I had never heard of Laurent Montaron before last week. I was preparing a trip to Paris and going through the list of exhibitions open when i stumbled upon a small photo of a Catholic saint and, far more interestingly i should say, a press release that mentioned the artist's interest in the history of media from the appearance of mechanical modes of representation in the late 19th century up to today's different digital forms.
Off i was to see Montaron's solo show at the galerie schleicher+lange. The exhibition is small with only three pieces, each of them strong, perplexing and unlike anything i've seen anywhere else recently.
Phoenix awaits the visitor right as they step into the gallery. An antique Phénix, a wax-cylinder phonograph launched in 1902 by French mail-order company Maleville, is laying on a wooden stage. Someone has to come and activate the phonograph for you. During a few minutes, the time it takes for the needle to go from one end of the cylinder to the other, one can hear the voice of a person speaking in tongues. No sense can be made of what is said in the recording.
When he patented the phonograph in 1877, Thomas A. Edison -who ironically was suffering from increasing deafness- wasn't thinking about musical recordings. He saw the invention as an instrument that would provide a kind of immortality by preserving the human voice well after the person had died. It was a 'machine to record the last words of the dying'.
"My intention," the artist has said in an interview with curator Daniel Baumann, "was not only to transform these questions about the advent of the media into images -- although I do believe that to some extent the questions are being asked in the same way today as they were a hundred years ago -- but also to make the experience of death part of the work. As in a number of my other works, the physical medium is wearing out as we listen and we're witnessing the death of the sound. In a way the viewer remains the sole repository of the memory of the work."
The second work in the exhibition, Lent portrait de Sainte Bernadette ("Slow Portrait of St Bernadette", 2011), is a slow-motion 16 mm film loop with the camera moving across the face of the saint.
Bernadette Soubirous was a miller's daughter who made the fortune of a small market town in the SW of France. In 1858, she reported apparitions of "a small young lady" and required that a chapel was built at the site of her visions. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now a major place of Roman Catholic pilgrimage. It is said that after her death, Bernadette's body has shown no signs of decomposition.
The worked i found most amazing is Minolta Planetarium MS-15, a large-format photograph taken inside the planetarium in Memphis, in the United States. All one can see at first is a starry sky. After a while, the eye wanders and realizes that, in the foreground, there is the dark silhouette of the machine that projects the images of the stars inside the Planetarium.
These works subtly remind us that while technology has provided us with new means of perceiving and representing reality it has not necessarily brought us closer from 'the truth' for it has also given rise to new ways for questioning reality.
Laurent Montaron's work homes in on the paradoxes attendant on our awareness of modernity, and simultaneously on the tools that shape our representations, revealing the sometimes irrational element of belief involved.
The exhibition closes tomorrow. Make haste and visit the galerie schleicher+lange if you're in Paris this weekend.
Quick overview of a couple of photo exhibitions i saw in Paris over the weekend:
The French photographer documented -mostly in black and white- the cityscape and society of England at the time of Thatcherism.
God i love this guy's work!
More images at La lettre de la photographie.
In January, Martin Parr was invited by the Institut des Cultures d'Islam to spend 4 days snapping his way through the Goutte-d'Or, a neighbourhood in Paris known as "Little Africa" because of the large numbers of African and Arab residents living there.
The show opened as a controversial debate on "laïcité" -or secularism- was taking place at the parliament, and a week before the law banning full face veils in public places was implemented in the country. Véronique Rieffel, the director of the institute, commented on Parr's work in the neighbourhood: "It throws a light on them that is different from usual. For once one speaks well of them, with tenderness, with empathy; it was important for us that they saw the photos before everybody else, so that they were not surprised, so that they appropriated their image rather than the usually stolen images."
There are only 2 mosques in La Goutte d'Or. On Friday, so many followers of Islam turn up for prayer that they have to install their little prayer mats outside of the places of worship. The streets have thus to be kept clear of car traffic for one hour every Friday.
The Goutte d'Or! is at the Institut des Cultures d'Islam, Paris, until July 2, 2011.
Far away from the Goutte d'Or neighbourhood, the Galerie Frank Elbaz shows life on the road with train-hoppers, hitchhikers, wilderness squatters, wayfarers, and drifters. Jane Kurland spent nine month on the road with her son following the nomadic subcultures of America.
Justine Kurland, "He sleeps where He Falls" remains open until May 4, 2011 at the Galerie Frank Elbaz in Paris.
The usual doll-like girls with their impenetrable look, porcelain skin, and pursed lips. They still like to be surrounded by animals and don't embarrass themselves with clothing. Miss Van's new series Twinkles, however, is slightly different from the graffiti she used to paint in the streets of Europe. This one is much darker and seems to acknowledge the work of classical painters.
There's nothing i'd like to add really. Except that you have only a few days left to check out the show.
Twinkles is open until 30 April, 2011 at the Magda Danysz Gallery in Paris.
A few words about a great exhibition i saw at La Galerie Particuliere in Paris last week.
Just when you thought that you could reduce photographer Michael Wolf to the extremely detailed and breathtaking 'architecture of density', he surprises you with intimate close-ups of daily life in Paris.
Michael Wolf is not professionally interested in the French capital. "Paris is totally predictable," he said. "Everywhere you go everything looks the same, it hasn't changed in 100 years." Since his wife lives there, Wolf had to look for a new perspective over the city. The Street View function in Google Maps came to his rescue.
Wolf spent hours scanning Paris on Google Street View, identifying surprising moments, mundane gestures, behaviour and anonymous people as they unsuspectingly go about their daily life. It looks as if Wolf is stealing moments of privacy when all he did was just spot and select scenes mechanically taken by Google's vehicle.
Here and there one Paris Street View presents accidental references to Paris' most celebrated photo iconography such as these two lovers kissing in the street that immediately evoke Robert Doisneau's postcard-icious Le Baiser de l'Hôtel de Ville from 1950.
Interestingly (and understandably), Wolf didn't have much concern for copyright issues regarding the images. "Roy Lichtenstein did it with his comics, took crops out of frames," the photographer explained. "It's a form of appropriation and I'm making it my own. They have copyright notices every 10 inches or so on every Google image, so you can see it in some of my photographs. I have images I'm showing in Paris of the sky and there's a "Google copyright 2009" in the sky. I would look intentionally for the copyright sign to make a point. As Google, you can't go and do this without asking people and expect to have ownership--and they're making money off it, putting ads and stuff. "
The Paris gallery was also showing Michael Wolf's Tokyo Compression, a series portraying the human face of the 'architecture of density.' The Tokyo subway passengers are crushed against the glass of a crowded train car, unable to defend themselves against Wolf's photo lens.
Unfortunately, the exhibition closed yesterday.
When i'm in Paris, i go to the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. Mostly out of habit. MEP is not only located by Le Marais where i hang out rain or shine, it also presents striking exhibitions. The main exhibition at the MEP right now is Autour de l'extrême. The 'extrême' portrays themes likely to disorient, revolt, amaze, shock, astonish or make you feel uncomfortable. One would think that it is difficult to provoke these emotions in these days of 'i've seen it on tv before'. Yet, several recent exhibitions took up the challenge with various degrees of success. For example, Disquieting Images which remains open for a few more weeks at the Triennale in Milan and Controverses which toured Europe last year.
Maybe the reason why most of the images in the MEP show manage to move us (even if they date back a few decades) is that we recognize their documentary dimension. What they explore and represent are the social, political, aesthetic, cultural or scientific limits of life.
But paradoxically, to make transgression visible is also to make it acceptable. When faced with the extra-ordinary, photography has the power to make reality banal. This means that what these images most often show is actually the process of approaching the extreme: its broader context, which has a distancing effect upon it.
No full-fledged report on this one because right now, i'm done with exhibitions that multiply shock, sex and rock 'n' roll to court the public (strangely enough, Autour de l'Extrême seems to have attracted less controversy in the French capital than the Larry Clark show at the Musée d'Art Moderne.) On the other hand, next month is another year and i guess it will bring me more excuses to trail extreme or disquieting exhibitions and see some fantastic pieces. Here's a selection of the ones i saw at the MEP:
30 days after the end of the war against Iraq, Sebastião Salgado traveled to the Greater Burhan Oil Field. Kuwaiti oil wells had been set on fire by retreating Iraqi forces and were still burning. The photographer talked about his experience to The Guardian: Working in the middle of all this was extraordinary. One of my lenses got warped by the heat, so I was left with just two: a 35mm and a 60mm. This obliged me to stay very close to these guys the whole time. As a result, I was covered in oil, and felt so involved with the danger, the environment, the strange beauty and the hard work that was happening in front of me. The only way I could keep going was to carry a two-litre tank of petrol and a roll of kitchen paper inside my photo bag. I would put some petrol on the kitchen roll, clean my hands, the lens and the back of the camera, then go in again.
I felt uncomfortable when i saw George Dureau's photographs of amputees. But no pity. Dureau's portraits convey too much respect, defiance, strength.
In the '80s and '90s, 25/34 Photographes (Ralf Marsault / Heino Muller) portrayed skinheads, punk and other people living at the margin of society.
Rogerio Reis documented the practice of Train surfing in Rio. The sport is obviously illegal and extremely dangerous. Several young people have been injured or killed, especially when their body hits by accident one of the electric wires running above the tracks.
Raphaël Dallaporta's landmines come in all shapes and guises. They are framed and lighted like precious jewelry, French perfumes or rare beetles. It's only when you look at the labels that accompany them that you realize they are instruments of death and dismemberment. "The US is the country that does the most to remove landmines," explained the photographer, noting the source of one of them. "But the US is also a big manufacturer of them. Imagine a cigarette manufacturer being praised for making nicotine patches."
In the late 1960s, Bruce Davidson spent two years photographing one block in East Harlem, knocking on doors, asking for permission to photograph what exactly made up the lives of the residents of the neighborhood (slideshow.)
Serrano had several works in the exhibition. Including a couple from his series The Morgue which pictures the corpses or portions of corpse of people who have met with an unnatural death.
A few months ago, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris decided to ban photographs of the artworks and of the inside of the building, allegedly 'to preserve the comfort of visitors and the safety of the artworks.'
OrsayCommons is a performance pro-photo, pro-remix and pro-public domain at the Musée d'Orsay that civilly and cheekily protests against what its participants call "a measure not only at odds with our times but also illegitimate since it concerns public heritage." The Louvre tried to impose a similar ban in 2005 but had to lift it soon after. Taking pictures is allowed at MoMa. Even the venerable British Museum recognized, as the NYT puts it, that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and started collaborating with wikipedia this year.
OrsayCommons invites people to leave a protest message on the Museum's online guest book, follow #OrsayCommons on twitter but also participate to a series of action-performances where visitors would meet in the museum, take photos within its walls and upload them on flickr, Twitter or Facebook.
I found the action of OrsayCommons important because matter how imperfect they are, the pictures that visitors have taken themselves bear an emotional charge that no postcard bought at a museum shop can ever replace. But also because OrsayCommons finds echoes in my professional life (details at the end of this post if ever you're interested*.) I therefore asked the ever-stylish Julien Dorra who participated to the first OrsayCommons action to tell us about the experience:
How did the first OrsayCommons action go?
We were precisely 10 people! The security team of the museum easily outnumbered us.
Considering that the call was made anonymously just 5 days before and that we asked people to be there at 11:30 am on a cold Sunday morning, not knowing if there will be something at all, it's a very encouraging first step :-)
There is two aspect to OrsayCommons. The first one is being there, in the museum. Taking pictures and sending them out in the cloud.
And the second aspect is what happens when we send these photos in the cloud. We like to picture it as an aura of phototographs, radiating from the museum, escaping from it via 3G mobile networks.
That small aura of photographs, generated by only 10 people, made a lot more people talk, exchange, tweet, and write about the role of the museum, the place of photography, the importance of the public domain, etc.
In fact I was totally amazed that the conversation lasted more than a week, and still last, about an action that in itself lasted only 1 hour.
Did you take openly the pictures or was it more of a covert action?
We took the pictures totally openly. That's the whole point of the action, actually.
Well, the guardians were coming to us as we were walking in the museum, telling us that «taking pictures is forbidden».
So we generally answered something like: «Yes, we know. That's exactly why we are here taking pictures».
And, of course, they were totally puzzled by that answer, and didn't really know what to do. Then of course we started talking with them, explaining the action.
Which the manager following us didn't like at all : we heard her expressly asking employees to not talk with us.
Was there any official reaction from the museum? the press?
We got some press in a very small circle of museum bloggers, professionals, and consultants.
The Orsay museum knew we were coming, but as we were only 10, they thought it was pretty much a false alarm.
But just wait for OrsayCommons #2 :-)
Any upcoming action in the same or other museum?
Yes, if you are in Paris, please come and join us on Sunday February 6th for OrsayCommons #2
The invitation is here.
Le Musée d'Orsay is free on every first sunday of the month, and we plan to do an OrsayCommons every month.
Your target is mostly public national collections, because the artworks shown there belong to the municipality or the State, hence to citizens. Do you have any take on exhibitions in contemporary art museums? a few years back, i was almost thrown away from the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (they are always remarkably rude in that museum) for brandishing a photo camera. Whereas in other contemporary art museums, showing sometimes the exact same exhibition/artworks, visitors are free to take pictures. Is that a situation where OrsayCommons would like to intervene or is it too blurry?
First, OrsayCommons is not a group, it's a particular collective moment.
So, there is this specific museum, Orsay, with a particularly stupid and unfair rule suddenly banning photography. And doing something was really at first a way to fight back against that stupidity. (and all those ugly signs everywhere in the museum, too)
After the first action, we saw Orsay to be the best place now to start an important debate about: the museum as an open platform; photography as a way to relate to artworks; the conservation/conversation opposition; the visitors as an active participant; the public domain; free as in free entrance, versus free as in free to share.
The fight is so clear at Orsay, everybody hates that ban so much, that it makes our task very easy.
But we believe there is something more general in OrsayCommons.
Depending on the museums, there might be similar actions to conduct, or maybe different actions. We'd love to see more people hacking their favorite museum: organizing pirate tours that the museum don't offer; printing alternative catalogs; offering better audioguides to download; and, of course, setting up photography workshop in museum that ban photography!
And even better, we'd love to see museums openly embrace being hacked by their visitor -- that's what we call the museum as an open platform.
We think it's the way museums can join us in the digital culture era, by stopping being only cathedrals, and start being a little more bazaars.
*My blog consists mainly of a series of reports from cultural events. Most of the times i'm invited to openings, screenings and festivals and usually, i'm allowed to do my job. When i'm not invited, i simply contact the press office to get some images of the show as well as an authorization to take my own pictures. Press people don't mind that i give the institution or gallery they work for some exposure. Too often however, they not only send me unsuitable press images (showing, for example, artworks exhibited in another context or interactive installations in an empty room), they also forbid me from taking any picture inside the exhibition. I used to adopt a defiant approach. In the past, i'd take pictures anyway and blog about the show. Nowadays, i don't bother anymore, i simply don't write about the exhibition. It's frustrating but not as much as illustrating my report with miserable or unsuitable pictures. Guardians have been instructed to tell visitors that it's the wish of the artist that no one would take picture of their work, except 'the press' (I'll let 'the blogs are not press' insinuation pass). I respect artists and their decision to allow pictures or not, except that when i contact the artist it often turns out that thy don't have such concern.