Arles 2017: Fiona Rogers' top five

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Untitled. Téhéran, 12 February 1979 © Kaveh Kazemi, courtesy of the artist. From the group exhibition Iran, Year 38

Iran, Year 38, various

Pulling together nearly 40 years of visual and political history is by no means an easy task, but in Iran, Year 38, curators Newsha Tavakolian and Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh manage to elegantly weave together past and present in an exhibition that is both authoritative and authentic.

Displaying work by over 60 Iranian photographers, the show takes the troubles and dissidence of revolution in 1979 as ‘year x’, the exhibition title referencing the time that has since passed. The show is broken into chapters covering the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and – arguably the show’s crowning glory – how Iran’s contemporary photographers, the children of the revolution, are using a visual language to depict themes such as identity.

Particularly of note is a large and striking rendition of a women brandishing a G-3 machine gun by Kaveh Kazemi, providing a necessary regional voice to a revolution often viewed in the West through a Western lens. A beautiful section celebrates Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and particularly captivating is Gelerah Kia Zand and her 100 Portraits of women watching the tragic Kiarostami romance, Shirin. Shadi Ghadirian, Mehregan Kazemi and Tahmineh Mozavi display sterling examples of life as an Iranian woman, and Tavakolian herself represents the ambitions and pressures of middle-class youth in her series Look.

The sense of authorship is a central and important theme, and one that both curators touch upon in their respective presentations. In an industry which is increasingly re-evaluating the way in which we explore and depict ‘the other’, Iran, Year 38 presents a refreshingly authentic account of life during and post revolution, and a glimpse into how the photographic language is being chosen and defined by the current generation of Iranian storytellers as their tool of choice.

Artist Alexander Milov transformed this Lenin statue into Darth Vader outside an Odessa factory. Odessa, 21 November 2015 © Niels Ackermann/Lundi13, courtesy Niels Ackermann/Lundi13. From the series Looking for Lenin by Niels Ackermann and Sebastien Gobert

Looking for Lenin, Niels Ackermann

Lenin’s head under a bath. Lenin’s head in a car boot. Lenin’s head transformed into Darth Vadar. Just some of the odd situations Lenin’s former Ukrainian statues have found themselves in since the decommunisation process, known as Leninopad (“Lenin-fall”) began in 2016. The series is the work of Swiss photographer Niels Ackermann and French journalist Sébastien Gobert, who are both based in Kiev and who embarked on a journey across the country together in 2015 to discover not just the inglorious fate of some 5,500 Lenin statues, but what decommunisation meant for the Ukrainian people.

The darkly comic photographs are presented alongside the statues’ original locations and testimonies from people across the Ukraine. A babushka (grandmother) reveals “There is no respect for anything now. We grew up with Lenin, for God’s sake!.. Everyone is going to laugh and mock us. After that, they’ll forget us, once again.” A curator at Kiev’s Izolyatsia Foundation notes “The destruction of Soviet imagery restores ideological meaning to objects that lost it a long time ago.” Ukraine appears to be a country divided; still struggling with its Soviet past and coming to terms with changes not yet three years old.

As Russia celebrates the 100th anniversary since the Bolshevik revolution, this intriguing exhibition stands as a catalogue of Ukrainian/Russian current affairs, a visual exploration of recent collective memory, and a precursor to Ukraine’s unknown future.

Private Scenes, 1991 by Masahisa Fukase, courtesy of Masahisa Fukase Archives. From the exhibition The Incurable Egoist

The Incurable Egoist, Masahisa Fukase

The dark and obsessional work of celebrated Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is brought together at Arles by the Tate’s photography curator (and expert on Japanese photography), Simon Baker.

Fukase’s obsessional work, and the focus of Baker’s curation is broad – Ravens is presented alongside Berobero, in which the artist performs with friends and strangers the ‘art’ of touching tongues; Family is an unconventional study of his relatives and their successful photo studio; and Bukubuku, self-portraits taken under water in the photographer’s bathtub.

A heavy drinker, prone to bouts of depression (particularly following his multiple divorces), Fukase spent 20 years in a coma following a fall in his favourite bar in 1992. Prior to that he had become increasingly isolated, pronouncing in 1982 that he had ‘become a raven’ – a reference to his long-term study Karasu (Ravens), a study of animals often associated with a sense of foreboding.

Fukase was equally fascinated with his cat, Sasuke, producing three books on the subject; included in the exhibition is an installation of work showing Sasuke open-mouthed, looking mad and wild. The artist would refer to the series as ‘self-portrait in disguise’. The collections could be read as a visual metaphor for Fukase’s life; his desire to be as free as a bird (or a cat), and his struggle to deal with the trappings, isolation and melancholy of the human condition.

From the series Architecture of Density, 2005-2009 © Michael Wolf

Life in Cities, Michael Wolf

Urban living is brought into sharp focus by Wolf’s inquisitive lens in a round-up of some of his best-known works, including Transparent City, Architecture of Density and 100×100. The exhibition, presented in the stunning architecture of l’église des Frères-Prêcheurs, explores not only what the city looks like, but what people look like in the city, and the impact urban life has on the local population.

The exhibition ‘begins’ (it’s hard to tell) with suspended, large-format photographs from Wolf’s series Architecture of Density, in which Hong Kong’s buildings become surreally homogenous and visually abstract. The exhibition moves towards Transparent City, Wolf’s voyeuristic, Rear Window-esque installation of Chicago skyscrapers and the unnoticed people and activities occurring inside them. Enlarged and pixellated, we see screen-starers and solo-snoozers and although our eyes never meet, we share a common understanding on the complexity and contradictions of modern living.

Wolf’s famous ‘No Exit’ strategy (in which compositions are suffocatingly cropped) is deployed in this exhibition with much success, but most notably in Tokyo Compression, where the inhumanity of the daily commute is documented with visceral, sweaty effect. Complemented by 100×100, Wolf’s photographs of the residents of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estate displaying their ‘bijou’ living quarters, we can start to understand the effects of city-living and question – are we uncomfortable or in awe of these megalopolises?

A Pingelapese child is playing with fire. On the island they burn all the trash. At the same time, holding and moving around a burning branch is good to keep the mosquitos away. An achromatopic picture-painting, filled in with watercolorpaint by someone with achromatopic vision. From The Island of the Colorblind © Sanne De Wilde

The Island of the Colorblind, Sanne De Wilde

Belgium photographer Sanne De Wilde’s new project The Island of the Colorblind – premiering during Arles as both an exhibition in the Voies Off fringe festival and a book with Hannibal/Kehrer Verlag – is literally an assault on one sense, sight.

Compelled by a chance encounter to follow the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ research into achromatophisa – or total colourblindness – De Wilde’s focus is on a small Micronesian island called Pingelap, whose population has an unusually high incidence of the condition, which allows those born with it to see only in shades of grey.

De Wilde’s photographs combine social documentary with a bold and experimental approach. Shooting in black-and-white, De Wilde worked with achromatopic people back in Amsterdam to reinterpret colour palettes, encouraging them to paint directly onto the surface of her photographs and ultimately challenge our perception of how and what we see. Skies are orange. Trees are pink. Or sometimes green, or blue. De Wilde also deploys infrared and long exposure techniques to mesh the traditional with the contemporary.

The exhibition is wonderfully overwhelming; a marriage of framed pieces, large vinyl panels, lightboxes and, in a separate room, a participatory installation in which one can paint in disruptive coloured lights. It’s as confusing and as exciting as one imagines colour would be if introduced to an achromatope.

The book too is innovatively produced, with much care has been given to textures. Portraits are printed on silvery grey papers. Images evoking other senses, such as touch and taste, are presented on tracing paper, creating a curiously layered effect. Quotes from Sacks’ original book of the same name are referenced, and De Wilde’s interviews achromatopes, in which she asks if they would like to see colour, and what they would choose to see if they could. Oh and the book cover is UV sensitive, changing from white to blue in the sunlight. Delightfully bonkers. (For full disclosure, Sanne won the Firecracker Grant in 2016 and the book and exhibition have partly resulted because of it).