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Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, A Theatre of Images

Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, A Theatre of Images

Niveau, 2002-2008 Alain Paiement Inkjet print 83 x 61 cm

The last time I counted there were over thirty photographic festivals/biennials/triennials in the world. I am sure I could find a few more today. Photography like other art forms has witnessed an extraordinary growth as event culture, in which exhibitions and other activities are mounted for a short period of time, sometimes in unusual locations. The aims of these events are wide: to promote cities and regions, to showcase recent developments within the chosen art form, to develop new audiences, to place local artists within a wider circulation of international practice or to place international artists within a local context.

This list of aims needs some extra ingredients. These are mine: good infrastructure, connections to other cultural institutions, local support, excellent marketing, willingness to change and administrative backbone that can deliver the programme. To get these elements working together is difficult, but when they do the visitor will experience a stimulating and engaging cultural event. Maybe Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal is one of the few photographic festivals that has achieved this. The first was presented in 1989 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of photography. Since this date, ten biennials have been mounted with a mixed exhibition programme of Canadian and international photographers, and a focus on contemporary photographic practice. The last biennial, in 2007, attracted more than 300,000 visitors.

The 2009 biennial is titled The Spaces of the Image and the guest curator is Gaëlle Morel. The overall theme is how the photographic image occupies the space of display either in the museum or in a more public arena, such as on the street. The transformational possibilities of the photographic image have always been inherent in the techniques of photographic production, but with the advent of digital technologies a wider range of possibilities has opened up in the staging of the image. Over the last ten years, some photographers have developed different visual display strategies in the production of their work. This can be seen in large-scale printing, projections, installations and the use of screens. You could call this process a theatre of images, in which the photographic image becomes an actor within the museum or gallery space, and the audience members become active participants in the display of the work. So the underlying themes for the 2009 biennial are the mutation of the image and the procurement of the viewer.

Alain Paiement and Cheryl Pagurek both play with the orientation of looking and how the viewer experiences space. Paiement surveys daily life and architectural spaces by taking a bird’s-eye view of the world below. His large-scale prints depict both the order and the chaos of the space we have built around us. Pagurek also questions the position of looking with her installation Reflection and Flow. Part of this work is projected from above onto the floor and mixes video footage from a family home movie with scenes from a suburban road where pools of water reflect light and the buildings along the road.

Both Alfredo Jaar and Pascal Convert take recognized press photography to examine the ethics of photojournalism and the limitations of the photographic image. Alfredo Jaar’s celebrated and provocative video installation The Sound of Silence takes the famous Kevin Carter photograph taken in 1993 of a Sudanese child being watched from a distance by a vulture after collapsing on the way to the food centre, creating a self-contained theatre in which to tell the story of the photographer and the photograph. Pascal Convert’s wax sculpture is based on a press photograph by Hocine Zaourar taken in Algeria in 1997 of a Muslim woman grieving over her murdered family members. This image was given the title Madonna of Bentalha, and won World Press Photo of the Year. Both Convert and Jaar’s work address difficult questions about human responses to the suffering of others, the responsibility of witness both for the photographer and the audience and the symbolic power of press images.

The use of the pre-existing images, but this time from the internet, will feature in the work Museum of the Everyday by Anne Ramsden, who will download images that will be produced as posters to be plastered across the city. The display of work in the public realm will be a main feature of the biennial. One of the images of factories by Robert Burley for his series Disappearance of Darkness, which documents the end of chemical-based photo processing, will be attached to the facade of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The city street as a stage for photography and the individual is also central to the work of Beat Streuli. His portraits of anonymous young people isolated from the crowd by the use of a telephoto lens will be made into large prints to be assembled on the facade of the Maison de la culture Frontenac.

The facade of the city is also the theme of Joana Hadjithomas’s and Khalil Joreige’s work Circle of Confusion. They have taken a large mural-size print of an aerial view of Beirut and cut it into small rectangles that are then stuck onto a mirror. Viewers are invited to take one of the small pieces of the print as a memento. In this process, the image of the city disappears so revealing the mirror and the face of the viewer within the space of the gallery. This kind of interaction with the work and the use of the mirror is also central to Oscar Muñoz’s work Aliento. Only by breathing onto the surface of a mirror will the image reveal itself: a photograph from a Colombian newspaper of someone who has disappeared.

David Rokeby uses more technical means to raise questions about memory, place and the temporal nature of the image. His interactive installation Taken traces the movement of visitors and their movement within the gallery. One projection layers movement onto movement over time, another projection picks out individual visitors and an attribute is randomly assigned to their image. These individual images are then grouped together to form 100 or 200 headshots of visitors to the gallery. The interaction between two video projections and movement is central to Let’s Puff by Yang Zhenzhong. Two synchronized video projections face one another. One video portrays a girl blowing towards the camera. The other video projection shows a scene on Nanjing Road, Shanghai in which the scene of the city moves further back in response to the rhythm of the blowing.

Blowing, breathing, looking, watching and thinking – all basic human activities and all part and parcel of the 2009 biennial. With its unique range of cultural centres situated around Montreal, plus the artist-run spaces and museums, the biennial will touch and connect to a wide audience. With over twenty solo exhibitions mounted across the city, for a month Montreal becomes a theatre of images.

Artist: Alain Paiement is a photo artist living and working in Montreal. His extensive solo shows include Le Monde en chantier (Galerie de l’UQAM, Montreal, 2002) and Refaire surface (Espace Photographique Contretype, Brussels, 2007). He has also participated in group exhibitions such as The Space of Making (Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, 2005), and La vie, c’est la vie: plaisir, passions, émotions (Biennale de Montréal, 2002).

Artist: Beat Streuli is a Swiss photo artist who lives and works in Brussels, Zürich and Düsseldorf .

Artist: Cheryl Pagurek is a photo artist who lives and works in Ottawa. She received an MFA from the University of Victoria and has exhibited across Canada, with recent presentations in Ottawa and Toronto, as well as in Chicago. Her work is in several collections including Foreign Affairs Canada, the Canada Council Art Bank, the Library of the National Gallery of Canada, the Ottawa Art Gallery and the City of Ottawa Public Art Collection.

Artist: Emmanuelle Léonard is a photo artist who lives and works in Montreal. Léonard has participated in group exhibitions including Territoires urbains (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Montreal, 2005), The Space of Making (Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, 2005) and Citizen Clark (Glassbox, Paris, 2002). His work was also shown in Le Mois de la Photo in 2007 and in numerous solo exhibitions such as Working (Mercer Union, Toronto, 2004) and J’appelle l’Inquisition (Occurrence, Montreal, 2005).

Artist: Robert Burley is a photo artist whose work explores themes related to landscape and architecture. His work has been extensively published, exhibited and can be found in numerous museum collections, including: National Gallery of Canada, Musée de l´Elysee, George Eastman House – International Museum of Photography, The Canadian Centre for Architecture and Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. Burley currently lives and works in Toronto where he is an Associate Professor at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts.

Writer: Paul Wombell is an independent curator and writer on photography. He has been the Director of Impressions Gallery, York and the Director of The Photographers’ Gallery, London. In 2006 and 2007 he was the Festival Director of the Hereford Photography Festival. He has edited six books on photography: The 70s: Photography and Everyday Life (2009), co-edited with Sergio Mah; Local: The End of Globalization (2007); Sportscape: The Evolution of Sports Photography (2000); Photovideo, Photography in the Age of the Computer (1991); The Globe (1989) and Battle: Passchendaele 1917 (1981).