Snapshots of Arles with Sam Stourdzé, Director, Rencontres d’Arles | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Snapshots of Arles with Sam Stourdzé, Director, Rencontres d’Arles

Sam Stourdzé, director, Rencontres d'Arles
(Stéphane Lavoué)

At the Rencontres d’Arles — the longstanding summer photography festival founded in the south of France in 1970 — exhibitions run the gamut from photojournalism to fashion photography to emerging artists to virtual reality immersion. There is also a section dedicated to international photography publishers, celebrating the creativity of the medium in book form.

Presented in ancient vaulted churches and Contemporary art venues throughout the Provencal city, this 49th edition, on view July 2-– September 23, focuses on several umbrella themes. The “America Great Again!” sector includes deep dives into the work of Robert Frank, Laura Henno, and Paul Graham. A section called “The World As It Is” surveys shifting global realities, from Turkey’s current socio-political upheaval to Chechnya’s process of healing to China’s arranged marriages. The “Dialogues” section bridges works by Picasso and Godard, as well as Everlyn Jane Atwood and Joan Colom. All of these compelling and diverse shows are overseen by the fair’s director, Sam Stourdze, who formerly led the Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland. In an interview with BLOUIN ARTINFO, Stourdze discussed the new aspects of the 2018 fair and the region’s can’t miss-architecture, from a large pop-up (adapted from a structure shown at 2016 Venice Biennale) to exquisite centuries-old edifices.

How long have you been living in Arles?

Since I’ve been the director of the Rencontres, which I was appointed in 2014.

What is your “can’t leave without seeing this” recommendation for the city?

This year, we’ve built a monumental bamboo pavilion — an exceptional structure imagined by Colombian architect Simon Velez. It’s a 1000 square-meter pop-up along the Rhone river, which provides a very meditative venue within the festival; there will be an exhibition dedicated to the black-and-white photographs of [Buddhist monk] Matthieu Ricard there.

Do you have a favorite permanent architectural site?

The Cloitre de Saint-Trophime, a chef-d’oeuvre of Romanesque architecture. It’s a classified world monument by UNESCO for its patrimonial heritage.

What local tradition would you advise visitors to check out when they’re in town?

Meeting the Reine d’Arles and the demoiselles d’honneur— it’s a singular Arles event. Every three years, there are elections for the queen. It’s a popular tradition: you need to know how to dress in the Provencal garb, speak the Provencal dialect…

What are your favorite cafes or restaurants?

This year, we collaborated with Louis Vuitton City Guides for an 120-page Arles guide that is very complete regarding all the best local spots. I’d rather recommend that.

How would you spend a free morning or afternoon in Arles?

I would go to the beach 45 minutes outside of Arles, to the Calanques [steep inlets carved into the limestone Mediterranean coast]: they’re magnificent. The Calanque du Grand Mejean is the absolute loveliest.

Where would you recommend people stay when they visit?

There are two neighborhoods in opposite directions from the city center. On the one hand there’s the Hauture, in the heights of Arles, situated above the Arenes amphitheater: a beautiful area that’s wonderful to get lost in. Then there’s the popular La Roquette, which is the quarter once populated by gypsies and sailors, made up of small streets lovely to wander through.

What are the best art venues to check out beyond the Rencontres d’Arles programming?

The Fondation Van Gogh is a very pleasant venue where you can see Contemporary art exhibitions. The Musee de Departemental de l’Arles Antique is a referential museum of its kind. There are regular excavations in the Rhone region, which means pieces are added to the collection all the time, like the exceptional bust of Caesar that was recently discovered. 

Recommended reading: Is there an author — native to Arles or otherwise — who depicts the region especially well?

In terms of historical reading, Frederic Mistral is a great Provencal author. In more Contemporary literature, the latest novel by Sylvain Prudhomme, “Legende,” grasped the region very well.

This is the 49th edition of the festival. What is unprecedented about this year?

We’re adding new exhibition spaces, and they’ll be rather surprising discoveries. The Croisiere, in the city center at the corner of Boulevard Emile-Combes and Avenue Victor-Hugo, is new space we debuted last year; we will open additional floors of the buildings, which will double — almost triple — the exhibition space. We’re a festival, so what’s lucky about that is to have 35 exhibitions all at the same time, rather than one after the other… Thirty-five exhibitions is between eight to 10 years of programming for a single museum! People stay an average of three days and see an average of ten exhibitions. Not all 35 exhibitions, but it’s still quite a lot.

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