Paris - The MEP ("European House of Photography") disposes over a famous collection, but as photographs are very sensible works they cannot be exhibited continuously. The institution instead uses its reputation - and location in Paris, the capital of photography - to host several exhibitions at a time that focus on all different aspects of the medium.
Currently the visit starts with Anderson&Low, British artists who create fictional Manga personalities. Sometimes the result looks like video game characters that have completely been designed on screen; more often you recognize real people's photographs having undergone some serious Photoshop treatment. All these creatures represent distilled versions of human beings, abstracted to fairy tale elves; the latent eroticism and violence of Japanese Manga comics is intensified and at the same time rendered unreal. The basic ideas become apparent, uncovering human desires, through a technic that creates impeccable perfectness.
These days there also is a "Japan Expo" in Paris, in the city centre I crossed a group of girls old enough to drink, drive and vote in Japanized Tinker Bell disguise. The modern fairy tales reveal dreams of purity and perfectness around characters that are just too perfect to be human. Anderson&Low present them in their tight costumes, naked male breasts, and one thing is for sure: if those elves existed they would be as gay as it gets. The phenomenon seems like a perversion aimed on window dummies. But maybe here is a link to art history, these "things" are sterile just like Disney characters - or antique marble sculptures, should the fascination for comic characters be two thousand years old and only a continuation of gods and demi gods?
And weapons are just so stylish. The swords and guns they carry serve the same fascination as French national holiday's parade on July 14th: the beauty of death machines, people gazing to the sky to admire bombers that if doing what they are built for, would drop their beautiful aerodynamic bombs onto the enthusiastic crowd. Of course it is not a revolutionary insight that comics make allusion to a sort of clean violence, excluding blood, sweat, tears or pain; and in the end it is harmless. Or is it? We all would love to be, or at least fu... a war hero, but please, he should not be severed, no blood, sweat or tears smeared onto the perfect body. Paradoxically the story behind is important: somebody who pushed a button in command control and launched a nuclear bomb to eradicate a city surely is very clean outside. But no admired hero, not even in mangas or Hollywood movies. The ideal hero has to tell stories of wading knee-deep in streams of blood and guts, escaping death by inches, but tell them in his charming cocktail voice, haircut intact and no scarves left from the injuries he is supposed to have suffered.
Anderson&Low know all of this; I had the chance to visit the exhibition with a Japanese friend who translated the writing on some of their creations - pure nonsense, like two wrestlers in action (in UFC poses that recall this great South Park episode about the gayness of Greek-Roman wrestling) who think about a cup of hot chocolate...
The second floor is dedicated to French actress Charlotte Rampling with an exhibition divided in three parts. The first one presents photos from various photographers using the actress as a model and it is fun to distinguish the styles. Lindbergh focuses on the face, seemingly enlarging it to absorb all attention where Helmut Newton directs the look further down her unclothed body. Something Jürgen Teller most strangely tried to repeat thirty years later. David Lynch introduces mystery by light rays cutting the face in pieces and Manga returns with a portrait in comic disguise, made by Jacques Bosser. Not nearly as artificial as Anderson&Low, he spares Rampling's humanity and gives her just another role.
The second part assembles self-portraits, Rampling chose out of the museum's splendid collections. Nearly all of these you can trace back to her essence as an actress. David Seidner ("Self Portait", 1992) and Lee Friedlander ("Self Portrait, Paris", 1997) playing dead man look like theatre posters; Robert Maplethorpe with a skull cane ("Self Portrait", 1988) could equally be taken on the casting for a Shakespeare play. There is Tomoko Sawada in hundred different disguises ("ID 400 #1-100", 1998) and Nan Golding ("Nan, after having been beat up,...", 1984) playing the role of her life. Duane Michaels satirizes the artistic pretension for glory in his photo strip building a (small) pyramid at Gizeh ("I've built a pyramid", 1978) - every artist sees the ancient stone monuments and seeks to create something comparable, to challenge, equal and surpass the idols, probably it is the same with mere interpreters that are actors.
The third part shows Rampling's family albums. Just like Average Joe the stars take photos of their children to carry them around in their briefcase and show them to whoever feigns interest (or cannot escape quickly enough), not to forget touristic images from her travels around the world. Rather uninteresting unless you follow the yellow press for the paparazzi pics.
The visit continues with a small exhibition to demonstrate Paul Thorell's Photoshop mastery. Abstract graphics, mostly exaggerated, seldom he finds the balance, when the forms seem go meet real ones, likes waves on a sea. But basically everything looks the same, like the standard desktop image on your Apple computer.
Thankfully this is only an interlude to June Newton, Helmut's widow, who has made her own career as a photographer under the alias Alice Springs.
A psychological interpretation should be allowed. Like every serious artist Helmut Newton was obsessed by his work, he loved photography probably more than his wife, and if he ever would have needed to choose, who dares to guess, whether it would have been June or Leica? And as she was raised in pre-feminist times, his wife did not draw the consequence to leave him for the sake of her self-esteem, but stayed true to her love. She even started to take part in his life, assisted by him who - according to the legend - gave her his camera when being bound to bed by flu. June made her first ad photos for Gitanes and stayed with it (not the cigarettes, nor the model, as beau as he was). Apparently June’s advertising career was limited to very few brands; here we find above all campaigns for a Parisian haircutter - a friend, her proper figaro?
One self-portrait shows her face completely hidden behind a camera - maybe the most appealing to her husband, making his fantasies come true; did she need to become a camera to capture his focus? Her alias fits the idea, the name of a village in her native Australia, she stands for a whole: a country, photography, women.
Important is, what we don't see: June/Alice did not take revenge by copying her husbands soft porn with inversed roles, when she shot a naked man, he was about 80 (artist "William S. Hayter", 1976 - actually, the years' gravity adds good to a man, we really are advantaged by nature) and certainly not of the same interest to her as Helmut's models to him.
The rest is portrait. Famous and less famous people she knew thanks to her husband, the whole Parisian fashion bunch, from Hubert de Givenchy to Christian Lacroix and Yves St Laurent. Most of them standing upright, holding the same pose, behind the fashion there still is a person, Newton/Springs succeeds in revealing the double twist of "The emperor's new clothes": taking away the mask creates equality and individuality (sorry, but I cannot resist to add one of my all time favourite movie quotes: "You are all individuals" - "Yes, we are all individuals" ... - "I'm not!").
There are artists, of course, Beuys, Hockney, Lichtenstein, and writers from Gore Vidal to Borroughs and Tim Leary. Alice/June's style is recognisable in the poses, nearly always standing, often the head raised in an arrogant gesture, which seems to be quite suitable for the personalities concerned.
Finally, in MEP's basement, we find well done video works about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Tami Zadock made a fictional documentary and merchandising articles for "Gaza Island", terraforming project to be executed by peacefully joined forces. Rona Gelman as Pippi Longstocking cannot succeed in tearing the wall away, Tom Rinini placed a volcano on his parents' house in Tel Aviv and Daniel Landau lets Tony Oursler video-puppets talk about the life of Jewish immigrants to Israel.
Intelligent works, worth a visit, like the whole museum.