The newly renovated Atelier de la Mécanique is a grand and beautifully appointed exhibition hall, and the host venue for 'Systematically Open?', a vast and lavishly presented exhibition designed by architect Philippe Rahm and produced by the LUMA Foundation. There is much to recommend, such as Zanele Muholi's short video EyeMe (2012), a shaking, blurry grid of 100 sets of blinking eyes that suggests we all look with impaired vision, but as a whole, 'Systematically Open?' lacks cohesion. Curated by four different artists (Walead Beshty, Elad Lassry, Zanele Muholi, and Collier Schorr), it feels like four unrelated shows (despite the overarching theme of exploring ‘new structures for the presentation of the photographic image’) and, almost inevitably, falls short of its grandiose ambition to ‘prompt a rethinking of the photographic medium’.
Just inside the entrance to 'Systematically Open?' is Hito Steyerl's three-screen video installation The Tower (2015), in which a sinister skyscraper takes shape in a dystopian world of global outsourcing and war. Outside the hi-spec hall hulks a real tower under construction: the Frank Gehry-designed flagship building of LUMA Arles. Both towers, the fictitious and the real, are emblematic of how this pioneering photography festival – which was established almost half a century ago and now boasts almost 50 exhibitions – is increasingly becoming an expensively staged spectacle of multimedia.
Across town, towers are the subject of another group exhibition, 'Nothing But Blue Skies', which revisits the all-too-real nightmare of 9/11. Thomas Hirschhorn's sculpture High Subjecter (2010), a three-metre tall Arab-looking mannequin standing in a dress of photographs documenting that day's destruction, is eerily similar in shape to Steyerl's twisted monolith, but the highlight here is Guillaume Chamahian's Breaking News (2016). Visitors enter a tall and narrow tower made of stacks of old television sets, from which a multi-lingual cacophony of TV news coverage from September 11th 2001 blares out, powerfully proclaiming the cataclysm's magnitude – physically, politically and historically. Overall, 'Nothing But Blue Skies' is a tight show. Despite being about only one (albeit huge) event, it doesn't feel repetitious, and by looking at a single subject through a wide range of media – from photographic portraits to newspapers to video tapes to 'Googlegrammes' – it is, perhaps inadvertently, the ‘examination of the relationships between photography and its various modes of display’ which 'Systematically Open?' claims to be.
All this tower-related unease is heightened by another theme that runs through the festival: surveillance. In Clémentine Roche's ‘Mirador’ series (2015), grainy photographs of lone, distant figures carry a vague air of threat, while Eamonn Doyle's ‘ON’ series (2014), part of a smart solo retrospective, comprises large black-and-white close-ups of passers-by shot from low angles. With his photographs covering entire walls and his large prints arranged in grids, Doyle's works are pitiless but moving portraits of ordinary people; everymen and everywomen made monumental as they trudge through harsh lives.
In Ten-Year Study (2011), Ethan Levitas also isolates people flowing through life, but in this case the subjects know they are being watched. They stare back, careworn and suspicious, as they rush along with the rest of the time-poor crowd. Pairing Levitas's recent colour images with the late Garry Winogrand's 1960s and '70s monochrome photographs of people on similar New York streets is curatorially shrewd, and not only because it demonstrates the stylistic evolution of street photography. It also reveals a difference between then and now: Winogrand's images show a more carefree and idealistic era, an age when people had time to stop amid the flow and be concerned with something other than their immediate tasks.
Surveillance is also central to Peter Mitchell's ‘A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission’, a faithful restaging of a pioneering show from 1979 that was highly influential on many British practitioners such as Martin Parr. The exhibition, which comprises a series of small, framed prints that are arranged in a line along all four walls of a room, mixes a few images of Mars (by NASA) with many images of earth (by Mitchell, but presented as if taken on an alien reconnaissance mission). Predominantly shot in urban Yorkshire, where Mitchell lived and still does), ‘A New Refutation …’ is affectionate, wittily captioned and exquisitely executed.
Buried in the group show 'Where the Other Rests' is writer/artist/curator David Campany's Rich and Strange, which invites the viewer to look long and hard at just one well-chosen photograph. Surveillance of a different kind, it consists of two things: a single found black-and-white print of actors and a film crew photographed in London in the early 1930s, and a video projection of the print being examined in great detail. Like the lens of spy drone, the projection moves from one section of the image to another, isolating and magnifying individual people and things for us to study. Rich and Strange can also be read as concise shorthand for how the photography festival is changing: the silver gelatin print is of the type that dominated when the Rencontres was established, but the giant projection, presented as part of a slick four-wall installation, is very 'now'
From Muholi to Mitchell, Chamahian to Doyle and beyond, this year's Rencontres presents numerous opportunities to discover and to celebrate. But amid this gigantic photo-feast, served with a large side-order of multimedia, the simplicity and economy of Rich and Strange is a shock that, by way of contrast, exposes one or two of this year's more opulent exhibitions as overindulgent and, frankly, overblown.