Rencontres D’Arles 2024: Five Exhibitions to See

“How did a town with a population of 52,000 become the capital of photography in less than a century?” asks Patrick De Carollis, Mayor of Arles. The answer, perhaps, can be found by looing back. France has long been integral to the story of the camera. Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), so-called “father of photography,” was born in Val-d’Oise, whilst Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), another early pioneer, grew up in Saône-et-Loire. Moreover, between 1895 and 1905, Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948) Lumière created a series of short films considered to have birthed modern cinema. For these reasons, Rencontres D’Arles – the annual summer photo festival – befits a uniquely French heritage of image-making. Formed in 1970 by Lucien Clergue, Michel Tournir and Jean Maurice-Roquette, it provides a platform for photographers, emerging and established, from across the world. Heritage sites inform the curation of works, making for a distinct pairing of architecture and image. The 2023 programme welcomed over 120,000 visitors and primarily explored the role of photography in combating the climate crisis. 

The focus for 2024 is on dialogues between subject and spectator. It’s all about the history and perspective of an image. Hubert Vedrine, President of the Rencontres D’Arles, believes that “forming an opinion about the images that surround us daily and developing a critical mindset are vital at a time when artificial intelligence tools are on the rise and the means of disinformation are being used on a massive scale.” The following exhibitions explore this idea through perceptive works that challenge dominant narratives.

Randa Mirza: Beirutopia | Maison des Peintres Arles | Until 29 September

Rooted in feminist and decolonial discourses, Randa Mirza’s (b. 1978) works are known for questioning hegemonic systems of thought and power. BEIRUTOPIA offers a biographical perspective on Lebanon’s capital over a period of 22 years. Seven unique works narrativise the passage of time that has seen the city move back-and-forth between restoration and destruction. The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) saw the loss of 150,000 lives with almost one million fleeing the conflict. Tensions have continued into the 21st century, with Beirut a volatile hotspot. Mirza writes, “I grew up with the conviction that the catastrophe had already happened until the day I found myself, 30 years later, propelled by a terrible explosion through the streets of my destroyed city.” Part documentary, part personal expression, these works question the context in which images of civil turmoil are produced and received. In a macabre game of role reversal, The Sniper (2002) offers a pertinent example wherein the view of a hidden marksman collides with that of a photographer. The nature of the image is left for viewers to decide, but violence is ever-present.

Marine Lanier: Hannibal’s Garden | Le Jardin d’été, Arles | Until 29 September

Hannibal’s Garden is a testament to alpine flora and Earth’s unlikely sanctuaries of nature. The Lautaret Garden is the highest in Europe, facing the glaciers of la Meije at an altitude of 2100m. In her brief stay atop the mountain, Marine Lanier (b. 1981) pondered the historical significance of the site: “we would sometimes recount the epic story of Hannibal, who supposedly crossed this path on his way through the Alps. It occurred to me that this ‘laboratory-garden’ mirrored Hannibal’s struggle: a bastion of resistance in our contemporary world faced with climate change.” The biodiversity of the Col Du Lautaret lends abundant inspiration to Lanier’s exhibition at this year’s Rencontres D’Arles, in which psychedelic, magnified and large-scale interpretations of the landscape take centre stage.

Cristina De Middel: Journey to the Center | Église des Frères Prêcheurs, Arles | Until 29 September

In Cristina De Middel’s (b. 1975) Journey to the Center, straight documentary images concerning the Central America migration route across Mexico are combined with staged scenes and archival materials. The aim: to fill in the gaps left by over-simplistic media narratives. Borrowing its name, atmosphere and structure from Jules Verne’s 1864 novel, Middel’s journey starts in Tapachula, the Southern border of Mexico with Guatemala, and ends in Felicity, California. The small town is, officially, the “centre of the world.” It’s an absurd landmark – little less than a roadside touristic attraction – from which the border fence can be glimpsed on the horizon. The rest of the series alleviates the disappointment of this site through a warm gaze that grounds the story of migration in empathy rather than spectacle.

Debi Cornwall: Model Citizens | Espace Monoprix, Arles | Until 29 September 

Debi Cornwall (b. 1973) recently returned to image-making after a 12 year career as a civil-rights lawyer. The Prix Elysée 2023 winner and Aesthetica Art Prize finalist has mastered a testimonial style that points to crises of identity within the American political landscape. Still, moving and archival images serve to provoke rather than inform, inviting a closer examination of how power is performed and normalised. The question at the heart of Model Citizens is: how does staging and roleplay inform ideas about citizenship in a land whose people no longer agree on what is true? Necessary Fictions frames this question through the lens of immersive, realistic wargames. On 10 military bases across the US, Debi Cornwall documents mock-village landscapes in the fictional country of “Atropia.” Elsewhere, Saving America (2022) depicts a man wearing blue Levi Jeans and a baseball cap, attending a Trump campaign rally in Florida. He is enveloped in the American flag – a metaphor for the systems that reconcile, justify or distract from violence.

Various Artists: I’m So Happy You Are Here | Palais de l’Archevêché, Arles | Until 29 September

I’m So Happy You Are Here champions Japanese women in photography from 1950 to the present. The presentation spans both emerging and established names; of the 25 artists included, some have garnered acclaim for their vital contributions, whilst others have developed important practices without the substantial recognition they deserve. Exhibited together for the first time, these works thoughtfully observe, critique and reinterpret Japanese social history within the context of womanhood. The restorative survey includes key images, installations, videos and photo-books, with multi-generational contributors comprising Yamazawa Eiko (1899-1995) and Okabe Momo (b. 1981). Motifs range from observations of everyday life and the roles inhabited by Japanese women, to photographic experiments, as found in Narahashi Asako’s (b. 1959) ethereal underwater snapshot of Kawaguchiko (2003).

Words: Kyle Boulton

Image Credits
1. Yamazawa Eiko. What I Am Doing No. 77, 1986. Courtesy of the artist / Third Gallery Aya, Osaka / Aperture.
2. Randa Mirza. The Selective ResidenceBeirutopia series, 2019. Courtesy of the artist / Tanit Gallery.
3.Marine Lanier. Col du Lautaret, summer, Hannibal’s Garden series, 2023. Courtesy of the artist / Espace Jörg Brockmann. Grande Commande Photojournalisme
4. Cristina De Middel. An Obstacle in the Way [Una Piedra en el Camino], Journey to the center series, 2021. Courtesy of the artist/Magnum Photos.
5. Smoke Bomb, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California, U.S., Necessary Fictions series, 2018. Debi Cornwall, courtesy of the artist.
6. Narahashi Asako. Kawaguchiko, 2003, half awake and half asleep in the water series. Courtesy of the artist / Osiris Co., Ltd., Tokyo / Aperture.