In the first of a series of articles looking back at some of the most exciting shows at Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Holly Roussell recalls her curatorial experience at La Croisière
“Arles was a revelation to me,” says American-Swiss curator Holly Roussell, as she recalls her first visit to the French photography festival, Les Rencontres de la Photographie, almost a decade ago. She was working for the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne at the time, and would participate in all sorts of global events across the photo calendar. But this one was particularly special. “Over the years, I have found the opening week of Arles to be one of the most important gatherings of the year – if not the most,” she adds. “It’s the decontracté get-together of our industry.”
Based now between Switzerland and China, 32-year-old Roussell began her career in Beijing before joining the Musée in 2013. There, she coordinated a programme of worldwide travelling exhibitions and the prestigious annual photography prize, the Prix Elysée. Alongside this, she began collaborating on shows with the curator and author William Ewing, including Works in Progress: Photography in China 2015 at the Folkwang Museum, Essen, before finally moving back to China in 2017 to work as an independent curator full-time. “My time now is primarily dedicated to exhibitions about contemporary photography, research on the Chinese avant-garde, and exhibition histories,” she explains, citing recent highlights including curating the 4th Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale in 2018, and working on solo exhibitions for rising stars of the Chinese art scene.
In 2019, after years of attending Arles as a guest, Roussell got the chance to curate a solo show of Chinese artist Pixy Liao’s project Experimental Relationship for that year’s edition of the festival. They were allocated the Croisière – a charming, characterful space with high-beam ceilings and a rough interior on the city’s Boulevard Émile Combes. “We were thrilled to hear that our exhibition would be there, because it is such a hub of activity during the festival,” she says. “The spirit of the space was wonderfully suited to Pixy’s aesthetic – one of her images could have been taken in those rooms! It was intimate, and homey. We were both immediately attracted to the mismatched pastel colours of the walls and chipped mouldings.” Roussell had originally curated the show as a part of the Jimei X Arles International Photography Festival in Xiamen, China the year before. When it came to Arles, the challenge was to translate it as an already-formed entity into this new and unique setting.
“The audience reaction to the show was overwhelmingly positive, and it was really a joy to see people’s excitement – an exhibition in Arles is an anchor, so it’s a reference point now for Liao as an emerging artist.”
In Experimental Relationship, Liao poses herself and her boyfriend in gender-questioning, role-reversing self-portraits, staged in domestic scenes. It was the immediate visual impact of this work that drew Roussell in at first, she says, but later, it was “becoming familiar with the truly genuine nature of [Liao’s] practice” that had her hooked. “Any close look at her work, even if it has garnered both censorship and celebration, demonstrates that her photographs are not contrived for shock-value. Her work is a mature and thoughtful meditation on social interaction. Often it may surprise viewers, but I think this says more about the viewer, about us, than anything else,” she says. “This also leads me to the second reason I loved Pixy’s work – it connects with people.”
Roussell wanted the audience’s journey through the exhibition at Arles to reflect both the architecture of Croisière, and the inclusive and stimulating atmosphere of the festival at large. “These kinds of spaces – ones that get away from white wall galleries – push you to draw out new connections between the photographs and reinvent the experience for the visitor,” she says. “The curating process often begins for me in the same way, with an idea and an ideal: what would this project look like if everything goes perfectly?” Subsequently, her design of the exhibition featured large and small format mounted prints hung upon blown-up versions of Liao’s pictures pasted onto the walls. It was a multilayered installation, in a multilayered space. “The audience reaction to the show was overwhelmingly positive, and it was really a joy to see people’s excitement,” she says warmly, adding that “an exhibition in Arles is an anchor, so it’s a reference point now for Liao as an emerging artist.”
Arles is always, Roussell describes, an all-consuming and immersive experience, where the seeds of ideas are sown, and lasting connections are made. In hers and Liao’s case, a meeting with Fotografiska at Arles in 2019 has now led to Liao’s first major museum solo exhibition, curated by Roussell, which will open at their New York venue in the spring. The exhibition is set to include more than 70 photographs alongside video and sculptural works that are showing together for the first time. Meanwhile, Roussell is looking forward to taking up a curatorial research residency at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea, once the Covid-19 pandemic permits it.
For more information about Le Rencontres de la Photographie, head to the festival website
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London