Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pleasures and perils in Arles (Pleasures)

After spending the last week at the opening days of the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles -- this year curated by the designer Christian Lacroix -- it would be easy to go off on another anti-fashion rant. So, so easy. But rather than foam at the mouth again and risk the label of grumpy, cranky blogger, I'll start with some positive thoughts.

First, I have to say I was seduced once more by Provence, the Camargue, and Arles itself. I know I'm not breaking any new ground to extol the virtues of this spot on the globe, but I can't help but add my voice to sing its pleasures. For example, there is a farmer's market every Saturday. I have rarely seen such wealth of nature's bounty. Raspberries (I ate a whole box myself!), blackberries, gooseberries, peaches, nectarines, melons of all shapes and sizes, apples, and fruits I couldn't name were all out to taste and smell as they were warmed by the morning sun. Friends of mine were given 6 oysters to taste by a generous vendor as we saw all manor of shellfish and seafood. I saw mounds and mounds of these tiny clams called tellines, which I had the pleasure to sample at a roadside inn on the way to the Camargue beach. Served steamed in white wine then finished with a garlic cream reduction, I was in heaven tasting the flavors of the sea with the richness of the cream. Yum. I dare you not to soak up the sauce with the local bread. But back to the market......A dozen vendors selling local, artisanal cheeses, multiple vendors selling locally cured olives and cornichons, lavender scented honey, local mustards, everyone carrying a fresh baguette from their favorite baker. I stopped to greet friends at a portable kitchen called Serge's Pizza. They said that the cook had just complained that he was running low on sauce, so he was going out to buy more tomatoes. He came back 2 minutes later with a handful. Now THAT'S fresh. I sampled a slice of anchovy/olive pizza which was saltycrusty goodness. As I paid, another customer called out to the cook, "See you next week, Serge!". Serge is behind the counter at Serge's Pizza?! I love it.

But after all the homemade sausages, the rougets and sardines, the amazing marbled beef and bull, the hanging poultry, there was still one treat that soared above the rest: poulet roti. Now I know it's nothing really special to see birds of some kind or another roasting on a rotating spit. What made this one special is that they put small local potatoes on the bottom of the roaster to cook in the dripping fat of the chickens, ducks, and geese on the spit. Potatoes cooked in bird on a plate.

........I digress. Back to photography.

One of the most interesting exhibitions was a small show of cartes-de-visite of courtesans in the late 19th century. It highlighted a number of intersections between society and photography. Disderi had only recently invented the carte-de-visite which were soon put to work in a variety of ways. The courtesans used them as advertising, the public bought them in voyeuristic pleasure or as shopping tools, and the police used them as proto mug shots. There were many fine examples by the best studio photographers of the day, but what bumped this exhibit up to a higher level was the inclusion of an actual police log from the period. Next to the photos pasted into the pages were handwritten notes about each woman noting her background, former clients, residence, and other particulars to be used against her. This was a very clever show that combined interesting, early commercial examples with trenchant social information. I would love to see this show travel or to see a book fleshed out it. Fascinating.

Also on my list of great shows was the
"Pictures From the Street" series by Joachim Schmid. I quote here from the gallery text by John S. Weber, writer and dayton Director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. I thought it was one of the most cogent and honest curatorial contributions of the whole festival. I especially admire and agree with his final paragraph about the "anti-museum":

The first thing likely to strike viewers of Pictures from the Street is that the photographs themselves are utterly and unexpectedly fascinating, both as visual artifacts and human documents.

The second thing is that these photographs aren’t really art at all and were never intended by their makers to be seen in a public exhibition.

But since 1982, Joachim Schmid has found and collected over nine hundred photographs which were formerly lost or thrown away. They now form a sprawling conceptual art work that ironically redefines the accepted genre of fine-print “street photography“.

Pictures from the Street is the longest project that has occupied Joachim Schmid to date, and it remains arguably the most radical piece he has yet produced. It is conceptually crucial that Pictures from the Street encompasses all the photos Joachim Schmid has found since 1982, hung in chronological sequence according to when they were found. He does not edit the series according to aesthetic criteria, preferring to offer an unbiased, sociological sample of imagery lost or thrown away by its owners. Nearly all of Joachim Schmid’s street photos depict people, and more than half of them have been ripped to pieces. He has commented on the violent energy these tiny image fragments still contain, and it is impossible not to read these torn figures as deeply personal and perhaps desperate attempts to purge memory. For in a society that relies on photographs to record the past, memories cannot be banished as long as photographic evidence survives. This belief, so apparent in Pictures from the Street, underscores the deep-seated psychological role photography plays as an expected, almost compulsory accompaniment to modern human relationships. Intervening in the life of these images, Joachim Schmid has recuperated them as testimony to the extended imprint left by photography on the modern city and modern life. Beyond that, Pictures from the Street also tells the story of his own peripatetic urban travels for two and a half decades. Each picture is labeled according to the time and place he found it, thereby serving as a route-marker in Schmid’s journey as an international “photo-flâneur”. In this sense, Joachim Schmid is indeed the artist behind Pictures from the Street. Yet by including every photograph he finds, Joachim Schmid deliberately explodes the notions of personal style and expression that we normally associate with art and photography. This in turn points to the peculiar dual register on which Pictures from the Street operates: it is simultaneously a sophisticated commentary on our obsession with photography, and a collection of images visually seductive in their own right.

Approached as a whole, Pictures from the Street is a genuine “Salon des Refusés” – an anti-museum of throwaways, and an archaeological sweep through the streets of modern life. Simply by picking up what other people have dropped on the ground, Schmid has compiled a sprawling, evocative, disturbing, hilarious, utterly familiar, yet uncanny artwork of simple means and surprising depth. In refusing to play the “photo-auteur”, Joachim Schmid has told a far more ambitious story about the life and afterlife of photographs.

I looked at all 900+ pictures in the show. It was mesmerizing and instructive. I found myself thinking about how much trust an exhibition like this asks of the viewer. It would be so easy to scam this kind of idea and "find" photographs to include rather than really scouring the streets for the real thing. I am assured by both the artist and those who know him well that this IS the real thing. Knowing that it is truly a vernacular Photographie Concrète akin to the Musique Concrète of the 40s and 50s invests these images with veracity and directness that is unique.

The tragic news about this show was that, after a heavy storm during the night, water leaked from the roof damaging many of the pictures. The exhibit was closed. I have not heard what the long-term effects will be on Mr. Schmid's monumental work, but I hope that the work will survive - as it survived long enough for him to find it and present it to us.

One of the few engaging, non-sycophantic fashion contributions was called "From the Street to the Blog". Both the content and exhibit were innovative. The content was from 20 international fashion blogs that document citizens on the street that the blogger deems to be fashion forward. Taken with cell phone, pocket, or disposable cameras, this is the polar opposite of the high production, glossy fashion shoot. I loved how they showed that fashion lives in the real world and could be accessed by anyone, not just the rich, thin, and beautiful. The 20 blog sites were:
Buenos Aires:
London by night:
Los Angeles by night:
New York
San Francisco:
Tel Aviv:

What was innovative about the presentation was that we saw it as it was meant to be seen: on computer screens. On the wall was a bank of small monitors showing a slide-show of images from the various sites. On a table in the center of the room were 2 computer screens with a click-able menu of the 20 blogs. One could search, read, and browse as this work was designed to be experienced. I found it to be a wonderful synthesis of commercial, vernacular, and artistic work presented in a manner that avoided hype and curatorial over-reaching. Very Satisfying.

Stay tuned for "Perils of Arles", my return to cranky blog mode in response to the completely mundane and disappointing fashion contributions at the core of this year's festival.

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