Toxic futures, dark pasts and happy green dreams

“Are you sure?” asks a man climbing the stairs before I descend into Arles’s ancient cryptoporticus. Below, Sophie Calle’s exhibition neither give or throw away awaits. It’s one of the headline shows at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, but I understand the worried passerby’s point. It’s eerie down here in the subterranean chambers, the half-light permeated only by the stagnant smell of subterranean dampness, and pools of sepia water pool on the dirt floor.

I’ve walked into a funeral for photographs—a final farewell to Calle’s ill-fated series The Blind, when in 1986 the French artist interviewed people attending a Parisian institute for the blind. She interviewed 23 people of all ages, and the series consists of Calle’s haunting close-up photographic portraits of them, accompanied by collections of photographs of the things they describe in textual fragments as beautiful—the sea, leopard fur, the color white, hair, their homes, their mothers. It’s a poetic and sometimes poignant rumination on vision and how images are constructed in the mind. But in 2023, the works were damaged after a storm hit Calle’s storage facility, infesting them with mold spores. So this—at least according to Calle—is to be their final resting place, along with a number of other works she wasn’t sure what to do with. But if you’re thinking of taking any of it—as the title suggests—don’t. As Calle warns in his opening statement, they are poisonous.

It’s an exciting start to this year’s edition of the world-famous photo festival, which kicks off just as France is entering a new political chapter. What we are has a huge impact on what we see – and this is explored in existential ecstasy in Arles. A giant floating cucumber and colossal cauliflowers are revealed to be an AI-generated historical fiction about the Green Revolution by Bruce Eesly, which ultimately becomes too absurd to believe but still makes you question the veracity of any visual account taken as fact. In the ecclesiastical setting of the cloisters of Saint Trophime, a pair of prismatic panel panoramas, with beautiful gradients that change as you sail past them, are in fact high-seas sunrises and sunsets in the Arctic, Indian and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean. They were taken by sailors and navigators under strict instructions from artist Mustapha Azeroual and curator Marjolaine Lévy. Behind these benevolent abstract images lies a dark political undertone: a colorful call to action against the degradation of the seas and air, where the colors are the result of human activities on Earth.

Elsewhere, a wounded civilian sits on the ground in torn clothing, the remains of flesh from his left leg protruding from his torn pants, which have apparently been blown off. Nearby, a soldier poses with a gruesome facial wound. It turns out it’s all part of an elaborate warfare simulation documented by Harvard-trained human rights lawyer Debi Cornwall on U.S. military bases. The relief of discovering they’re not real is short-lived. This realistic role-playing game walks a fine line. Many of these bases employ real refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan to role-play versions of themselves in these simulated Middle Eastern landscapes to help train American soldiers for combat.

There’s a lot of very niche material here, some good, some not so much. I couldn’t get enough of Rajesh Vora’s glorious documents of the enormous sculptures that adorn houses in Punjabi villages, each creation wilder and more entertaining than the last. A photographic paean to the short-lived history of the railway dining car, and another devoted to the Provençal pastime of pétanque, are whimsical and nostalgic, but I find both too obvious to feel like much more than a seductive gimmick. A show about vampires in a church sounds promising: but the exploration of “tropical goth”, the visual culture of El Grupo de Cali, a Colombian gang active in the 1970s and ’80s, feels disjointed, ranging from a strange video of a 13-year-old’s birthday party to flash mobs dancing to Thriller to portraits of dispossessed prostitutes. It is also disappointing that this is the only major representation of Latin American artists in Arles this year.

As with most festivals, it’s the unknown acts that unexpectedly steal the show: walk along the fruit and vegetable aisle and duck through the women’s underwear of the Monoprix chain to find the Louis Roederer Foundation 2024 Discovery award shortlisted exhibition On the Lookout. Loosely themed around “disquiet”, each artist evocatively expresses disillusionment and fear about what’s going to happen to the world.

Nanténé Traoré’s works are physically and conceptually porous, printed on plexiglass and transparent textiles, ambient, indistinct murmurs that are difficult to read. A very different mood is created by Tshepiso Mazibuko – the only African woman included in this year’s official programme, which is a parody. Mazibuko’s series borrows from a Sesotho proverb – To believe in something that will never happen – and focuses on young people and children in the artist’s first settled black township of Thokoza, near Johannesburg. These young black people, like the artist, belong to the born-free generation – but as Mazibuko’s empathetic documents reveal, their circumstances are still difficult and full of dashed hopes. Using motifs of houses, streets and clothes that are unhealthy, stained and injured, Mazibuko’s oeuvre is an indictment of the romanticised image of freedom after apartheid and a testament to the bitter perseverance of youth in unequal times.

The winner of the 2024 Discovery Award is François Bellabas’s project An Electronic Legacy , which began in 2016 when the artist found himself in the middle of a California wildfire. He captured the burning landscape and charred sky on camera, later feeding 5,000 of his images into GAN, a first-generation AI. In 2023, he used the images from that database to create a tracking shot using ChatGPT, Dall-E, and Mid-Journey. Images from all three periods of the work are arranged into an immersive installation that weaves together the hot-button topics of climate change, AI, and the failure of the American dream.

Elsewhere in the city, highlights include an ambitious, groundbreaking group exhibition of 26 Japanese women photographers working from the 1950s to the present, born between 1899 and 1987, a period in which Japan has undergone enormous change but the gender gap has barely closed. I’m So Happy You’re Here may be too packed with artists and themes to give each one enough space, but it’s nonetheless an important reminder of how women have shaped the medium in Japan in the postwar period and beyond.

Many of the artists address the socio-political concerns of women in a society that last year fell to its worst-ever ranking in the Global Gender Gap report. Nagashima Yurie – one of Japan’s leading activist artists – literally gives the middle finger to the patriarchy in her racy, provocative nude and semi-nude portraits of herself pregnant, and later with her family, in the 1980s and 1990s. As she puts it: “When you have a camera on a tripod, you have the space in front of the camera and also the space behind the camera. It’s very symbolic. It’s a way of taking action against the historical roles of men and women in photography.”

These are juxtaposed with quieter subversions, such as Ushioda Tokuko’s meticulous documents of her daily life at home—from the old refrigerator her husband surprises her with, once belonging to American soldiers, to her daughter’s tiny feet poking delightedly from a pile of sheets, these images subtly evoke a sense of oppression. Photographing domestic objects that have meaning and significance to the artist is her way of magnifying them, of giving them a life that is larger than the space they are allotted.

A final must-see in Arles is Mo Yi’s Me in My Landscape , the first survey of the remarkable but little-known Chinese artist’s work. It features 150 contemplative and arresting photographs that reveal the unashamed ingenuity of an outsider. A professional footballer for a decade, Mo Yi worked as a photographer in a children’s hospital in Tianjin for a while and later trained in meditation. Much of his work is influenced by the rupture he experienced when his family moved from a rural Tibetan diaspora community in Shaanxi province to the city of Tianjin after the Cultural Revolution.

Against the backdrop of a sprawling, busy, rapidly developing cityscape, Mo Yi comes in and out of frame, sloppily dressed, his presence interrupting the smooth, streamlined pace of modern life. As he struggles to position himself against McDonald’s, box fresh sneakers, and bustling intersections, the world around Mo Yi grows shinier and newer as he grows older and a stranger in his home.

In the series I am a Street Dog (1995), Mo Yi would attach his camera to the end of a stick and walk through the city, shooting via remote control to get a dog’s eye view. On other occasions, he would attach his Minolta to the back of his neck, his chest, or his arm to take photographs on the street or on the bus—getting closer to the experience of looking and being than to constructing and composing frames. Consistently experimental and anarchic in nature, Mo Yi turns the camera from a vehicle of modernism into an accomplice. In one image, a meditating Mo simply stands in the center of the frame, serene, eyes closed, as traffic rushes past behind him. It reminds me of Kafka’s suggestion that perhaps we photograph things to drive them from our minds. So I take out my phone and take a picture.

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