Saturday, 23 July 2011

Artsy in Arles

Lest it be perceived that, during my week in Arles, all my energy was expended in seeking pleasure in bars and cafes, I would like to make it clear that there was a higher motive for my visit. It was the opening week of the annual international photography event which hosts a multitude of exhibitions, lectures, discussions, prize-givings, launches, workshops and the like. I had been lured there by friends whose world is photography and who, over the years, had convinced me that I would enjoy the place with its historic Roman legacy, the Mediterranean climate, the craic and, perhaps, even some of the photography. 

So it was that I found myself, an outsider with inside connections, shaking hands over pink wine and canapés with photographers, technicians, critics, publishers, curators and gallery owners. I even ventured into a few of the photo exhibitions although, being something of an ingénue, I had no idea whether they were among the most critically acclaimed: I leave those value judgements to the professionals. I did, however, consider myself fully qualified to evaluate the refreshments served at the various events and it came as no surprise to find that the excellence of the canapés was in direct proportion to the wealth and prestige of the sponsor. One evening we would be smiling politely at each other over plastic containers of cheap wine at the opening of an unknown artist and, the next evening, jostling greedily for the champagne and chef’s offerings at a prestigious prize-giving in a five-star hotel. For the hangers-on, or ‘liggers’ as we are sometimes known, each of these occasions is to be appreciated, of course, but - the better the quality the more the appreciation.
For such pleasures, however, a small price can be expected and this is usually exacted in the form of having to listen to speeches. At one small gallery the exhibition opening ceremony took place in the narrow street outside because the showroom was too small and too hot to contain a crowd. The passers-by were mostly tolerant of the crush but, just as the mayor was welcoming us, a motorcyclist wove through our throng twisting his throttle-grip intermittently as if revving up to start a race. The mayor’s speech, apart from being unintelligible to me (my French is rudimentary) was also rendered inaudible. Nevertheless a round of applause ensued which coincided nicely with the exit, from her front door, of a local resident who made a graceful half-bow in recognition of this unexpected acclaim. The curator then took a turn at speaking, competing for attention with a man on a bike, who looked as if he was on his way home from work and desperate to get to his dinner regardless of artsy inconveniences. There might have been a serious incident but timely, evasive actions ensured that only a few drinks were spilled and Gallic curses exchanged. Well before the next speaker started his address I had made up my mind to slink off and shun the free wine in favour of a safe and comfortable seat somewhere with a refreshing beer and a decent supper menu. I never did get to enter the gallery.
Nor did I get to take any photos (or ‘make any work’ as the professionals might say) of my own. I put it down to intimidation. In Arles there was a massive number of cameras – as you might expect – and, in particular, an abundance of those with retro styling: black, 35mm-styled bodies, many with massive lenses bolted on to the front, hung around the neck with serious webbing. Even the niftiest, neatest, tiniest, technology-packed, glinting jewel of a camera looked like a toy in comparison. I kept my ten-year old, clunky relic well hidden for fear of ridicule. And nobody was to be seen taking photos with their phone – at least, not in public. 

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