[Arles at a crossroads of sorts, with a choice between embracing contemporary art and its non-specialist interest in photography, or remaining sheltered in a traditionally photo-specialist but much less open world.]
The Prix Découverte (Discovery Prize) section is one of the highlights this year of the Rencontres d’Arles, the long-running festival of photography in the Roman town at the top of the Camargue. The Discovery Prize is sponsored to the tune of some €180,000 (of which €25,000 makes up the prize to the winner) by the LUMA foundation, the private vehicle set up by the eminent Swiss collector and patron Maja Hoffmann to channel support to contemporary art. The LUMA foundation is well advanced in plans to turn the former railway repair yards on the outskirts of Arles into a cultural campus of considerable ambition, under the overall architectural leadership of Frank Gehry. As a result, the LUMA Foundation has steadily become more visible within the city, and some observers have noticed a tension between the old-style photo buffs of the Rencontres, in their beige waistcoats with thirty pockets, and the newer contemporary art crowd in their black roll-necks. It is a tension that exists all over the photographic world, and it is really a nonsense.
Plainly, much that has been done in photographs takes the form of art, but photography is not only an art form. It is the strongest form of messaging that we have — transcultural, immediate, graspable by everybody without exegesis or gloss. At the same time, it is quite impossible to understand contemporary art without a deep understanding of photography. Photography is the root stock from which things as diverse as abstraction or conceptual art have sprung, and photographic habits of mind are present all over contemporary art even where no photography is used in creating the art work itself. Fisherman’s waistcoat and tripod are simply going to have to get along with iPad case and designer sunglasses.
If the support of the LUMA Foundation (for Arles and for the Rencontres which take place there) is seen by some as a threat, that is really not a problem the LUMA Foundation need take responsibility for. This year, in a weak festival, one of the highlights for many was another LUMA project, Vers La Lune En Passant Par La Plage (To The Moon Via the Beach), a curated extravaganza in which a galaxy of contemporary artists were invited to play in a massive sand-pit in the first century Roman amphitheatre. Daniel Buren, Fischli & Weiss, Pierre Huyghe and many others were given their head.
Inevitably, the omnipresent and uninspiring Hans Ulrich Obrist got himself onto the list, too. (What is it about the lack of confidence of the contemporary art world that it has to give the same small coterie of mavens roles everywhere? It reminds me of the way that failed senior executives of major companies are always in the running for the next senior post to come along.)
Vers La Lune.. had nothing much to do with photography, and it didn’t sound like my cup of tea, so I didn’t go. I might have done, though, and I might have liked it. I certainly don’t object that it took place under the umbrella of a photo festival. LUMA and the art which is to the taste of LUMA is a part of Arles from now on; those who want to press the claims of a more traditional lens- and craft-based production will have to work hard to make themselves heard. If anything, the advent of global-audience artists whose thinking is rooted in photography (even when they don’t practise it) should sharpen the photo-buffs up nicely.
The winner of the Arles BMW award this year (a residency at the Nicéphore Niépce museum) was a black-and-white photographer called Alexandra Catiere. She is a Byelorussian with good connections (she was one of Irving Penn’s last assistants) who works between Paris and New York, but her mildly sentimental pictures looked trite in the context of a major international art festival. Arles is being invited to step up to the next level. It can accept that invitation, thank the LUMA Foundation and others for the opportunity, and become one of the great art festivals of the new world, centred on photography but not confined to it. Or it can fall back with a sigh of relief to the days when the salty water of the Etang de Vaccarés washed over the bums of rows of girls laid out on the surf line, and Lucien Clergue could still be thought an artist.