There are currently two exhibitions of work by photographer Antoine D’Agata in Paris: Anticorps at the recently opened museum space Le Bal (6 Impasse de la Défense, Paris 18ème) and Nóia at Galerie Filles du Calvaire (17 rue des Filles du Calvaire, Paris 3ème). Anticorps ends after April 14, 2013 while Nóia continues through April 27. If at all possible, I strongly recommend trying to see the show at Le Bal as the installation is particularly powerful and it’s very interesting to see similar work in the two exhibits presented in completely different ways (which, for this reviewer, result in very different experiences of the work).
The photo above, taken from the Anticorps exhibit at Le Bal, shows the floor to ceiling installation style where D’Agata mixes top quality reproductions which are elegantly framed with lower quality printouts on sticker material which is adhered directly to the wall. By contrast the Nóia exhibition at Galerie Filles du Calvaire is much more classic with all works beautifully framed and given ample breathing space on the walls.
While D’Agata’s work is always powerful and often disturbing, the installation at Le Bal is much more intense as we are completely submerged by the work which covers all the wall space, appropriately, in the basement of the museum. And unlike the exhibition at Les Filles du Calvaire, which is only a narrow selection of work, Anticorps shows not only the pictures of prostitutes in brothels but many other series as well. The “all-over” quality of Anticorps creates an intensity that is lacking in the Nóia exhibition but the addition of pictures of war torn regions (from his “day job” working for Magnum Photo) also adds to the sense of violence and danger of the entire exhibition (something less present in the Nóia show which concentrates only on the brothels).
Seeing his photographs of bombed out buildings and desolate landscapes renders his “brothel pictures,” which show the blurred, almost indecipherable faces and bodies, alone and coupled, all the more troubling and violent whereas at Filles du Calvaire, the images take on a more formalistic quality. They become more about the technique and some may slip into an eroticism which never seems to arrive at le Bal. It also happens that the pictures at Filles du Calvaire are almost exclusively of single figures (almost all women) which diminishes some of the narrative power and makes the them more sculptural. Rather than being in the midst of constant movement, here there is much more objectification of the figures than at Le Bal which creates more distance from the reality of the women.
Looking at such work, as an American living in Paris, it’s hard not to wonder at what sort of reaction the work would receive in the United States. In a city like New York it would probably pass much as it has in Paris but undoubtedly there would be many people upset in other parts of the country should such an exhibit appear in their region. D’Agata’s images aren’t pornographic and because so many of the images are so blurred they aren’t clearly explicit although with little imagination we understand perfectly what is taking place.
One interesting omission from both exhibition descriptions (I haven’t yet read the numerous long essays written for the huge catalog) is that while they do announce that D’Agata is often himself a subject in the photographs no one addresses in a direct way the significance of D’Agata’s sexual involvement with, presumably, paid prostitutes around the world. In the French press that I’ve read no one seems to have addressed this concern. I’m quite sure in the U.S. there would be many expressing their anger with D’Agata for being yet another man profiting from women who likely have few other options than prostitution to maintain some semblance of financial security.
On the one hand it is refreshing that D’Agata doesn’t (as Joel Peter Witkin did for his exhibition at the BNF last year in Paris) try to justify his questionable, perhaps unethical, approach to making his photographs in brothels. He has shown himself to be honest in not sparing himself from criticism of his choices. Rather than the photographer who stands off to the side making images (judgements) of the terrible realities he encounters, here he is caught in the same trap. For while he can be said to condemn the oppression and violence he captures in his photographs, he doesn’t escape our moral reprobation. He, like so many others, is also unable to yield to using his privileges at the expense of others less fortunate than he. While D’Agata claims to co-exist with his subjects, to live through their experiences along with them, there are the crucial differences that he chooses to join them in their lifestyle–and he has a freedom to step away from it that these women don’t have.
These are both exhibitions which will not leave many impassive. There are many disturbing images and troubling ethical considerations. The photographs can be said to be beautiful but I don’t believe they, in any way, glamorize or romanticize the realities he depicts. And while one could justifiably accuse D’Agata of not showing any great sensitivity to the individual women he photographs during his sexual encounters–they are all essentially anonymous women, one looking much like the next–he forces us to understand a little better what it might be like to be one of these women who likely has no other choice than to work as prostitutes and daily be forced to satisfy the physical and other needs of perfect strangers. It should be mentioned that at Le Bal, the first gallery space, in addition to having stacks of various images offset printed to poster size and free for visitors to take, there is a sound piece where we hear a series of women, in different languages, speak of their experiences.
A natural question which arises from such an exhibition is whether it should even exist? Is D’Agata inflicting even more harm in making these images than any possible good which could come from revealing so starkly this ugly reality to the world (in the hope that it might stop)? At what point does an artist have an obligation to be himself a moral exemplar? Are these just more images to épater la bourgeoisie (shock the middle class) without any real effort to rally public opinion to make changes?
From my own personal experience I didn’t have the sense of people leaving the exhibition space concerned for these women but rather talking incredulously about D’Agata as some strange and wild beast who can endure and capture such dark visions of the world. While the talent of D’Agata is unquestionable and I believe we can credit him for his honesty in not sparing himself from condemnation in presenting these works, today’s society does still seem to fall into the trap of being seduced by the cult of personality and showing itself more intrigued by D’Agata’s Homerian quest wandering the globe from one danger to the next, himself battered and injured but always escaping his own destruction, than by the sad reality of these women. He is the star of his world and the women and others encountered along the way are background characters that help us better understand our (anti-) hero. Perhaps we would be more driven to make changes to help these women and others struggling in the world if D’Agata himself would tell us more about the reality of these women. The sound recordings are a start (and apparently a film is forthcoming) but in the current context the women remain mostly anonymous. D’Agata’s story is troubling and disturbing to watch but it is also fascinating, but maybe we need to connect more to the individuality of these women if we’re to be moved to take steps as a society to help change the ugly reality of their lives.Michael McCarthy
Atelier Vagabond Photo Guided Tours
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