Spotlight Art

Chennai Photo Biennale goes hybrid; invites us to reorient how we view history

Senthil Kumaran Rajendran’s ‘Tamed Wild Tuskers’.

Senthil Kumaran Rajendran’s ‘Tamed Wild Tuskers’.

Community of Parting is a 70-minute film in ‘Maps of Disquiet’, the hybrid exhibition stitched between virtual space and physical venues, part of the third edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB).

The film, by Copenhagen-based Jane Jin Kaisen, documents the stories of war, loss, and pain that women in particular embody. Tracing itself to a Korean myth about goddess Bari and her abandonment as a child, the film leads one through the reconciliation and healing practices among women shamans who transit between the living and the dead. They find voices for the dead to come alive in the present, to strengthen and comfort the living through the continuity of grief.

There is a philosophy. “I understand social death to be the ultimate abandonment, but the shamanistic approach would be that which opens up and enables, if you are outside of conventional notions of history and conventional notions of space and time. You can see different things. You need this kind of death to be able to have a more complex image of the world and of the relation. So then and there become completely different concepts. It is not a singular event. You have to orient yourself permanently, every day in relation to history, to time, to space,” narrates the voice of a woman juxtaposed with the image of a waterfall, two poles at the bottom standing upright from the rocks, human-like, fragile paper cutouts dangling on each of them. The image moves slowly to the close-up of a translucent paper face, letting the golden sunlight pass through, arms flapping in the wind.

A still from Jane Jin Kaisen’s film ‘Community of Parting’.

A still from Jane Jin Kaisen’s film ‘Community of Parting’.

Curated during precarious times, dodging uncertainties, and illustrating the possibility of experiencing an exhibition through different modes of interaction, Arko Datto, Boaz Levin, Kerstin Meincke, and Bhooma Padmanabhan have conjured up multiple lenses, inviting audiences “to have a more complex image of the world”. The curatorial context is set within the overlapping frameworks of colonialism, those marginalised in the process of nation-building, mining, consumption, socio-environmental disruption, loneliness within crowded habitations, and protagonists without autonomy. Set against a pandemic that is forcing us to find new ways to interact, the exhibition is a window into the ever-shrinking, isolated world of artists and curators.

Online, the works take one into the interiority of worlds and at times to expansive landscapes. The screening rooms transform into intimate viewing windows for the films. There are two issues of a journal of podcasts, essays, and visual projects. The physical venues are dispersed across small spaces, private and public, in the city, and are a relief from the home and the screen, yielding to the physical need to touch and see the light captured in images with different sensorial experiences.

Gauri Gill’s ‘1984’ notebook.

Gauri Gill’s ‘1984’ notebook.

Madras Literary Society, a colonial-era library, invites one with the smell of old books, some untouched for years. In a room along the back corridor are two large tables with B&W prints held in place by grey pebbles. These are from the notebook ‘1984’ , by photographer Gauri Gill. The photos, drawings, and texts, as well as accounts, stories, and reflections by artists and writers on the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 hark back to a past that has repeatedly played out in different contexts and locations to a point where it is all too familiar. The photographs are reminders of the past and come alive in the present as politicised brutality. Using photo-stories of many such moments, the exhibition takes image-making beyond the indexical, leading one into a labyrinthian journey of history.

In the 19th century, photography as a documenting tool was rigorously used, and its presence was strongly felt in the colonies. In the then Madras, experiments with photography were undertaken in Madras School of Arts, today the Government College of Fine Arts. The medium encompasses an interesting history of seeing, capturing, and conquering. From its early role as tool for documentation, photography moved into the realm of imagination, blurring fact and fiction, attempting to articulate the intangible through the tangible. In ‘Maps of Disquiet’, the nature of photography as evidence is invoked and simultaneously challenged, as it chronicles diverse accounts.

‘Chicken Run’ by Parvathi Nayar and Nayantara Nayar.

‘Chicken Run’ by Parvathi Nayar and Nayantara Nayar.

One of CPB’s commissioned projects is the Keeladi excavation of the ancient Vaigai civilisation near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. In ‘Excavating an Imagination’ at Forum Art Gallery, the sequence of large photographs and texts examines the nature of imaging a significant site and the methods of investing it with contemporary meaning. The collaborative project by Andreas Langfeld and Sarabhi Ravichandran questions the fictional nature of image-making within the scientific process of documentation. Photography here can become a tool to build intended narratives, as opposed to the single notion of ‘truth’ it epitomises, in the way it captures the physicality of objects, sites, scales, landscapes, people and their bodies.

Senthil Kumaran Rajendran’s ‘Tamed Wild Tuskers’, also at the gallery, gives one a glimpse into the lives of Kurumba, Kattu Nayakkar, and Malasar tribal mahouts who work with elephants in the Western Ghats. The B&W photographs narrate the complex relationship between forest, people, and animals.

The mahouts train the tuskers to become kumkis that can control other wild elephants, building lifelong relationships of trust through rituals of feeding and grooming, communicating through words, sounds and touch. Senthil poignantly registers these nuanced emotions with the tonal intricacies of his images.

A still from Babu Eshwar Prasad’s ‘Fast Forward to Zero’.

A still from Babu Eshwar Prasad’s ‘Fast Forward to Zero’.

Babu Eshwar Prasad’s works at Ashvita art gallery lead us through panoramic landscapes of mines, brick-making fields, and industrial spaces. In one of the composite images, the beautiful landscape is selectively focused through the viewfinder of a camera obscura, omitting the mining site below. The landscape inside the larger frame is set on a lavish balcony overlooking the wounded underbelly. In the fantastical scenarios that Prasad has summoned, the extensive nature of extracting and altering can be observed in the horizontal layout of the photographs and in the movement of the film from one end to another, as if viewing a single expanse from the window of a moving vehicle. The minute detailing and even resolution reminds one of satellite imaging.

Online, Harun Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) focuses on the organised labour force, the title invoking the 1895 film by the Lumiere Brothers, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory , a 45-second work that was the first motion picture produced and shown in public. That film was shot with a fixed frame, capturing the moving image of men and women leaving the gate of their factory in Lyon. Farocki compiles footage, starting with the Lumiere film, with other B&W movies, musicals and documentaries of workers leaving the factory to visually evoke the drama around exploited workers, the binaries of power, the lack of jobs, and the never-ending wait outside factory gates.

Exhibits at Roja Muthiah Research Library, one of the venues.

Exhibits at Roja Muthiah Research Library, one of the venues.

As a tool of modernity, the camera privileges an anthropocentric viewing of the world. From the image capturing and transferring techniques that developed after early innovations in understanding properties of refraction and photosensitive chemicals, photography has journeyed to find collective social meaning, evolving into a tool of self-expression, accessible to all. As an archive of time and space, if carefully mediated, it can trigger crucial engagements.

The curators of CPB’s third edition have responded to the critical questions of the times. Living in times of image saturation, stringing together visuals and facilitating the process of experiencing them is more than just a curatorial challenge. It is an invitation to reorient oneself to view history and its presence in more ways than as a ‘singular event’.

The performativity of the image has played out in interesting ways in this exhibition, especially in tackling the notion of imaging the future. A photograph is also a prophecy, a map to navigate the unknown. Going back to the shamanism in Kaisen’s film, if we see it as a process of cleansing, a way to come to terms with our fractured worlds, then what does it mean to be outside conventional notions of time and space? How do we orient ourselves with history? ‘Maps of Disquiet’ emerges as a possible compass for this journey.

ON SHOW: ‘Maps of Disquiet’: Chennai Photo Biennale-Edition III; multiple venues; till February 6, 2022.

The writer is a practising visual artist and curator based in Chennai.


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Printable version | Apr 12, 2022 6:35:26 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/chennai-photo-biennale-goes-hybrid-invites-us-to-reorient-how-we-view-history/article38338609.ece