PHotoEspaña, Madrid’s annual international festival of photography, always garners attention, but this year’s launch on 31 May was accompanied by more fanfare than usual. The festival made its debut in June 1998, which makes this year’s edition its 20th. To be clear, this is not the 20th anniversary but rather the 20th time the festival has been held. It’s a subtle distinction (and a crafty way of milking a milestone), but a significant achievement nonetheless. This year’s event features 100 exhibitions, taking place in more than 60 venues in and around Madrid, with over 500 artists represented. In addition to the usual ‘Official’ and ‘Off-Festival’ sections, which are held respectively at Madrid’s principal cultural spaces and fringe venues, a new ‘Carte Blanche’ section has been added, which consists of six exhibitions and one collaborative project devised by Spanish photographer Alberto García-Alix.
Held across three venues, CentroCentro Cibeles, Círculo de Bellas Artes and Museo Nacional del Romanticismo, the ‘Exaltation of Being’ is García-Alix’s curatorial exploration of the sublime and the heterodox through solo shows by Antoine d’Agata, Teresa Margolles, Pierre Molinier, Paulo Nozolino, Anders Petersen and Karlheinz Weinberger. Subjects in this section focus largely on the marginalized. From rent boys and cross-dressers to transsexuals and drug addicts, these shows commemorate those who live on the periphery of perceived norms and for whom pleasure and pain often exist in tandem. Margolles’s series ‘Dance Floors (Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico)’ (2016), which uses the dusty ruins of former nightclubs as a backdrop for a look at transgender sex workers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, stands out. Particularly striking is the large-format portrait, Karla, Hilario Reyes Gallegos, which depicts the eponymous victim who was beaten to death in 2015. Her death certificate hangs on the opposite wall and a concrete block found at the murder scene rests on the floor, completing a chilling triumvirate.
Other highlights of this year’s edition include ‘Entropy and Urban Space’ at Museo ICO, in which Gabriele Basilico explores the transformation of metropolitan environments through a series of urban landscapes; Elliot Erwitt’s ‘Cuba’ at the Real Jardín Botánico, which combines photographs from his 1964 visit to the country with those from a 2015 return; and ‘Little Black Dress’ at the Museo Nacional del Traje, Yolanda Domínguez’s study of female body image in which sitters of various ages, sizes and races pose with the same ‘LBD’ – an item often touted as a necessity in every woman’s wardrobe.
The strongest exhibition for me, however, was ‘Hop Hopping’, a group show made up of photographs from Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo’s personal collection. Held at the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, this quirky display comprised nearly 100 found photographs, some familiar, most not, depicting people who all, for various reasons, have one foot in the air. The prints – either black and white or sepia, made by different photographers and representing a variety of periods and genres – have been sourced throughout Arroyo’s life in visits to flea markets and street bazaars. They are grouped together in no particular order and without titles or attributions, encouraging the kind of close inspection that the provision of captions and identifying texts often foils. A girl balances on a stool; a boxer is captured mid-kick, a ballerina mid-pirouette; and a woman inexplicably rests her foot on a chimpanzee – these images not only bring renewed attention to the forgotten, discarded photograph, but are also a tribute to the photography of chance, where the mystery of each image waits to be unravelled.
If there is criticism of PHotoEspaña 2017, it is that the festival’s organizers rely too heavily on the notion of a landmark 20th edition and have forgone a more circumscribed theme. The cohesion that a theme can provide is noticeably absent and at times the event feels somewhat disjointed. There is a palpable sense of uncertainty, not unlike many of the subjects in ‘Hop Hopping’ – one foot on firm ground while the other lingers in mid-air, unsure of where or when or even why to land. The scattered nature of multi-venue festivals such as PHotoEspaña means that they will always benefit from the anchor of a common thread. Here’s hoping that next year’s 20th anniversary edition returns to the use of a central motif for some much needed continuity.
Main image: Yolanda Dominguez, Little Black Dress (Jing), 2017, print on canvas, 224 x 150 cm. Courtesy: PHotoEspaña 2017