“Exchanged Glances/ Regards Croisés; Arlington VA & Reims, France : Sister Cities,” at the Ellipse Arts Center (4350 Fairfax Dr., Suite 125, Arlington).
The exhibit runs through March 28. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. For more details, call 703-228-7710 or visit www.arlingtonarts.org/ellipseartscenter.htm.
Behold the Beholder
Exchanged Glances is exactly what it’s purported to be. Sister cities Arlington and the French city of Reims exchanged photographers and turned them loose to record their impressions of the other city.
Stuck in the inexorable day to day flow of life, the contextual structure of our lives often fades into the background to the extent that we no longer notice it at all. If we have the means, we often travel to spice up our lives and shake off the cobwebs. The inadvertent byproduct of such travel, and cultural exchange in general, is the way it often tells you more about yourself than the exotic people and places you’re supposedly seeking out.
Arlington street photographer John Babineau spent two weeks in Reims, France doing what he does here at home: photograph people living life out in the public urban environment. Cécile Bethléem of Reims came here for a month to shoot Arlington. Cécile Bethléem wanted to record Arlington not as a tourist, but rather as residents would see it. She specifically avoided recording people as she felt those photos would be about the faces and reactions of individuals, and she wanted to record Arlington as a collective community.
Separating these two views of the world would greatly diminish their message. The real power of this show comes from the juxtaposition and the resulting comparison and contrast thereof. And what a contrast it is!
Having hosted two world wars and nearly 30 international Grand Prix/Formula 1 races in the last century, Reims is an international city in a way Arlington can’t even imagine. All that back and forth has to erode the European notion of space and what constitutes “mine.” The contiguous 48 states, being defined by two oceans, gives us a sense of rigidity about our space and security that also reaches far back into our past. One could postulate that the attacks of 9/11 were so shocking to us because it rattled that very notion.
America is compartmentalized on the local and personal level as well. We’re addicted to personal space. No matter what city planners do they can’t get us out of our cars and onto public transit. The American dream is to own our own home, for that is our castle. And with the McMansioning of America they seem more and more like castles with moats and drawbridges.
All of which seems to be inadvertently recorded by these two photographers.
Entre Deux Pays
Taken as a whole, Cécile Bethléem’s photos of Arlington have a neutron bomb look to them as if you were the last person alive. It’s a highly alienating view of our surroundings. The surroundings we’ve built for ourselves.
First and foremost her photos display a strong sense of geometry and isolating division of space. None seems so horribly condemning as her juxtaposed image of the back side of the Highlander Motor Inn on Wilson Blvd., with the blue-tiled roof of the International House of Pancakes and office building behind it on N. Fairfax Drive. Interrelated color cues harmonize the two images, making it seem like one image at first blush. Eventually you come around to the notion that it’s comparing the isolation of motel life with the cubical division of office life. Ouch!
TJ Community Center doesn’t come off much better. In Bethléem’s hands, it looks like a prison with guard towers and a playground set outside its walls. Her collection of detached homes, shot individually, seem to express a version of domestic isolation.
John Babineau’s view of Reims fits much of our stereotypical view of Europe. Open common areas where people walk and interact with one another, complete with street vendors. The built environment he records shows angular modern structures mixed with centuries-old handcrafted structures with humanizing curves and texture. By contrast, the Arlington structures could be drawn out with nothing but a straight edge and pencil. Not knowing where these two places were, if you had to choose one to live in you’d choose Reims without so much as a second thought.
We can clearly see the long standing cultural mix of Reims in Babineau’s photo titled “Cimetiére du Nord.” All of the graves marked with crosses state that the person buried there died for France. On the right-hand side of the frame we see an Islamic head stone, which we can only assume belongs to a Muslim.
Babineau seems closest to outright commentary in his triptych images (as most of his photos are) titled “Getting Around Town” and “Global Advertising.” The latter shows three advertising posters for Hollywood movies. The central photo depicts a nun dressed in drab gray plodding across the street in flat sandals, while Sarah Jessica Parker kicks up her high heels in a pink frock extolling the virtues of “Sex in the City.”
As bitingly wry and thought provoking as that image is, “Getting Around Town” is far more subtle, though no less clear in its message. In the first photo, we see a driver in a Pontiac Firebird convertible, top down and oblivious to our gaze. The second image shows a French woman who has apparently stopped her bicycle to get her picture taken. She greets us with her full attention and a wide, welcoming smile. The third photo in that series shows several young men in a European compact car waiting at a light, also oblivious to our gaze and presence. Behind them in the store front window we see a poster with yet another happy smiling French girl on a bicycle.
It would be interesting to see how Reims residents in general view themselves after seeing this show. Seems we have some work to do. Maybe we could take a clue from the likes of René Dreyfus, Tazio Nuvolari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill and Jim Clark. We could close down I-66 and Wilson Boulevard for a few days every year and host a Grand Prix race of our own!
You’re already feeling that doing so would be an unacceptable inconvenience, not to mention its violating your space and sense of safety, aren’t you?
Note: the Ellipse Arts Center hosts a talk/workshop by intellectual property lawyer John D. Mason. Also a literary agent, and member of the Board of Directors of Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, his talk, “Copyright Basics for Professional Artists,” will cover the basic legalities of copyrights, trademarks and contracts for visual artists. Bring your note pads and questions from 7 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 5.