Transition, intentions, prospects - the new director of the Rencontres d'Arles, Christoph Wiesner, looks back at the festival's tense 52nd edition.
Updated on 19/10/2021
The Esther Schipper Gallery in Berlin, Yvon Lambert Gallery in Paris, the Paris Photo fair... Your career has made you an expert on the art market. How is the photography market in France doing?
After the creation of Paris Photo by Rik Gadella in 1997, Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, felt that the only thing photography was now lacking was a marketplace. This has now been achieved, with help from our European neighbours, although the Americans are still ahead of the game. This superiority dates back to the creation of the photo department at MoMA in New York in 1940. Sometimes all it takes is the will to change the situation. The Rencontres d'Arles emerged in 1969 under the combined leadership of Lucien Clergue, Jean-Maurice Rouquette and Michel Tournier.
In September 2020, after a year off and between two lockdowns, you took over as director of the Rencontres d'Arles from Sam Stourdzé, who is now director of the Villa Medici. How do you regard this fragile transition?
We had obviously imagined it differently, following the tried and tested model of accompanying the outgoing director during his final edition. Sam Stourdzé and I had a fruitful exchange of ideas, despite having to deal with imperatives dictated by the ongoing situation. I had to redefine a mode of operations in line with the Rencontres' commitment to its stakeholders: artists, institutions, partners, sponsors, etc. The transition had to be fluid, given the context, which was traumatic to say the least.
Thirty-five exhibitions were programmed this summer, compared to fifty in 2019. The edition was more compact and recycled many projects that were aborted in 2020. How did you deal with this legacy?
Sam Stourdzé gave me complete freedom to include or remove what I wanted from his programme. I left some key exhibitions untouched, such as Masculinities, which had already been shown at the Barbican Centre in London. I reimagined others, such as Pieter Hugo's exhibition Être présent, whose title evokes that brief moment when the photographer communes with his subject: it was originally intended to focus on his series La Cucaracha, which had toured extensively. We expanded it to include the theme of portraiture. Time was also on our side for the Charlotte Perriand exhibition: curator Damarice Amao was able to delve deeply into the architect's archives, with the cooperation of her daughter, Pernette Perriand, and Jacques Barsac. Comparisons between her collection of prints, negatives and magazines, and her photomontages, allow us to better understand her method and her commitment: in the 1930s she had already integrated the power of the image into her practice.
From the official poster, which has been turned inside out, to the retrospective of Sabine Weiss, the previous winner of the Women in Motion Award, this 52nd edition navigates between change and continuity.
There are no coincidences or flashes of brilliance: things are built up over time. Pieter Hugo was one of the Discovery Awards in 2008. Smith exhibited at the Parc des Ateliers in 2012. With hindsight, you can see the resurgence. What interests me is that I am part of a wider movement that relates to the way an artistic career develops.
Identity, gender... Social debates are shaking up the festival. Is this the sign of personal commitment or simply a reflection of the photography of the times?
A bit of both. I have been closely following the revival of overlooked and unseen female artists: the exhibitions Elles@centrepompidou, Couples modernes at the Centre Pompidou Metz, or Les avant-gardes féministes des années 1970, a travelling exhibition curated by Gabriele Schor, director of the Verbund collection, which is mostly composed of female artists, most of whom are photographers or who have used photography as a medium for the restitution of another artistic practice. The Rencontres contributes to this movement, notably through the Women In Motion Award created in partnership with Kering, and awarded this year to Liz Johnson Arthur for her life's work. In our own way, we are working to make the exception the norm: setting safeguards by imposing quotas is good, learning to exercise one's critical judgement is better. A mission fulfilled, for example, by the exhibition The New Black Vanguard, conceived by Antwaun Sargent on the representation of the black body in photography, from art to fashion.
The Frères-Prêcheurs church, the festival's main venue and the beating heart of the city, has been hosting the Louis Roederer Discovery Award this year, usually presented at the Parc des Ateliers and then at Ground Control. A new setting with a value of consecration for the emerging scene.
Arles is a city steeped in history. Each director of the Rencontres has played differently with the memory and map of Arles. Welcoming young artists in a space reserved for established photographers such as Martin Parr, Michael Wolff or Paul Graham is a powerful gesture. Covering more than a thousand square metres, the Frères Prêcheurs church is the largest in the centre and could easily accommodate the ten projects of the Louis Roederer Discovery Award in a new setting. This allows for a dynamic and cross-disciplinary reading of works that are distant on first impression. The role of dedicated curator, entrusted this year to Sonia Voss, brings even more clarity to the whole. I want young talent to benefit from visibility and long-term support, in the sense of mentoring. The Rencontres are a platform with an associated network that I want to activate further.
In your editorial, you compare the "multiplicity of flashes captured by the photographers" to a resilient constellation. If this is a time for awareness, it seems that you are especially keen to send a message of hope to festival-goers.
During lockdown, I reread George Didi-Huberman's La Survivance des Lucioles, a luminous work that analyses Pasolini's 1975 text announcing the "disappearance" of the fireflies, images of opposing forces. Creation, located in its essence in the margins, offers another path to the one set out by the established order. This is why I have chosen for my poster a somewhat mysterious image by Smith showing a human body, a living and indefinable being looking up to the sky, dazzled.
Sharing is a core value of the event. How are these 52nd "rencontres internationales" proof of this?
Despite the situation, we managed to maintain the exhibitions of Pieter Hugo, from South Africa, Sim Chi Yin, winner of the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award, from Singapore, and the exhibition devoted to the Sudanese popular uprising, thanks to the unfailing support of the Institut français. One of the artists, Eythar Gubara, won the Prix de la Photo Madame Figaro Arles. As an extension of the curatorial research grant open to nationals of an African country, last year we launched a new production grant for artists from South Asia, in partnership with the Serendipity Arts Foundation in New Delhi. Latin America is also on our radar, but we are also seeking, through the Grand Arles Express, to strengthen the links we have with regional institutions. The pandemic has taught us to look around us, and fortunately, the city of Arles is undergoing a major transformation: the opening of the Luma Foundation and the Lee Ufan Foundation, scheduled for 2022, are opportunities to intensify our regional collaborations.
Next year you will have a free hand. Under what sign(s) do you plan to place the 2022 edition?
It's still too early to say (laughs). What is certain is that there will be resonances: just because Sudan was in the spotlight this year, or the New Black Vanguard exhibition presenting Nigerian artists, it does not mean that Africa will be wiped off the map. That said, I would like to return to a kaleidoscopic view of creation. The South Asian scene and the links between photography and performance are subjects I want to explore.
As part of the Africa2020 Season, the exhibition Sibadala Sibancane, by Lebogang Tlhako, has been presented during the 2021 Rencontres d’Arles.
As part of the Africa2020 Season, the Rencontres d'Arles and the Institut français also launched a curatorial research grant open to curators from an African country wishing to carry out an unprecedented exhibition project in connection with images/photography.