Monday, July 21, 2008

Pleasures and perils in Arles (Perils)

So, you think you want to be a curator, huh? It looks easy, right? Just find a bunch of good art, hang it in an attractive space, and, Voilá!, great show. Not so fast, my friend. It's clearly not so easy, as Christian Lacroix must have discovered as the commissaire for 2008 at the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. We must admit that the bar was not set high. I know whenever I hear that a fashion "personality" is venturing into "high" art, I bring all kinds of stereotypes, prejudices, bigotries, and low expectations to the table. Unfortunately, all of my expectations were met with such generosity that I might have to create some new prejudices and stereotypes. I have to say, I was eager to be proved wrong. I love to see expansion in the world of art that would include anything from vernacular to commercial work. Art can be a big tent. But the fashion world showed once again that it is usually only about itself and its own ego.

I understand the rationale behind why Mr. Lacroix would be invited to participate in the festival. He is a native of Arles. As a celebrated and successful son of the city, it's only fitting that he be fêted and included in one of the city's most prestigious events. Still, if he's going to be included, it should be on the terms of a festival devoted to photography, not as a photo festival turning into a fashion show. This is exactly what happened.

I fast forward to the evening program on the final night of the opening week. Usually this is an evening devoted to awards for books and artists, video presentations about noted photographers, or a presentation by a noted photographer. The witty and erudite presentation by Joan Fontcuberta a few years ago remains a highlight in my photographic life. This was a wonderful opportunity for Mr. Lacroix to show his relationship to and passion for photography in any number of ways. Instead he had a fashion show. 20 years of Lacroix couture paraded around a makeshift runway while a fast cut, music-video-style montage of musicals droned on a big screen behind the models. It was dull, it looked haphazard, it seemed ill conceived, but worst of all: IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH PHOTOGRAPHY. Why on earth were we looking at this. Did Mr. Lacroix feel that the photography world needed more awareness of couture fashion? Did he think the one perfect thing he could offer a festival celebrating photography in his hometown was a parade of dresses? It was so sad.

And then, as an afterthought, there was a mumbled introduction to a video recounting the making of Josef Koudelka's photos of the Soviet invasion of Prague. WTF??!! Did anyone planning this event think that maybe, just maybe, fou-fou dresses might not segue so well with a documentary of totalitarian takeovers? Current French international football star Djibril Cissé was also born in Arles. Perhaps next year we can look forward to a soccer match onstage as the culmination of the opening week.

But this was only the final act. The run up to this opera buffa was looking at the other shows chosen and curated by Mr. Lacroix.

At the core of this was his takeover of the Musée Rattu. We are told that this museum is where the young Lacroix first encountered great art, and where his artistic sensibility was first formed. He therefore tried to construct a show built from the holdings of the museum, representations of other artists, and his own couture creations. When this kind of multi-period, group show works, it can be thrilling. Anyone who saw the Artempo show at the Palazzo Fortuny last year can attest to the power this kind of show can have. If you didn't have a chance to go, you can still see it online at . The Fortuny show looked effortless and the works of various periods spoke to each other in easy conversation that sparked new ideas about each work.

At Reattu, the conversation was as forced as a badly planned blind date. And like a bad date, one could see no reason why these "people" were in the same room together. I would happily argue for fashion/couture as art. But like any art, context is everything. In the Reattu show, it seemed that there was a variety of art in the room plus a dress or two. The conversation stalled and died after the first handshake.

Since this is primarily a photo blog, and Arles is a photo festival, I'll only say that the photos in the Reattu show could not have been more dismal. Perhaps this is the fault of Reattu and their archives, but bad iterations of mundane photos could not have been a help to Mr. Lacroix's argument. As with the fashion show, I look to the festival organizers to put some control over the content being shown. If Mr. Lacroix had an unworkable but good idea, there should have been some oversight and editing to bring the level of the show up to the level of the festival.

ok......I'm getting tired of whining about all this fashion stuff. I prefer to be positive. I'll leave off any discussion of the derivative and stereotype-reinforcing shows of Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh. If this work has power and art in an editorial context, it was lost on me in big prints in gallery milieu. And the extended hosannas that were extended to Richard Avedon for his alleged rejection of fashion in his New Yorker magazine "fable" called "In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort" were beyond my ken. How a shoot that had models, designer clothes, an extensive set with a set designer, production deisigners, and credits for the clothes could be called a rejection of fashion is just outside of my understanding. It was called "harsh" and "daring" by more than one writer. Such pronouncements send my skepticism meter into the stratosphere. What's next, an Ansel Adams show calling him the greatest color photographer? How about a show that calls Weegee the most important studio portraitist of his time. If it looks like a fashion shoot, reads like a fashion shoot, smells like a fashion shoot, guess what it is? Yep, you're right! And no amount of curatorial wall text or theorizing is going to make it into something else, as much as we may like it to be true. Daring? Please.

I'm a big fan of the Arles festival. It has been important to me in my development as a member of the photo community. I root for its success every year. I feel bad about being so negative about the program this year. Francois Hebel is a smart and capable man. I have confidence that, whatever stumbles there may have been in my opinion this year, future years will return Arles to its position of authority and creative interest.

Ok....I'm really done. In penance for all this rant, I promise a minimum three positive posts to follow. Of course, any constructive debate is welcome and asked for.

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