Up close and personal

This year, the cutting-edge Cahors photography festival focuses on `The Sphere of Intimacy'. Victoria Lukens, picture editor of the `Sunday Review', took a hard look
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The Independent Culture
SINCE 1991, the spectacularly scenic medieval town of Cahors in south-west France has opened its heart and doors to a contemporary photography and visual-arts festival called Le Printemps de Cahors. Last year, more than 100,000 people visited the event; this year's festival opened at the end of May and closes tonight. During Le Printemps, municipal buildings, public courtyards, ancient chapels and cloisters, and even a windmill along the Quai Champollion are brought into service as galleries, showing the work of internationally renowned contemporary artists free of charge. There are videos, diaries, installations and films - and straightforward photographs which just hang on gallery walls. According to the catalogue, the event "focuses on cross-disciplinary awareness and dialogue in today's fragmented art world." Which is possibly just a nice way of saying that it's all about artists, despite the currently impoverished art market, having fun.

Until recently, it was the annual festival in Arles which was considered to be at the cutting edge of contemporary art photography. But Le Printemps has gradually stolen its thunder. For Cahors is extraordinarily lucky in its director and driving force: the very glamorous, very influential Marie Therese Perrin, an expert collector of contemporary art and photography, who just happens to be married to the president of Cartier International.

The Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, which is based in Paris, has a huge annual budget (pounds 2.5 million) to buy work for its collection, and the company is very active in its support for the festival: when we arrived, a large and enthusiastic team of Cartier PR people were busily greeting a vast coterie of artists and assorted personnages.

The festival was Madame and Monsieur Perrin`s brainchild: the couple own a local chateau and vineyard, and are, apparently, well-loved by the locals who volunteer by the hundreds to help out with the festival. Three-quarters of the event's funding comes from Cartier and other corporate donors; the shortfall is made up by the Ministry of Culture.

The title of this year's programme is "La Sphere de l'intime" - "The Sphere of Intimacy". As Jerome Sans, the festival's curator, admits: "This is a topic that is difficult to define since it is both vague, yet personal." Which sounds, well, vague, and a little perplexing. Can "intimacy" genuinely exist when there's a camera intruding between the subject and the photographer? And can we, the spectators, experience the "intimate" moment as a third party, removed from the intimate act?

But in the case of American photographer Nan Goldin, the answer gets as close as possible to a "yes". The selection of Goldin's photographs on show in Cahors were taken between 1972 and 1997, and incorporate images from her latest book, Ten Years After (Scalo). Goldin has photographed her friends in their most private and sexually intimate moments. Her portraits of drag artists and cross-dressers suggest that she is emotionally engaged, perhaps even in love with some of her subjects. "I believe in privacy," Goldin has said. "But I think the wrong things are kept private - like sexuality and the shame attached to it." "Some African tribes believe that you take away the soul by photographing," she goes on. "I think it's just that the wrong people have the camera. I think you can actually give people their soul - show them themselves. Taking a picture of someone is like caressing them."

By contrast, the notoriously big-headed and sex-obsessed Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki seems to have an idea of intimacy closer to what most of the western world would call pornography. His show is comprised of loads of photocopies stuck to the walls like wallpaper. The subjects are youngish women, mainly nude, in a variety of poses. Some are tied up with ropes; some have what appear to be kitchen utensils plunged in various orifices.The pictures have been taken from every angle under the sun and moon. Doesn't he ever sleep?

There is small British contingent at Cahors, with the Turner Prize- winner Gillian Wearing most prominent. In Wearing's 2 into 1 video, a mother and her two sons are interviewed about their relationship to each other. The mother lip-synchs the sons' responses; the sons lipsynch the answers of their mother. This piece is about "intimacy" in the family arena: what the sons have to say about their mother is sometimes cruel, and devastating to hear. This is an uncomfortable piece without the necessary and appropriate boundaries. Richard Billingham's Untitled (1996), recently shown at the Royal Academy's "Sensation" show, is a piece of work about his own family: its attitude seems both shocking and sincere. The Billinghams reveal themselves to us in lurid, coloured detail: mother, brother and alcoholic father are here to be taken as you find them, and it's not exactly a day at the beach. You wonder what the dignified elderly locals, who potter curiously from gallery to gallery, must make of this portrait of life across la Manche.

A number of displays by younger international artists look as if they have been put together very hurriedly, in the mindset of a first-year art student suffering from what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-for-my-end-of- term-show-tomorrow? syndrome. The British photographer Jonathan Monk's series of pictures of himself in an airport arrivals hall holding placards with names of famous people, for example, is humorous, but smacks of a quick-fix idea. It will probably be snapped up and copied by a trendy ad agency.

Among the more established European participants is Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. In her video, I am Not the Girl Who Misses Much (1986), she sings the words of her title over and over at 78 rpm, and dances around as if drunk, then slows down to 15 rpm as she slumps down the wall. It's amusing (to a point), and "intimate" in that her very blurry breasts are visible a lot of the time. But what was really funny was the way that the soundtrack of cows mooing on another video being shown in an adjoining room could be heard through the walls.

Even more self-exposing than Pipilotti Rist is the Swedish artist Lars Nilsson, who has made a series of colour photographs entitled The Mechanics of the Increased Sensation of Life. This is an installation-based autobiographical piece about his split-up from his girlfriend. Its centrepiece is a large chandelier made up from giant, intensely bright white light bulbs. The heat is so intense that you can't really get close to the pictures, which are hung on the surrounding walls. The attention of our photographer was grabbed by the furnace effect. She said that she could feel her dress starting to melt.

Every year, the festival invites a "special guest" to showhis or her work to the unsuspecting public. This year, it's the turn of the German film-maker Wim Wenders. (Last year's guest was Dennis Hopper, whose photographs were easily good enough to publish in the Sunday Review last October). Wenders's presentation, Une Fois (Once ...) is a photo-diary with poetry, detailing Wenders's thoughts and feelings about locations and people in his films. The likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Isabella Rossellini and Harry Dean Stanton are shown relaxing, as friends and as ordinary people. Several rooms were devoted to Wenders's fairly unremarkable, mainly black-and-white photographs. In the evening, however, more engaging colour photographs of American landscapes were projected on to a large screen outside the gallery's courtyard. The night projections are a popular feature of the festival every year.

The oldest artist showing was the American, Jonas Mekas, with his "frozen film frames". Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas had the most endearing and faith-restoring thing to say about art and his own work: "It's not cinema and it's not photography ... I do not know why I really make them, or what they really are, but I like making them. I like this adventure: it's all very exciting, as every beginning always is. We are living in a decade when everybody's talking about the end of everything: we are at the end of History: we are at the end of the millennium: we are at the end of the Mayan calendar; and yes, Susan Sontag, tells us that we are at the end of cinema ...

"But I only see all the young people around me, whose lives are only beginning anew every second. That includes cinema and photography and all of the arts. The frontier lines of the arts are always moving into unknown possibilities. So I am very excited and my heart is beating in ecstasy - because everything is always beginning."

Le Printemps de Cahors: `La Sphere de l'Intime' ends tonight. The festival usually runs from late May through the first two weeks of June; for details about next year's event, call 00 33 5 65 35 30 05. This year's catalogue, `La Sphere de l'Intime', is published by Actes Sud (FF 120).