Reflecting key social issues, the Rencontres d’Arles focuses this year on themes of identity. However, it would be unfair to reduce this 2021 edition to questions of ethnicity or issues revolving around the feminine, the masculine, or gender. A few environment-oriented projects stand out for their originality and creative approaches — a significant departure from a traditional documentary photography. Almudena Romero, Ilanit Illouz, and Elsa Leydier & Michel Sedan demonstrate, each in their own way, a fresh take on ecology. Watch out, these works are alive.
Watercress as a print medium
The work of Almudena Romero, the first artist in this group, is on view at the Cloître Saint Trophîme. The fruit of a BMW residency, this multi-series project does more than take ecology as its subject. Entitled The Pigment Change, it takes natural elements, quite literally, as its raw material. The artist puts her words into action: wondering, “Why produce?,” she looks to nature for her artistic medium: “I want my work to transform the understanding of photography, whether in terms of the medium, form, or raw material.”
For example, in “The Act of Producing,” where other photographers would use paper, she transforms plant leaves into her print medium. In “Family Album,” in turn, more than reappropriating family photos plain and simple, Almudena Romero uses an organic, rather than chemical, process of reproduction. To be precise, the prints are done in watercress which the artist managed to grow after months of research. This living, ephemeral work is like the cycle of life, intertwining the past, the present, and the future. “My work is an expression of my worldview and my choices,” explains Almudena Romero. A supporter of voluntary human extinction, the Spanish artist is true to her convictions.
Salt and paper
One of eleven projects singled out by the Discovery Prize, Ilanit Illouz’s series Wadi Qelt: In Stony Light presents another type of living presence. The prints surprise with their sculptural, shimmering quality thanks to the use of salt crystals applied to the surface. As the artist explains: “These photos, fossilized by salt, summon up a whole set of layers, sedimentations, molts, engaging the different strata: historical, narrative, archaeological, and geological.”
Ilanit Illouz’s approach is not just aesthetic. She brings a fresh perspective to the classic genre of landscape photography. Her gesture draws on the very function of the medium — namely its ability to fix reality and to bear witness — but also on the nature of photography. The salt in Illouz’s work alludes to the bitumen of Judea used by Nicephore Niépce, the inventor of photography. Ilanit Illouz collected the salt precisely at the Dead Sea site where the photographs were taken. For Ilanit Illouz, “this territory is like a metaphor for memory.” It’s a place that bears the scars of the sea that is inexorably drying up as it discharges its salt. The series also alerts us to the destructive impact of humans on the environment.
A world of the future
Like the other two photographers, Elsa Leydier puts on her activist’s hat in her series Brands, created with the visual collaboration of Michel Sedan. It is featured among fifteen exhibitions presented at the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation in a Rencontres d’Arles-affiliated program. Her pet peeve? She attacks the notion of standardization, which she sees as a major shortcoming of the society. Two areas have caught her attention: on the one hand, the representation of necessarily flawless female bodies in magazines and advertisements; on the other hand, the system of patents which, in agriculture, determines which seeds – and therefore which varieties – should be cultivated. This leads to the eradication of hundreds of thousands of species and, as a result, endangers the diversity of living organisms.
Her installation features representations of female bodies hung on the wall, as well as fashion magazines laid out on a plinth, both used as the medium for planting seeds. This is a work in progress, as the seedlings continue to grow. What if plant life takes over, enveloping everything like the castle of the Sleeping Beauty? Perhaps this is what a world of the future might look like.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l'Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
52nd Rencontres d’Arles, July 4 to September 26, 2021. Exhibitions throughout the city and the South-Pac region.