This is part two of my Arles 2019 review. Start with this post if you want to read it in order.

For ease of reading and page loading I have divided the overall festival review into three categories of my own invention:

  1. Archive dives
  2. Humanity vs the planet (this post)
  3. Singular visions

Humanity vs the planet

These exhibitions looked at the natural world, scientific phenomena and humanity’s relationship to the planet. I surprised myself by really liking this set, much more than I expected. I think I associate ‘natural world’ a little too much with the traditional ‘landscape’ genre, but these bodies of work are anything but traditional.

Philippe Chancel: Datazone
Eglise des Freres-Precheurs

A real highlight and certainly the most impressively-staged show in the whole festival (as  has been the case in this venue in previous years – it lends itself to really epic shows). Chancel is “documenting the most alarming symptoms of [the planet’s] decline”. It’s not exactly a barrel of laughs. His broad remit of ‘declining world’ takes in natural disasters, rampant capitalism, war, climate change, the breakdown of social order and much more. He looks at places as diverse as North Korea, Nigeria, France (Marseille) and the USA (Flint, Michigan).

There’s one image in particular that sticks in my mind: melting ice caps that happen to form the shape of a human figure falling over. It seems to sum up the whole thing for me: it’s not the planet itself that is in danger, that will survive – it’s human life that is at risk.

There are two major things I took away from this exhibition. The first is that it is possible to make the dissolution of the planet look aesthetically really quite beautiful – which feels a bit wrong. The exhibition notes address this directly:

“The beauty of the images may seem ludicrous, but holding onto the aesthetics is the only ay to recover a taste for life […] This exhibition causes vertigo while hopefully allowing us to regain our footing”

The second takeaway was simply the joining of the dots of all the disparate ways in which we are collectively screwing up the world. On the face of it things like climate disaster, late capitalism, civil unrest etc are all different aspects of modern life, but what Chancel does is hold them all up together as undeniable evidence that we are destroying human life on earth. His big pictures show us the Big Picture.

It’s a massively sobering experience, and one that has stayed with me.

Marina Gadonneix: Phenomena
Mécanique Generale

Gadonneix’s images are striking and mesmerising to look at even before you read the accompanying text that contextualises what you’re seeing. Her work is based on photographing what evidence can be recorded of naturally occurring phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, eruptions, meteorite impacts and so on. She finds research laboratories that study or simulate these phenomena and finds ways of depicting their experiments photographically.

I’m a big fan of the whole concept of ‘photographing the unseen’ and here Gadonneix has found a new twist on it. That many of the images end up looking impressionistic or abstract is a bonus.

On Earth: Imaging, Technology and the Natural World
Atelier des Forges

Another unexpected delight, this. It’s a group show under the umbrella theme of humanity’s relationship to the natural world, and how photography has captured that. Some works stretch the definition of photography by using digital maps, virtual reality, in-game photography and artificial intelligence for image-making purposes.

Standouts included Matthew Brandt’s Waterfalls series (2016) on the Flint water contamination scandal, Lucas Foglia’s detailed aerial shot Esme Swimming and Guido van der Werve’s video piece of himself walking slowing in front of a massive ice-breaker.

Probably the most mesmerising thing I saw all weekend was the video installation Forest on Location by Broersen & Lukacs, a ‘digital backup’ of Europe’s last remaining primeval forest. It’s an immersive virtual reality-style film that takes you to another dimension. Ten minutes well spent.

Mario del Curto: Vegetal Humanity, as the Garden Unfurls
Le Jardin

Appropriately, this is an entirely outdoor exhibition, in a garden just on the edge of the town centre. The subject matter is broadly humankind’s relationship with plants, and more specifically how we increasingly introduce nature into urban living environments. The blurb puts it as: “the first visual study to reveal the profoundly garden-like nature of the world”.

It’s funny, the presentation and the venue must have had more of an effect on me than  the photographs themselves, as I remember really appreciating and being moved by this work at the time but as I review the images now, I’m not feeling the same connection. Interesting and important insights into another way of looking at the world, but definitely works best in situ.

Dominique Laugé: Les Nouvelles Routes De La Soie
Fondation Manuel Rivera-Ortiz

Laugé visited China as part of an international diplomacy programme, although it’s unclear whether he had a specific commission or a broad remit to shoot what he wanted. What he produced was a set of images of large-scale public infrastructure such as roads and bridges, largely devoid of people or traffic.

The images are formally quite beautiful – the colours, shapes and lines are clean and almost verging on abstraction in some images. No major insights about China for me, just a set of aesthetically-pleasing quasi-architectural images of urban development on an epic scale. The most striking image was an abstract-looking vertical red-blue colour block – which turned out to be a close-up of the border point between China and Kazakstan.