04.07.2024 #art

Christoph Wiesner

Meeting Christoph Wiesner, director of Les Rencontres d’Arles

The 55th edition of Les Rencontres d’Arles, a leading French festival devoted to photography that welcomed 145,000 visitors last year, features over 30 exhibitions. Reflecting on urgent contemporary topics, tremors and turmoil, spirits, traces, parallel readings and rereadings all constitute new perspectives underlying the 2024 programme of this year’s festival. Some of the highlights of this edition are female photographers’ work, the Japanese region, and opening up the discussion about AI… We met Christoph Wiesner, director of the Rencontres d’Arles since 2020.

« While the discussion revolves mainly around what can AI generate, the topic exposes bigger issues concerning how to read images»

Dealing with subjects like displacement, migration and the gaze of the other – themes at the heart of Mary Ellen Mark’s spectacular and touching exhibition – could we say that living together is the pivotal theme of this edition of the festival? 

Christoph Wiesner :

Perhaps you could see it that way, yes… Regarding Mary Ellen Mark’s exhibition, it’s indeed the very first worldwide retrospective of the American documentary photographer and portraitist, whose work has mainly focused on underprivileged and poor North American communities. What’s fascinating about her work, which has been compared to that of Diane Arbus, is that while she can deal with tricky and sensitive subjects, she also takes an interest in personalities from the circus or the celebrity scenes. She also went to India for a long series on twins… Mark found a kind of balance between two opposite fields. What’s also very touching is that she would shoot the same models over time. 

Concerning the subject of migration there’s Christina de Middel’s exhibition, whose photographs tell the story of a migration journey in Mexico, treating it as a heroic crossing. She has put together a long narrative portraying the courage of her protagonists, some of whom she accompanied on their trip for seven years. She isn’t afraid to showcase the state of absolute misery in which they live, thus accentuating how we are dealing with a matter of survival. To structure her narrative, she has drawn inspiration from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Cristina de Middel

Speaking of long temporality, many of the exhibitions deal with the question of fiction and narrative. Is this confrontation between the real and the imaginary, a fundamental issue of the photographic medium, something that is particularly explored this year?

Christoph Wiesner :

This question makes me think of Ishuichi Miyako, winner of the Women In Motion 2024 Prize, whose work is on display in a solo show at the Salle Henri-Comte. We have practically discovered her work this year, and she made a huge impression on me. The point of departure for the photographer’s work is a real event, which she delves into to explore a story that is far removed from her own, whether it’s Hiroshima – although this is a major traumatic event for Japanese society as a whole – her mother’s story, which she tackles after her death, or Frida Kahlo. It’s interesting to see how, starting from concrete elements, she builds a narrative that develops into a new version. She wrote that she liked to go beneath the surface, which ultimately implies going beyond appearances. It’s also an edifying take on what an image can convey. These days, the discussion revolves mainly around what can AI generate, yet the topic exposes bigger issues concerning how we read images.

So the question remains: regardless of their nature, whether digital or analogue, how do we look at images?

Christoph Wiesner :

Exactly, even if AI adds another dimension to this relationship, where we try to make a fictional reality seem real, at the end of the day, it’s still a matter of how to decode an image.

Laurent Claquin, Ishiuchi Miyako, Christoph Wiesner

Having previously worked in contemporary art galleries, are you naturally more drawn to fine art photography?

Christoph Wiesner  :

Overall, the programme doesn’t feature that many visual artists, Sophie Calle being one of the few names within the contemporary art movement. She uses photography together with other media and objects, as visitors can discover in her exhibition at the Cryptoportiques. The images tell a story or explore a subject, like in the Blind series, which she had already exhibited, yet she is taken a step further here. Since the exhibition is supposed to vanish at the end, due to the extreme humidity of the venue… On a more general front in our programming, this year the public will see a kind of alchemy that has been created between the different proposals, bringing a great deal of coherence. In particular, we have placed a special focus on Japan, to discover through exhibitions spanning the whole city.

Œuvres de Sophie Calle

Some of the exhibition highlights include Quelle joie de vous voir (Japanese photographers from the 1950s to the present day), Répliques – 11/03/11 (Japanese photographers in the wake of the cataclysm), Uragushi Kusukasu and Ishuichi Miyako, which we mentioned earlier… why this particular attention to the Japanese archipelago?

Christoph Wiesner :

You have to bear in mind that the programme for such a big event is quite often designed years in advance. A project like the one focusing on Japanese women photographers was the result of a long research into a worldwide history of women photographers, carried out in particular by Pauline Vermar and Takeuchi Mariko, curators of the exhibition at the Palais de l’Archevêché. They were working on a book that was published by Editions Textuel, and then took on an Anglo-Saxon dimension with Aperture, which helped us produce the exhibition this year. I mention this to make it clear that projects are developed over a long period of time, we prioritize content over time, so we can offer an indepth and extensive exploration of a theme in all its complexity.

Photographes japonaises des années 1950 à nos jours

Some of these images, particularly those featuring Japanese women, feel very contemporary, as if they have been shot today. Are these exhibitions providing a different take on our Western societies, in terms of spirituality and death?

Christoph Wiesner :

I don’t know… in any case, they push us to think about a form of resilience. These photographers, both men and women, deal with subjects we don’t usually give much thought to, and reflect upon history in a different way. Japan is a country crisscrossed by crustal faults, so there’s an omnipresent need to rebuild. We also wanted to incorporate the layer of rebuilding linked to the disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So perhaps the general idea is to ask ourselves: after the unthinkable, how can we rethink life?


Interview by Marie Maertens

Photos: Michaël Huard



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