Nestled within the Portrait(s) photography festival that started last week in the French town of Vichy, there is a group exhibition that assesses the thrill of being “On the scene.” Starring Meryl Meisler and Omar Victor Diop, it celebrates a decade of visual storytelling through personality.
Curators Charlotte Boudon and Marie Magnier, who co-direct the Paris photography gallery The Daughters of Calvary and have worked together for more than a decade, received carte blanche from the festival organizers. Honing various facets of the performance, they have selected photos and video clips that manifest the dynamism of the body in a subtle way (the arch of the back, the elongation of the arm) and more ostentatiously (the intensity of the collective energy, the visceral and anarchic nature of the movement).
We spoke with the pair to discuss the vastness of the performative possibilities, finding the potential in two-dimensional representations of movement and the cult of Kate Bush.
MC Lyte and Friends by Janette Beckman
How was your selection process to represent this theme “on stage”?
Marie: We’ve always had a particular interest outside of art — dance for Charlotte and music for me. It’s always around the body and movement, and it was a good way to join our passions. Many artists work on this theme, including some with whom we work at the gallery.
Charlotte: One of the challenges of an exhibition on movement is to find how to make the gesture emerge from something two-dimensional and without sound. It’s really tapping into the musician’s energy.
What were the artists that you immediately, definitely wanted to include?Charlotte: We have known Denis Darzacq for a long time. This image, from his series The fall [“The Fall”], features an opera dancer. Malick Sidibé is perfect to show in a dance-related exhibition. There is a work by Peter Moore, a British photographer living in New York in the 70s and 80s, who photographed the Judson Dance Theater — his photo is a portrait of the very famous dancer Yvonne Rainer. Katrien de Blauwer is interested in contemporary dance, so we asked her to create a work specifically for that; it is the only commission. You never see anyone’s eyes in your images… So for a portrait festival, it’s a challenge!
Yvonne Rainer by Denis Darzacq
It’s a kind of sideways portrait.
Mary: Yes. And Janette Beckman. I discovered his series on the punk scene. We really wanted to include that, but we already had images of Evelyne Coutas and Renaud Monfourny. Then I discovered his work on hip hop and the breakdance scene — it’s good to have that in the show too.
It adds a different energy.
Charlotte: Yes. In France, we don’t really have this breakdance culture or tradition, so it’s a portrait of the American scene. With Antoine d’Agata — we work with him at the gallery — we had this series in mind because he’s a different kind of dancer: in a strip club. We call this one ‘Boticelli’. He managed to bring out something very beautiful with this body.
Marie: Renaud Monfourny is a photographer for [French music magazine] The InRocks. Each of the musicians here [Patti Smith, Bjork, Iggy Pop, Peaches] are iconic in their own style – but all truly powerful. These photographs are very posed, but still have the gesture.
Charlotte: Yeah, it’s also good to present them in quiet moments, it’s a bit the opposite of their behavior. Except Iggy Pop, of course!
Yeah, he can’t help it. Does the show say something broader about what it means to be an artist today? Or is it a compressed evolution?
Marie: We try to present really different works, like a panel of eras.
Charlotte: This exhibition is actually a taste of a bigger exhibition we’re having next year — we’ll have more of what artists are creating today.
What elements do you hope to develop for this future exhibition?Charlotte: We want to report on the history of performance in photography, and what it is today.
In this timeline, where would you place the beginning – or “a” beginning?Charlotte: A beginning, for me, would be when artists started to stage themselves — like the work of Helena Almeida. When all these female artists started using their bodies, that was really the start. Because they couldn’t find a better person to do performance work, they did it themselves.
Surrounding the exhibit on its exterior wall are eight music videos [including Sia’s “Chandelier” and The Knife’s “Pass This On”]. Sometimes it is artists who perform; sometimes it’s a dancer in the video. It’s “in” the show, but outside the show. What do these add?Charlotte: We were frustrated to only present works without sound and without music, so this was a solution.
The Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin by Jeanette Beckman.
One of the videos is Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, which is a deeply charged political clip. How does performance, or being on stage, intersect with politics?
Charlotte: Obviously, videos and music are more than contemporary art; it is also a way for the artist to convey a message, to have an opinion. It’s an interesting way for artists to say something about their society. We have children – teenagers – and we can say that this medium brings change: it feels right now for this new generation.
Charlotte: They are very, or at least, more free with their bodies. And free with their sex. If Covid hasn’t destroyed everything, I think it will be a very justified generation that wants change – they won’t let that go.
There is an international selection here, but the festival is in a French setting. Is this finally a “French” point of view?
Marie: It’s more Western or European than French.
Charlotte: It may be linked to political history in France — like the demonstrations in May 1968. However, there weren’t as many open performances in the streets as in the United States.
Katrien de Blauwer
Apart from May 1968, are there any other moments that you would place as turning points, in your way of seeing performance evolve?Charlotte: If it was in the dance and the music, it happened on the stage itself — it wasn’t necessarily in Industry.
On a personal level, what is the last performance that really marked you?
Marie: For me, it was attending a concert by the group Low.
Charlotte: I’m going to see a Pina Bausch show next Thursday. It’s not new, but every time I see one…I’m then impressed by the modernity and the exceptionalism of this woman through the choreography. We haven’t talked about theater here, but in the next show we have to because Pina Bausch is the perfect marriage between theater and dance. Music, dance, music, dance. [laughs]
Emilie Hasboun by Denis Darzacq
What was one of the very first times in your life that you realized the power of performance?
Mary: Kate Bush. Music and movement and a woman alone, dancing and powerful.
Charlotte: Marie’s husband runs a music festival dedicated to female groups and singers. When I started working at the gallery, Marie took me to the festival. We saw Electrolane, a group of four women. And I was like, “Okay, I want to play guitar.” It was very impressive. It evoked the same emotion in me as live dancing. Performance is a kind of generosity to which we open ourselves. Performers test new ideas – and when you’re in the audience to receive them, you’re grateful.