Arles 2017: Hannah Watson's top five

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No matter how hard you try, sometimes Arles can be just like Glastonbury (sans mud) – lots of things going on and you get sidetracked, and don’t get to see the one thing you wanted to. However I did manage to get round a diverse group of exhibits this year, one of my favourites actually being the Alice Neel painting show at the Fondation Van Gogh. Here is my round-up of what I saw of note this edition.

From the series Asylum of the Birds, 2013 © Roger Ballen
The House of the Ballenesque, Roger Ballen
This was very talked about in Arles – an old ramshackle house that Ballen has taken over, to express somewhat of what goes on in his mind and informs his photography. Like a giant walk-in sketchbook, it’s part fun-house and part mental asylum, with lots of creepy figures and dolls heads stuck on mismatching bodies. It’s worth seeing because it’s a bit different, though it doesn’t quite feel like the main event – it’s more of a fun sideshow to his practice, but interesting nonetheless. Try to go on a quiet day, or you might get trapped in a small dark room for a bit longer than you might like (which actually could be fun…)
Two Wrestlers, Bogota, 1956. Silver print. Courtesy of Manuel H. From the exhibition The Cow and the Orchid, curated by Timothy Prus
The Cow and the Orchid, Vernacular Colombian Photography, curated by Timothy Prus
The cow and the orchid are the two national icons of Colombia, and Timothy Prus, curator of the exhibition and the Archive of Modern Conflict, has been collecting photographs from Colombia for nearly a decade. It’s also an ode to a country but in a different way, there are layers and layers of vernacular imagery from all over the country literally placed on top of each other. As with his previous projects, it’s not a literal view – there are subtle connections and nuances and, by his own admission, there is much still to discover. This is an appreciative exploration of a place through photography and its people, and the affection, humour and curiosity are what binds it together. And there’s a juke box.
Untitled. Téhéran, 12 février 1979 © Kaveh Kazemi, courtesy of the artist. From the group exhibition Iran, Year 38
Iran, Year 38, curated by Newsha Tavakolian
One of the larger shows, this is a comprehensive view of work by 66 Iranian photographers artists and filmmakers, made since the revolution of 1979 and curated by Magnum member Newsha Tavakolian with Anahita Ghabaian. The most striking image was of a black-robed woman brandishing a machine gun – her hand obscures her face so at first glance you think she might be veiled, but in fact she is just defiantly blocking the camera’s access. She was one of many who occupied Tehran University a day after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, February 12th, 1979.
This focus on the numbers – 38, 1979, 66 –  is very effective in the context of history when paired with imagery, it makes you question something which you might easily place in a contemporary context and understand something about society’s struggles, assumptions and contradictions. 38 years and still counting.
Shot of the VR Arles festival in action by Julio Perestrelo © Rencontres Arles
VR Arles Festival
Every festival seems to be embracing VR, and Arles did a very good job in the shade of Couvent Saint-Césaire with a selection of 20 works from fantasy to fiction, with a jury choosing the final winner. The one to watch however was Dreams of “O” by Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil. With the figures swooping, diving and encircling you, this is what VR was made for.
From the series Tokyo is Yours @ Meg Hewitt, courtesy of the artist
Tokyo is Yours, Meg Hewitt
This show by Australian and relative newcomer Meg Hewitt is part of the Voies Off programme, the fringe satellite part of Arles. It’s also the title of her new book, which is already flying off the website. This work is a twisted ode to Tokyo, and even if it is high contrast black-and-white, its not an ode to the Moriyamas and Petersens of this world – it has a more curious, humorous take on things. Meg trained as a painter and started taking photos a few years back. I haven’t been to Tokyo yet but if I do I want to go with her.