Sunday, August 1, 2010

Others See Us

One thing about living overseas is that, in Europe, anyway, the Question of America always surfaces sooner or later. In Berlin, it was very complicated, since we'd occupied the place for almost 50 years. Until the Wall opened, we "Amis," as they call us, were usually, but not always, viewed as solid friends, and the source of great popular culture. (Some opted instead, and for the same reason, for the British, who were also occupiers.) Nobody liked the French. They were said to be sadistic, cold, and contemptuous of the people under their jurisdiction.

In France, the Question of America takes a far different form. Yes, there was D-Day and the Liberation, and merci beaucoup, but after that, while the U.S. didn't occupy France, it tried like hell to colonize it culturally and linguistically. Or, at least, that was what official sources said. That the French people accepted much of this colonization, learned from it, and, at least in the field of film, forged brilliant new ideas out of it, went unsaid. And yeah, maybe there was too much Coca-Cola around.

Today, this resolves into a love-hate thing that's hard to deal with. The fascination all those films -- those works of art! that Americans themselves were too stupid to see were works of art! -- managed to instil lingers on, but few French people actually want to get any closer to America than that. Those who can afford it might go to New York to shop and indulge in cultural activities, but this afternoon, you'll see more Germans at the Art Institute of Chicago or in Yosemite than you will Frenchmen. We are, somehow, suspect, like carriers of a disease. Best not to get too close.

Which is why I was shocked to learn that this is The Year of America in Montpellier, celebrating the 45th anniversary of its twinning with Louisville, Kentucky. That explains why this year's Comédie du Livre book festival featured North American writers, and it's the official explanation of the current show at the Pavillon Populaire on the Esplanade, Un Rêve Américain, An American Dream. Seven  photographers (or photographic teams) and three installation artists have been grouped under the sub-head of "Between fiction and documentary."

The sub-head gives the curators wiggle-room, I have to give them that.

There's actually only one really offensive series, "Elvis&Presley," by Stephan Vanfleteren and Robert Huber, and they're Belgian and Swiss, respectively. With one shooting black and white and the other color, they document themselves in Elvis-impersonator drag, evidently from some cheap costume shop, gallivanting across America, shooting each other interacting with Americans. Yawn. Double yawn for the picture of them lying in bed together watching porn. Sad to say, though, one of their photos is the icon for the show.

The rest are mostly dull. You enter the exhibition through a curtain made from one of the images in the series just beyond, Frédéric Sautereau's "N40°42'42"W74°00'45"," black and white reaction shots taken at Ground Zero in New York on Sept. 12, 2001. Voyeuristic and reportorial at the same time, they're too much of the moment in which they were taken to be worth much as art. What would one make of this series without the backstory? Good question.

Color happens -- and how -- in the next collection, "Figurations Américaines," by Jean-Luc Bertini, a French photographer who rather portentiously declares "Anyone visiting the United States will probably have had the same vision -- that of entering into a fiction." Really? And that's different from visiting any other country how? But respect where it's due: Bertini is a master of color, and a couple of his photos recall, techncially, that master of color-saturation, William Eggleston. The uniformed girl leaving the Family Dollar convenience store, the fat kid minding the booth of balloons at the fair, knockouts both -- and displayed right next to each other, too, which, given that one is a study in reds and yellows and the other a study in greens, is dizzying. Content, though, eludes Bertini. No matter how perfect his composition -- Amish at the beach wading in the surf make you wonder what painting he's referencing -- there's nothing much in there. A guy and a car in front of an HEB supermarket in Texas. A old black guy at a booth in a diner. C'mon, Jean-Luc, look again. But it's only a fiction, right?

Not for the subjects of Richard Renaldi's "Figure and Ground" portraits, but then, Rinaldi's American. He's got cowboys and Indians here, giving the people what they want, but others, too, a nice cross-section of Americans proudly standing before his camera. He sees a dignity in ordinary Americans the others here miss. Even the girl the curators dismiss as a "Britney Spears lookalike" is obviously proud of how she looks -- and she can carry it off, so why not?

The large central room is given over to one of the poles of the time-frame the show documents -- between 9/11 and Obama's election. Here, Christopher Morris covers the 2008 campaign -- the Republican one, I guess, although there's no overt evidence -- in "My America." The grim faces, the conservative clothing, all point to the right, but the images are flat. In counterpoint, four huge posters showing Obama rallies are hung above the center of the room, the work of Jean-Robert Dantou. These at least have a certain technical appeal, similar to that of the Big Photo craze that was sweeping the art world seven or eight years ago.

Upstairs is given over to two exhibits, the Elvii and Richard Pak's "Pursuit," which, he explains rather tortuously, is the result of trips between 2003 and 2009, in which he first let himself drift, shooting at will, and then inveigled himself into people's lives, shooting them in their homes. These people are mostly poor, Midwestern, and, in Pak's opinion, living out the Declaration of Independence's promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Mostly, they look beaten down, and I didn't take the time to read the huge long wall of texts, a diary from his travels, evidently, that's printed on three walls as one enters the gallery.

There's also a small room just at the end of Renaldi's section in which "Projections" is happening. I walked in on Jessica Dimmock's "The Ninth Floor," a photo-documentary with sound about a bunch of junkies squatting a floor of a building on 5th Avenue in New York. Good thing there were French subtitles; the audio is awful. I only saw half of this and declined to watch the beginning; my tolerance for pictures of people shooting up is severely limited, and her compositional debt to Larry Clark's "Tulsa" was all too evident. Ulrich Lebeuf and Antoine Ferrando contribute "Alaska Highway," taken as the two drove from Canada to Fairbanks. There are a lot of pine trees, a few moose, and, of course, fat people. I doubt I'll ever be so glad to see Fairbanks appear again, although we're only on the road with them for 12 minutes. Finally, Marc Cellier contributes the utterly incoherent "Mon Oncle d'Amérique," some sort of documentary about a great-uncle of his who emigrated from the Cévennes Mountains (just north of us here) to Ohio, became a magician and a poker-player who may not have been totally straight, and eventually, um, made a Thanksgiving turkey and died. I dunno; ask Cellier. An end-title says "To be continued," so maybe he's still making sense out of it, too.

The show being free, I'd urge this on any Americans visiting (or living in) Montpellier, with the caveat that this time, the outsiders don't necessarily see things with fresh eyes, but, rather, eyes damaged by too many Westerns and gangster flicks. If you'd like a preview, there's a .pdf of some of the work here for the press to use (although I couldn't get them to copy to illustrate this).

But I have to come clean here: a lot of the time, especially with Renaldi's and Pak's work, I was stacking it up against a remarkable project a friend of mine has been doing for 40 years. Terence Byrnes is a Canadian, although he grew up and lived for some time in America. His documentation of "Springfield, Ohio: The End of the American Road" shows a small city in America that seems to be dying, but hasn't gone completely belly-up yet, and combines technical mastery with empathy in a way only the greatest outsiders -- I'm thinking of Robert Frank, of course -- has done. I guess it's too late to get this amazing series into the Pavillon Populaire, but then, it doesn't really play to any of the stereotypes about America people hold here. It just tells it like it is.

Un Rêve Américain, Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. Open Tues-Sunday, 10am to 6pm until Oct. 3, 2010. Admission free. 

1 comment:

  1. In my limited (but growing) understanding, it is not arrogance or disdain for America that keeps French visitors away from the US, but timidity. That distance allows for only a superficial reading of the place, a lot of it recycled from artists with a deeper understanding/lack of fear of a culture too open-ended to make sense to the average French visitor. Or artist, it sounds like.


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