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, Tobias Selnaes Markussen
This young Copenhagen-based collective have produced one of the most beautiful and compelling exhibitions in the festival. Phenomena examines people’s belief in UFOs and extra-terrestrial beings. Travelling across the states of Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, they have investigated and documented the people, places and paraphernalia that testify to the existence of alien life.
The exhibition, and the excellent photobook published by André Frère, is smart, investigative and funny. With an exhibition already lined up for the International Center of Photography in New York in 2019, these three photographers are going to go far.
The Jungle Show, Yann Gross
Swiss photographer Yann Gross addresses questions of identity and escapism in his photographic projects, interrogating how people live in different regions of the world. His recent travel diary along the Amazon won the LUMA Recontres Dummy Book Award Arles 2015. He is back this year with the finished book – The Jungle Book – and an accompanying exhibition.
Presented as a landscape of oversized lightboxes in a darkened warehouse, Gross’ photographs present a series of staged scenes that reveal various facets of contemporary Amazonia, mixing local mythology and history with everyday existence. Beautifully shot, and accompanied by anecdotes and observations, the exhibition is a pleasure to immerse yourself in.
Fabulous Failures: The Art of Embracing Serendipity and Mistakes
Curated by Erik Kessels, Fabulous Failures can be seen as an extension of his recent Phaidon publicatiaon, Failed It! How to turn mistakes into ideas and other advice for successfully screwing up. “Nowadays most art, design and photography portrays perfection,” says Erik Kessels, curator of the exhibition Fabulous Failures. “Contemporary popular culture is drowning under a tidal wave of superficiality and over-perfection.”
To illustrate a counter approach, Kessels has selected 16 artists who celebrate aspects of failure in their work. The exhibition has a bright, humorous attitude. Lucas Blalock sees mistakes as integral to his work, taking perfect images and digitally manipulating them to create images that look obviously distorted; Joachim Scmid’s photographs are all subjected to a purple hue, an accidental side effect from a faulty digital camera; and Kent Rogowski blends different jigsaw puzzles together to form new, hallucinogenic images.
A History of Misogyny, Chapter One: On Abortion, Laia Abril
Overtly political and incredibly powerful to boot, Laia Abril’s project documents and conceptualises the dangers and damages caused by women’s lack of legal safe and free access to abortions. Although safe and efficient means of abortion exist, women continue to use ancient, illegal and risky DIY solutions – every year, 47,000 women die due to botched abortions – or forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will.
Abril’s intensive and methodological studies reveal the ongoing erosion of women’s rights that continues in countries and religions around the world, leading to this harrowing statistic. Her findings are presented as visual, audio and textual evidence. The resulting exhibition is direct, sensitively considered and emotionally charged.
The Hollow of the Hand, PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy
PJ Harvey and photographer Seamus Murphy travelled through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. from 2011 to 2014. The resulting work – appropriately presented in Arles as a projection in a crumbling church – combines Murphy’s photography and video with PJ Harvey’s spoken word.
The haunting film draws you into a broken world where the everyday exists amidst the tension of a not-too-distant violence and world politics, from abandoned villages and derelict buildings in post-war Kosovo, to the conflicts in Afghanistan and a disenfranchised underworld where life is played out in the shadow of monuments to American power.
Maginot Line, Alexandre Guikinger
The French photographer spent eight years exploring the remains of the Maginot Line. Built by France between 1930 and 1939, this defensive network of around 7,000 bunkers spanned the length of the country from Lille to Corsica. Concrete ground bunkers and fortified houses are visible reminders in the landscape of this ambitious infrastructural endeavour and mark the entrances to a series of subterranean passages.
At once sublime and haunting, Guirkinger’s project searches for traces of the Maginot Line that exist in the countryside today and transcends landscape photography through the evocation of war and destruction.
Five photography experts have each nominated two artists for the Discovery Award, which has been showcasing new talent for over a decade. One of the strongest presentations is by the New York based artist Sara Cwynar. Her display combines photography, installation and recycled images to great effect.
“I am interested in dated commercial images, in the failure, with time, of their visual trickery; in the waning of the seductive powers,’ says Cwynar, “My work highlights how the once familiar becomes foreign; how the fetishized object can lose its lustre; how glamour can fade.” Other subjects addressed by artists nominated this year include the corporate nature of the meat industry, and the status of albinos in African culture.
Sincerely Queer, Sébastien Lifshitz Collection
Sincerely Queer presents the history of cross-dressing through an immense collection of amateur photographs. As well as focusing on more familiar aspects of drag and cabaret, and tomboys and drag kings, the exhibition also shines a light on lesser known practices.
Touching stories are presented of a community of men in the USA dressing as women and performing domestic chores, to a secret history of transvestitism in prisoner of war camps. During the two world wars, prisoners of war at camps in Russia, Germany, France and the USA started theatre troupes to keep themselves entertained. It was common for men to play women’s roles and many continued cross-dressing off stage and even took female fans. Female impersonators became an integral part of camp life and many became camp stars, attracting fans and followers.
Looking Beyond the Edge, Don McCullin
One of the most famous war photographers from the 20th century is reappraised in an exhibition that looks at his work in the United Kingdom and Germany during the construction of the Berlin Wall. A champion of the disposed and forgotten, Don McCullin brings attention to people forgotten or let down by society in the 1960s and 1970s, from the homeless men and women living in east London to the working class in the industrial North, notably Bradford and West Hartlepool.
Bleak beyond belief, this exhibition has an additional charge following the recent Brexit vote – there is not much appealing to be found in McCullin’s portrayal of pre-EU Britain.