Paris Photo and beyond

It's that time of year: once again Paris Photo is breathing down the back of our neck and my diary is already getting out of hand. As always there is a lot to look forward to at Paris Photo itself, but the key to making it through these five days alive is leaving Paris Photo at regular intervals and reminding yourself of the existence of natural light. So here are a few of my picks, at Paris Photo itself...

  • Ryuji Miyamoto's photograms at Taro Nasu Gallery
  • The Arab Image Foundation in Beirut's selection from their collection. I know very little about the photographic tradition of the region and I'm not usually a fan of Paris Photo's central exhibition, but this promises to be an eye-opener.
  • 'Hanging out' with Roger Ballen (Saturday, 4pm, Project Room)

... and beyond

  • Irving Penn at Thierry Marlat. Penn passed away very recently and Marlat has represented him for many, many years. If anyone has got good Penn, it is Marlat and apparently Penn was involved in all aspects of the show down to the invitation.
  • Daido Moriyama, Lettre à Saint-Lou at François Sage. I'm sure there will be some Moriyama at Paris Photo, but if you feel in need of a bigger dose of 'are-bure-boke' then try François Sage's (appointment only) exhibition, which judging from the invitation alone, should be rather good.
  • Pablo Hare (who I discovered at Photoquai), Alejandra Lavadia and Cinthia Marcelle at Bendana-Pinel.

After today blogging is likely to be patchy at best, so bear with me until next week.

Naoshima: Paradise on Earth?

Chichu Art Museum, Architect: Tadao Ando, Photographer: Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

For this post, I am allowing myself to stray from our beloved photographic shores, but I assure you that it will be worth it. Last Friday I attended a conference at the Palais de Tokyo given for the opening of the exhibition on the Benesse Art Site Naoshima project. This was a pretty star-studded affair: super-architects Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, Hiroshi Sambuichi, Patrick Bouchain (I was half-expecting Tadao Ando to appear from a hole in the stage), with a guest appearance by Christian Boltanski.

Benesse Art Site Naoshima is a fantastically crazy project that was begun by Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the CEO of a publishing company, in 1989 as part of a promise to develop the island of Naoshima. The project is now run by his son, Soichiro Fukutake, who shares his father's eccentric vision of how to conduct business. Benesse (derived from the latin to live better) is Fukutake's modest attempt to "create a new independent country inside of Japan" which could be considered to be "heaven on Earth". This is a man who clearly spends very little time thinking inside of boxes.

Benesse House, Architect: Tadao Ando, Photo: Tadasu Yamamoto

The project began with a series of architectural commissions by Tadao Ando on the island of Naoshima, including Benesse House and the Chichu Art Museum, and has now been extended to the neighbouring islands of Teshima, Megijima, Inujima, Ogijima and Shodoshima, and to other architects. Fukutake might sound like a megalomaniac who can't get enough expensive toys to play with, but seeing these projects outlined it is clear that Benesse is much more than that. At the center of the project is a desire to rethink the relationship between art and architecture and to experiment with new possibilities in this field. Fukutake also believes that "culture is superior to the economy" and that the latter should therefore serve the former (6% of his business's capital goes to the Benesse Foundation). There is a genuine attempt to involve the inhabitants in the developments of these projects and to give them the right to veto anything they don't like. The project is helping to redevelop the area, to give the aging population of the region more and better opportunities to earn a living and is even succeeding in attracting the younger generation from Tokyo to settle there. Christian Boltanski, who is preparing a museum of heartbeats as his contribution to the project, described Benesse as a utopic project, "in the important and rare sense of the term."

The only dampener on what was truly an inspirational few hours, was that the exhibition includes a number of Naoya Hatakeyama's fantastic prints, notably of the Chichu Art Museum, and nobody bothered to tell us (or him!) about it.

I would recommend going to the exhibition (although I have never really been blown away by architectural scale models), but, if you can, skip that step and just book your tickets to Naoshima right away. Next summer the first edition of the Setouchi Art Festival will be held on Naoshima and the neighbouring islands... sounds like a pretty good opportunity to me.

Go'o Shrine, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Appropriate Proportion, Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto

Review: Photoquai 2009

Hiromi Tsuchida, Counting Grains of Sand, Tokyo, 1981 The Quai Branly Museum has just launched the second edition of Photoquai, its photography biennale of "world images". The mission of the biennale, to "highlight and make known, artists whose work is previously unexhibited or little known in Europe, and to foster exchanges and the exchanging of views on the world," sounded pretty good to me (as far as these mission things go) as this is basically what I am trying to do in photography. The fine art photography world can be very Western-centric and there is a huge amount of great work out there that does not make it onto the European or American photography circuit.

For the second edition of Photoquai, fifty photographers have been invited to show a handful of works each. The photographers are chosen by several guest curators who each select a few photographers from the region that they represent. I met with Tadashi Ono, a photographer and the guest curator responsible for Japan, Korea and South-East Asia, over the summer and got a sneak preview of his choices: I know Masato Seto and Hiromi Tsuchida's terrific work well, but all of his other selections were new to me and uniformly interesting. His selection focuses on documentary work in the loosest possible sense; most of these artists deal with the transformation of society, personal identity or of the landscape. After a couple of afternoons spent listening to his stories of research travels throughout Asia and previewing the work on his laptop, I had high hopes for Photoquai.

The biennale is not in the museum itself but on the banks of the Seine directly opposite. It's set up as a photographic walk through a series of modules on which the work is exhibited. As this all takes place outdoors, the photographs are printed on weatherproof material and of course this means that allowances have to be made for the quality of the printing. They made a decent effort with the scénographie (although I spent half of my time trying to figure out whose photos were whose) and the lighting, and the location cannot be beat. However, having finally taken the time to go through all the work on show, I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed.

Gohar Dashti, Life and war today, 2008

There is a danger with a festival that is set up to show "non-Western photography" that the work will be chosen to match a Western exoticised ideal, or that it will end up being a collection of photo-journalist reportages on poverty and deprivation in the third world. In theory Photoquai's system of inviting guest curators to help source work from all of these regions should avoid this, but I felt that it fell short of the mark. I found a majority of the work here to be forgettable and a few of these photographers presented here should be tried for Photoshop crimes against photography.

I don't want to be overly negative as thankfully I also made some interesting discoveries. The Iranian Gohar Dashti's photographs of a young couple living a seemingly ordinary life (sleeping, eating, getting married) on a battlefield surrounded by tanks and soldiers, have a surrealist and poetic quality reminiscent of the films of the Palestinian director, Elia Suleiman. Chuha Chung from Korea's images of life in a Korean town adjacent to a nuclear power plant raise the question of how life goes on in the shadow of such a powerful and ominous symbol. Pablo Hare from Peru's Monuments series, is a study of the monuments, from the grand to the ridiculous, and how these affect and interact with the public spaces around them.

However, Photoquai really feels like a missed opportunity. It is not easy to get a new photography festival off the ground in these troubled times, but it is always a shame when you see an event fall far short of its commendably ambitious aims.

Pablo Hare, Monuments

Photoquai, Quai Branly Museum, Paris, 22 September - 29 November 2009

Update Further reading: Pete Brook has put together a good round-up of online opinion on Photoquai.

Arles 2009: 40 years and Nan Goldin

© Nan Goldin I have finally managed to sit down and collect my thoughts about this year's Rencontres d’Arles festival. For Arles’ 40th anniversary, I decided to try and cover the festival in some detail. In this post I will be giving my overall impressions and in the next few days I will follow up with reviews of the exhibitions that I considered to be highlights.

DelpireWhen it comes to festivals, I have always found that birthdays tend to be mixed affairs (in fairness 40th birthdays have never been easy for anyone). Paying tribute to 40 years of photography while still looking to the future (or at least to the ‘now’) is no small task. Given the mandatory set of exhibitions celebrating Arles glorious past (a tender look at the extraordinarily prolific career of the French publisher and curator, Robert Delpire; an exhibition of new work by Lucien Clergue, an Arlésien photographer and one of the founders of the Rencontres; a Duane Michals retrospective, including a lot of work which has been exhibited before at Arles; and a ‘photo-album’ show allowing the audience to take a nostalgic stroll through 40 years of the festival’s history), the choice of the guest curator was always going to have a big impact, perhaps even more so than in a ‘normal’ year.

Nan Goldin seemed like an interesting choice: despite her rise to fame she remains a prickly, startingly honest, both brutal and fragile creature who will charge straight at anything resembling ‘the establishment’. Having heard her speak several times during the festival (despite lots of official events, she did her rebellious image justice, showing up drunk or very late more than once), she knows her mind and speaks it. Goldin also knows what she likes when it comes to photography. Her 13 guests show her strong leaning towards what could be called a ‘photography of the intimate’: J.H. Engström, Leigh Ledare, Antoine d’Agata, Jim Goldberg, Jean-Christian Bourcart, Annelies Strba. This collection of exhibitions, Ça me touche (It touches me), bears its name well: it came through clearly that this was all work that touched Goldin “in some profound way.” This need to be touched seems to go beyond the work, as Goldin is very close to several of her guests (she referred to Engström and Bourcart’s families as her muses). With two projections of her own work (Sisters, Saints and Sybils and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) and an exhibition of her personal collection, Goldin’s footprint was stamped forcefully on Arles 2009.

Leigh Ledare

Despite the honesty of her approach and choices, overall I was disappointed. I think Goldin has a real eye for the sincere and much of the work has an undeniable, visceral, emotional power. But, with 13 exhibitions in one massive warehouse space: massive prints of J.H. Engström’s newborn twins and their mother’s bloody placenta; Leigh Ledare’s mother fucking, fellating and stripping for her son’s camera; Antoine d’Agata caught in a 20-year Baconian cycle of drug and sex-addled self-destruction; Jean-Christian Bourcart’s distressing document of the lives of the inhabitants of the US’s poorest city (Camden, NJ); ending with Jim Goldberg’s experimentation with young runaways in San Francisco; can we really be expected to have any emotion left at all? Not all of the work explores the same difficult emotional terrain, but this difference gets diluted by the ‘full frontalness’ of these artists.

David Armstrong

There were a few misses (David Armstrong’s beautifully installed and completely forgettable images of young, pretty boys, Christine Fenzl’s worthy but incredibly bland documentation of street football, and Jack Pierson’s large folded photos of stuff that he walked past one day—incidentally Pierson’s ‘statement’ is a must-read), but individually most of the work on show here is interesting (in terms of its approach rather than photographically). Unfortunately, the impact of this work was diluted by the sheer quantity of it. Three exhibitions stood out for me: Anders Petersen’s dark, primitive, but dignified gaze at life on society’s edges, Marina Berio’s beautiful blow-up charcoal drawings of negative images and Lisa Ross’s exploration of the physical manifestations of faith in China’s Xinyiang province.

Marina Berio

Towards the end of the festival, I heard Goldin reveal some of her thinking on photography. She explained that for her, photography has almost entirely lost its integrity, that it is difficult to believe images anymore. Of those very few photographers that she still admires, most are dead, and the others she keeps close to her. And as for her own work, she says she no longer has any interest in still photographic images. She only exhibits in the form of projections and she is currently exploring new ideas which move even further away from still photograph. This could be interpreted as pushing the boundaries of photography, but in her case it feels more like she is turning her back on it. I think Goldin remains an interesting artist whose struggle with life continues to provoke her to make challenging and powerful work, but as the guest curator of a major photography festival like Arles, her vision felt too narrow.

Naoya Hatakeyama

My highlights of Arles 2009 (which I will come back to in more detail in further posts) tended to go against the Goldin grain: Naoya Hatakeyama’s Scales and Maquettes/Light, Magda Stanova’s intelligent commentary, Without Sanctuary’s harrowing exploration of the darkest side of ‘vernacular photography’ (if postcards of lynchings can still bear that label), and an event which wasn’t even on the official festival programme, Chambres d’échos, an exhibition of the Musée Reattu’s photography collection which succeeds in creating fascinating resonances from confronting different kinds of work in exhibition rooms set up as echo chambers.

You will probably remember that there was quite a lot of criticism in the blogosphere of this year’s NYPH (somebody still has to explain that ridiculous acronym to me) and I think it is worth remembering that these events are pretty difficult to pull off and the fact that they manage to happen at all is worth applauding. Even if I felt disappointment at some of the choices this year, Arles still manages to be a huge injection of photographic adrenaline in a way that feels festive and celebratory. On it’s 40th birthday Arles felt very much like it was in the middle of a mid-life crisis, but one with glimpses of a promising future.

Update: Further reading Jeffrey Ladd on Nan Goldin Evan Mirapaul on Arles '09

Rencontres d'Arles


I am off to the opening week of the Rencontres d'Arles tomorrow. I will be attempting to cover the festival on the blog, but I probably will be going silent until next week. So have a great week and à bientôt!