Straddling a lazy curve of the Rhone just downstream of the fork forming the Camargue Delta, Arles is a stunning city the colour of sand and dripping with Heritage (note capitalisation). Used initially as an important trading port by the Phoenicians, ‘Arelate’ (its Latin name) was taken over by the Romans and turned into a major city, complete with amphitheatre, a gigantic arena (think the smaller sibling of Rome’s Coliseum), triumphal arch, and high walls that still separate the historic centre from its modern suburbs. The place is perpetually crawling with archaeologists carefully dusting bits of old stone, wandering starstruck through the Necropolis, or fishing around in the river in the hope of finding a second head of Julius Caesar. Seriously, this is an incredible place.
However, in recent years, the hundreds of thousands of tourists clogging up our little streets with 4x4s have come with more contemporary cultural destinations in mind. The annual summer photography festival known as the Rencontres d’Arles attracts huge numbers of art-lovers and photographers from around the world, and boasts some big names (such as Lucien Clergue, one of its founders, and Martin Parr, former artistic director) as well as high-flying newcomers. This year, in its 45th edition, the festival is still a major event on any artsy calendar, and rightly so. Many of the exhibitions I had the chance to visit were awe-inspiring in their sensitivity and acute understanding of the subjects photographed. I was particularly struck by the variety of different forms photographers develop in order to express themselves; it isn’t simply a matter of point-and-click. Nevertheless, I must admit that many of the more ‘avant-garde’ installations left me cold….in fact they left me a bit more than cold; they left me feeling thoroughly disrespected and, frankly, pissed off. When an artist spends more effort justifying his credentials than constructing his exhibition, then my eyebrow is raised. Equally, this compulsion for attempted irony is getting a bit tiring – it is not irony, it is a tiny elite inflicting its private jokes on the rest of us, laughing at our attempts to understand them, and thinking we don’t realise.
It was after one of these frustrating experiences that I came upon The Tunnel. An epiphany. Up a set of crumbly, fag-end-encrusted steps from the main road I found myself in a world of colour and forms and words and….and endless, endless creativity! A long road splattered with generations of ideas, smashing into each other, on top of each other, intermingling into crazy patterns that none of the creators would ever have imagined. Here, in this scabby concrete tube with cars rumbling overhead, I had found the exhibition I had been looking for.
I have been back to The Tunnel many times since, and I still find the scene breathtaking – the graffiti is never the same, there are always newcomers, works in progress, turf wars, and a great tentacular creature in a corner (which is one of the coolest things I have ever seen). I have visited many other formal exhibitions, many which have left me enraged and confused. How can stolen photos of women peeing (’emancipation’) receive more laurels than some of these street masterpieces?
I decided to write this article in the interests of equilibrium, not about the world-famous Arlesian photo festival, but about its unsung street art, starting with The Tunnel.
The city as a canvas
Outside the Tunnel, other examples of fantastic creativity can be found in the most incongruous places.
Reclaiming the street
Some photographers have gone as far as to set up kind of external exhibition spaces, sticking their images on any flat space available, enraging local property-owners who spend half the summer peeling them back off. The interactions between the public, the canvas of the street, and the photographs combine dramatically to create awesome multidimensional pieces.
I caught up with one of these street pioneers by the Roman Arena, where he had set up a temporary exhibition with the help of string, wooden pegs, and some well-placed guttering. Santiago is an aspiring young photographer from the Spanish town of Acebo. He came to Arles for the first time last year for the photography festival but came away somewhat disappointed. “Of all the exhibitions I saw, I must have liked less than 10% of what was on show,” he admitted, “I am not your typical photographer, I didn’t study photography and I don’t know the codes that would allow me to understand these installations. I don’t know the artists or their philosophies, and it is not explained properly.”
He added that it is hard for a young, unknown photographer from outside the main artistic circles to get his work shown. “This is a closed world, without contacts or a big name it is hard to get exhibition space. Here in the street it is open. the public can decide for themselves whether they like you or not…it is the toughest school. People don’t have to stop and look at every photo, you need to reach out and touch them yourself.”
With so much talent displayed, literally, on every street corner, one wonders what would induce people to pay vast sums of money to see pictures – half of which they cannot understand without a specific educational background – indoors. I am not saying that we shouldn’t visit formal exhibitions. The Arles photography festival is a wonderful event, and I feel privileged to have such ready access to it. However, it is perplexing to see the same names turn up on the programme year after year, while gifted outsiders such as Santiago are nowhere to be seen. For me, official expos always have a pre-chewed feel to them – someone else decided that this piece deserved to be showcased, whether or not I (or the majority, or an exclusive minority) agree with them. It is not surprising, therefore, that some are seeking to reclaim the street as their own open air gallery, even incorporating it into their artistic identity.
Photo Credit: Lucy Gallard
You can find more of Santiago’s work on his website: www.santiagocamus.com