Festival/Biennial | Reclaiming the Contrast

Varvara Keidan Shavrova reviews works at the Rencontres d’Arles and Arthur Jafa at LUMA.

Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel II, 2018, Ex-Slave Gordon 1863, 2017, Untitled, in ‘Live Evil’, La Mécanique Générale, Parc des Ateliers; photograph by Andrea Rossetti, courtesy the artist and LUMA Arles. Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel II, 2018, Ex-Slave Gordon 1863, 2017, Untitled, in ‘Live Evil’, La Mécanique Générale, Parc des Ateliers; photograph by Andrea Rossetti, courtesy the artist and LUMA Arles.

“Photography, photographers and artists who use the medium are there to remind us of what we want to neither hear, nor see.” – Christoph Wiesner, Director of the Rencontres d’Arles.

I am walking along a seemingly endless stretch of dusty road on the outskirts of Arles, an ancient Roman capital of Provence, France, and home to the 53rd edition of Rencontres d’Arles – an annual festival for photography and lens-based art that attracts thousands of visitors every year, which is recognised as one of the most respected platforms for contemporary photographic art (rencontres-arles.com). The midday heat is rising above the asphalt, merciless to the soles of my shoes, my body and my soul, melting all three components into a medley of dust and sweat. 

In the first instance, it seems entirely mad to have chosen this small provincial town in the South of France as the site where the latest trends in contemporary photography and lens-based art are presented to the public. Whose capricious desire drove this choice of location – and even more strangely – why does it charm me so completely and immediately, encouraging me to continue my pilgrimage undeterred? Spanning the city’s historic building heritage, exhibition venues range from the ruined Roman amphitheatre and gracefully elegant but mostly unused medieval churches to the cutting-edge contemporary art foundations and museums, alongside dilapidated industrial sheds and semi-abandoned nineteenth-century factory sites. 

I find myself in the pitch-black darkness, engulfed in the sights and sounds of Live Evil (2022), a total installation that includes a range of recent and new works by African American artist, Arthur Jafa. This installation was not actually part of the Rencontres d’Arles programmes but coincided with the festival, having been created by Jafa specifically for the two vast exhibition spaces at LUMA Arles, located in the post-industrial halls of La Mécanique Générale and La Grande Halle (luma.org).

The painful contrast that the viewer experiences, when moving from the blistering heat and piercing light of the outdoors to the vast cavernous space of La Grande Halle, is clearly a desired effect that Jafa wants us to feel with every fibre of our sensory bodies, engaging simultaneously our hearing, vision, smell and touch. The perfectly staged multimedia installation is an Anthropocenic reflection on the human condition, presented through the reimagined visual and sound sequences that portray blackness in many powerful iterations. For me, the strongest effect was achieved in AGHDRA (2021), an entirely digital work that constitutes a unique thesis: the unfathomable loss and ineffable pain at the end of civilization as we know it. The work is presented as an 85-minute-long giant projection of a constantly moving seascape of black rocks, forming waves that intensify and recede against the menacing deep-red light of sunset. 

Obvious parallels come to mind, whilst experiencing Jafa’s Gesamtkunstwerk, relating to photographic processes, which hinge on the juxtaposition of the opposing, co-dependent forces of light and dark, black and white. Jafa masterfully brings us to the experience of blackness as a testimony to the centuries-long colonial extraction and cultural exploitation of black populations. This is presented both as a powerful symbol of the end of nature, portrayed as blackened, burnt, charred inhospitable rocks, in contrast to historic notions of fertile, abundant, always giving Earth – the planet as we still know it, but that has been put into grave danger due to climate catastrophe caused by humankind. 

Located at Parc des Atelier, now part of the LUMA Foundation’s multitude of exhibition spaces, ‘A Feminist Avant-Garde: Photographs and Performances of the 1970s from the Verbund Collection, Vienna’, offered a very different view on photography as documentation, presenting archival material that records performance as protest (verbund.com). Perfectly balanced in its presentation and meticulously curated in terms of content, this international touring exhibition represents the lens-based oeuvres of important figures of feminist art. It covers the period between 1968-1980, when feminist protests and performance joined forces in the battle for women’s rights, fearlessly challenging male authority by displaying outright heroism in the face of centuries-long sexism and oppression. 

The collection includes over 200 works by 71 female artists, with the iteration at Rencontres d’Arles featuring works by iconic feminist activists, photographers, and performance artists such as ORLAN, Lynda Benglis, Karin Mack, VALIE EXPORT, Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Howardena Pindell, and Francesca Woodman, to name but a few. My attention was captivated by many remarkable works by incredibly brave female artists, many of whom are my contemporaries, living and working around the world today. This includes Scottish artist, Elaine Shemilt, who lived and worked in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, where she staged and documented her multimedia artworks. Today, Shemilt has a diverse and impressively agile career as an academic (she is a professor of printmaking at the University of Dundee), a printmaker, photographer, and climate activist (elaineshemilt.co.uk). A series of six black and white photographs by Shemilt (dating from around 1976) show the artist standing against a brick wall, naked, and bound. Her head, wrists and feet are marked on the wall to denote the outline of her body, recalling the chalk outlines drawn by the police at crime scenes. In some of the photographs, Shemilt is holding a sheet of glass, looking through it, as if through a shield that may be used in defence. 

Recordings of live performances, many series of photographs, and multiple video works by female artists represented in the Verbund collection are remarkably versatile in terms of their approaches, yet are also coherently united in their determination to reflect on an ongoing oppression that manifests itself in the subjugation of women in general, and female artists in particular, into fetishised roles of domestic goddesses, childbearing vessels, endless fodder for the male gaze and capitalist consumption. Pointing at endemic, structural, and domestic violence against women, the artists in the exhibition frequently portray themselves as muted, gagged, restrained, bound, vulnerable, and naked. They are often placed in prison-like environments and claustrophobic spaces, dominated by solid structures and enclosed with brick walls. 

This exhibition had particularly strong resonances for me, as the work in the Verbund collection is covering the period from 1968, the year I was born. This was also the year when the American war in Vietnam reached its apogee; and when Soviet troops invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, thus signifying a strategic shift of power within the Cold War context. The works represented in the collection continue up to and including 1980, a year which saw the Soviet Army’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the peak of the conflict escalation between America and the Communist Block. These historic events resonate with the violent armed conflicts that we witness unfolding in front of our eyes today, alongside environmental disasters, food shortages, and the continuous rise of far-right ideologies, which are reintroducing reproductive crime, in an attempt to claw back the fundamental and most basic human rights of women over their bodies.  

I first came across the Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival in 2010, in a location thousands of miles away from the South of France, at Caochangdi PhotoSpring, Arles in Beijing. This sister festival was initiated through curatorial collaborations between Bérénice Angremy of Thinking Hands, and RongRong and inri – a Sino-Japanese photographic duo that founded the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, designed by Ai Weiwei, and located near the 798 Art District in the north of Beijing. Two years later, I visited the actual Rencontres d’Arles for the first time, and in 2013 returned to the Three Shadows Photography Arts Centre to take part in ‘The New Irish Landscape’, the first exhibition of contemporary Irish photography in Beijing, curated by Tanya Kiang (exhibitions curator of Photo Museum Ireland) which included photographic works by Anthony Haughey, David Farrell and Patrick Hogan. 

Originally launched in 1970, under the title of ‘Rencontres Photographiques’ by photographer Lucien Clergue, curator Jean-Maurice Rouquette, and writer Michel Tournier, Rencontres d’Arles is a city-wide, local festival of global importance. Recognised and frequented by both photography professionals and amateurs alike, the annual festival aims to represent the latest trends and currents that flow within photography and lens-based art, whilst presenting cutting-edge contemporary photographic art within the context of its history. 

“Initially the festival largely focused on Magnum photo documentary, and not critical fine art practice”, notes Kiang, who over the past 30 years has conducted many portfolio reviews and nominated young photographic artists for the annual Rencontres d’Arles Discovery Award. She adds that the focus of the festival and its programming has significantly shifted over the past 50 years, steadily moving away from a typical French festival – in which photography was often seen as an excuse to present exploitative, misogynistic and sexist images of women, taken by men – to address themes and preoccupations that are visible within the broader global discourse in contemporary art. 

In that sense, this year’s edition is phenomenally post-feminist in its themes, deliverables and messages. And unlike other key events in the global art calendar – for example, the Venice Biennale, Art Basel or Frieze art fairs, with their global branding and commercial imperatives – Rencontres d’Arles is a refreshingly original, stand-alone event that offers a novel format, somewhere between a film festival and a local town fair. Over the past 50 years, artists featured in the festival included Robert Doisneau, William Eggleston, Frank Horvat, Mary Ellen Mark, Frank Capa and Robert Mapplethorpe. As photography was becoming more closely associated with contemporary art, exhibitions of iconic artists including David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Sophie Calle, and Taryn Simon have been staged at Arles, with guest curators invited to the festival from 2004, including Martin Parr, Raymond Depardon, and Nan Goldin, among others.

Varvara Keidan Shavrova is a visual artist, curator, educator and researcher. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the Royal College of Art. Born in the USSR, she lives and works between London, Dublin, and Berlin. Shavrova will present her research at the IMMA international research conference, ‘100 Years of Self Determination’ (10-12 November).