The airport in Mumbai, the metro stations in New Delhi, the malls in Chennai… now, Pondy too joins the list of cities that have brought photography into the public space by turning a derelict structure into a visual attraction, writes Olympia Shilpa Gerald

Till about two decades ago, it was here that strong spirits were brewed. Then the shutters came down and the distillery turned into a dump. It became a parking lot, but it was also the home of unpalatable smells and scents. Peeling plaster, cracked walls, a non-existent roof, ugly metal awnings, it was a half-concealed eyesore at the end of an otherwise beautified Promenade. But these past few months, it has changed, and how!

Only artists find a thing of no beauty a joy forever! To the creative mind, there lurked an exotic gallery space under the guise of a dilapidated distillery. Its location in proximity to a public haunt paved the way for an idea that has caught the imagination of artists in many Indian cities — that of taking art out of the galleries into public spaces. Mumbai has lined the walls of its new terminal with paintings, Delhi recently hung photographs at its busiest metro station, and Chennai has brought installations right into its malls. Puducherry, first through a stretch of walls, and now the old distillery, has arrived on the scene, feel photographers.

Distillery transformed

The distillery which has played host to a half a dozen photographers so far currently showcases Padma Shri recipient Pablo Bartholomew’s ‘Tribals of the Indian sub-continent’. Bartholomew was thrilled with the use of space. “Different people want to show at different spaces for different reasons,” he said. For many photographers, including him, putting up huge prints is a learning experience as they get to experiment with quality and display. Someone who has had his work exhibited in other public spaces, including the metro stations in Delhi, Bartholomew felt that the end result is often not one that is visualised by the artist — restrictions by the organisers and government can alter the final display. “In a space like the distillery, where there is more freedom, a lot of interesting work can be done.”

But where you exhibit matters, says French photographer Yannick Cormier, who curated the exhibition. “The ambience matters as much as the crowd. It is not enough to make art accessible by displaying it in a public place, if everyone is rushing about and nobody has the time to look. At the seaside, when everyone is relaxing, it is a different matter.”

The rhythm of the city or space must be factored in a display, believes Auroville-based Sebastian Cortes, known for his book on Puducherry. “Showing in public spaces is making the uninitiated encounter art in places where they would never expect to find it.” Dinesh Khanna, who co-founded the Delhi Photo Festival that exhibits photographs in atrium-like spaces, is inspired by the old distillery. “It is such an unusual space that has been used creatively. A place like this, adds so much atmosphere.” But for a place to be truly acknowledged as a public space, he believes, it must be without any hindrance, like gates. By displaying art at the structure throughout the year, it can become a public space of interest, believes Kasha Vande of Pondy Art, whose brainchild the festival is.

In an age where every other phone comes with a camera and overnight photographers emerge on Facebook, why show photos in public spaces? “It the present scenario, where we are swamped by a tsunami of photos, it is important to educate people about what constitutes good photography — like all art forms, it has a certain discipline and grammar,” feels Dinesh. “There have never been so many photographers as there are today. But there is some good work being created and I don’t feel disillusioned,” says Bartholomew.

People pause and look, but sometimes wonder what is going on. When photography enters the public sphere, the role of the artist extends beyond creating to communicating, believes Dinesh. “Showing is not the end. It is not enough to put up pictures; it is important to get the artist to talk about it or maybe organise photo walks.”

Pondy Photo 2014 concludes this weekend. The Hindu is the print media partner.

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