Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2011 (part 1)


Exhibition Reviews




This past weekend, I went to Montréal, to see the exhibitions around this year’s Le Mois de la Photo (Month of Photography) (on view until 9 October, 2011). I had never been to this particular festival, and I was curious about what made it differ from other festivals. The way it’s set up is that there is a curator - this year Anne-Marie Ninacs - who defines a theme: “Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2011 features artists who, in a certain way, turn their cameras towards themselves and conceive of photography as an introspective process, an opportunity for meditation, a mode of consciousness, even a means of revealing the unconscious.” As you can imagine this description leaves considerable leeway to create exhibitions around it, something which was done - I thought - rather successfully. (more)

Things were organized as a main exhibition, with ten artists, and satellite exhibitions, at various venues across the city, each of them centered on the festival’s theme. In this first post about my visit I’m going to focus on the main exhibition, at the Arsenal.

The Arsenal is just what you’d imagine it would be - you might compare it to New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, say. Inside, temporary walls had been erected to create an exhibition space (see photographs).

Of course, I was aware of several of the photographers in this show, but there were also some I had never heard of. The Arsenal show went beyond “mere” photography, to include video and installation pieces, which I thought worked very well. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with photography, of course, but it does make perfect sense to show video pieces or to even expand further into installation art.

In the following, I’m not going to talk about each artist in this space but will focus on a - subjective - selection.

In a sense, Roger Ballen has moved beyond photography already. His latest work relies on pretty elaborately staged scenes, involving temporary sculptures and drawings. This is “revealing the unconscious” alright: At times disturbing, but always strangely moving, one is left to wonder how far Ballen will take his work.

Jack Burman’s The Dead is more literal, in fact it is just that: Huge photographs of corpses (or part of corpses). This work is as disturbing as Ballen’s, albeit in a somewhat different way. Despite the initial shock value it also offers some surprising depth (I could see how many people would be unwilling to stay long enough to experience that).

I had no idea who Gemmiform were before I came to Montréal, but I liked what I saw very much: Video pieces that reminded me a bit of the kinds of electronic-music videos I used to watch a few years ago (they’re still being made, I just stopped watching). Projected on a wall in a dark room, their effect is very different from seeing them on some screen at home; and I really enjoyed how well they fit into the context of this exhibition.

Augustin Rebetez had created an elaborate installation of his work, mostly photography, but with all kinds of other things added. This worked very well and made the photographs come alive in an almost surprising fashion.

Lastly, there was Rinko Kawauchi, one of Japan’s newly emerged photography stars. Of course, I was very familiar with her work - both in book form and on the wall. I own one (or maybe two) of her books. The books are delicate affairs, with their modest sizes - just like the photographs. What I have always been puzzled by is why all the exhibitions I had seen so far were the exact opposite: Very large prints on the wall, hung in a straight line.

Of course, everybody loves big prints made from big negatives with big, big cameras. There almost is a certain machoism around it, isn’t there: You walk into a room to see big prints, and you want to pound your chest King-Kong style and belt “Oh yeah, baby!” That won’t work with Kawauchi’s work, though. I have always been puzzled by this. In Montréal, there were many large prints, hung in a row. I went into the space, had a brief peek and thought “Oh no.”

But somehow I kept walking around the space (looking for a good angle for my installation photo), and I found a little alcove where, what a surprise!, there was something different: Small prints, without a frame, but instead mounted behind plexiglass, hung in little clusters (plus a video screen). It was a revelation! That is how I think Kawauchi’s work needs to be seen. I have no words to describe the added level of preciousness, the fact that finally the work on the wall offered a similar experience to looking at one of the books (To give you an idea of the contrast between the two parts, I took a picture showing one of the big frames on the left and a cluster of smaller images on the right). It was truly wonderful.

(to be continued: part 2, part 3)

(all installation photographs by JMC)