What do we see through a glass darkly? Mere reflections, or a façade hiding an eldritch realm that lies just beyond our ken, populated by demons plotting to invade the material world and devour all mankind? The ancient Chinese believed the latter, dubbing these creatures the ‘fauna of mirrors’ — and this concept has been adopted as the title for the second edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB). “It’s not a theme as such,” says artistic director Pushpamala N., who views it in broader terms, “as a metaphor for photography itself, a mirror portal that creates another world.” A parallel world that is “familiar yet strange, perhaps friendly and intimate, sometimes mysterious and hostile — but always magical.”
- Offbeat venues will be a big plus for CPB. “I wanted to keep the feeling of these venues,” says Pushmala, so instead of using only flat surfaces, she has taken the sculptural installation route, and some large works will jut out from the floor. There will also be videos playing on monitors. Venues include fabulous heritage buildings like Madras University’s Senate House, Egmore Museum, and Madras Literary Society; quirky local spots such as railway stations and Elliot’s Beach; plus regular galleries.
The Biennale, an international festival of photography co-founded and co-organised by the CPB Foundation and the Goethe Institut/ Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, will be open to the public from February 22 to March 24, and will feature works by more than 100 artists from 13 countries, with exhibitions in various venues across the city, including heritage sites. There will be seminars, workshops, talks and performances. Much of the work is already in print, but many are being created specifically for the event — something that’s enabled by the biennale format, with residencies and artist grants. But what really marks out Year 2 as a huge step up from the more modest first edition — a product of “enthusiasm” — is a quantum leap in quality, according to co-founders Varun Gupta and Helmut Schippert and founding trustees Shuchi Kapoor and Gayatri Nair. For this they credit Pushpamala’s curation as well as their brainstorming after the first event. Overall, the difference in scale is “10x,” asserts one. “Let’s keep it at 5x,” cautions another. “100x,” exclaims a third.
Pushpamala, former sculptor and now performance photographer, brings a unique perspective to the curation. Her background being in the art world, the Biennale has more than a tinge of the art show about it, with several installations, videos, projections and so on — but all to do with photography, the still image. And there is a focus on her own area, conceptual photography, although a number of documentary photographers and political activists are also represented. And she has selected specific works to be arranged thematically, rather than by artists per se .
Why Chennai, a city steeped in cinema and the classical arts, but with no great tradition of still photography? The answers come in a cascade.
‘Why not Chennai?’ ‘Because we’re here.’ ‘Because it’s our city.’ ‘Because there’s a void in contemporary art to be filled here.’ Chennai is “very fast-growing, like so many metropolises,” says Schippert, but “tell me one single contemporary art event that Chennai is good in. There’s none.”
With its rapid success since its launch in 2012, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in particular — now counted among the world’s big art events — has been an inspiration. The difference, of course, is the focus on photography, but there are several South and Southeast Asian precedents to cite in that regard: Nepal’s Photo Kathmandu, Singapore’s International Photography Festival, the Kuala Lumpur Photography Festival in Malaysia, Bangladesh’s Chobi Mela. The last is “a name in the art world,” Schippert points out. India has nothing similar, but smaller festivals have been starting up, like Egaro in Agartala. There’s collaboration going on as well; curated photos from the Delhi Photo Festival were shown at CPB’s first edition.
Future photo capital?
Hosting the Biennale in the city’s heritage venues could be a boon for conservation, by bringing attention back to these beautiful but forgotten spaces and thus extending their useful lives, says Kapoor. The Senate House is one example, largely inaccessible, sealed off with red tape and bureaucratic lethargy. It’s hoped that making use of such sites will encourage owners of other heritage buildings to come forward and open up their properties.
When asked where they see CPB in 10 years’ time, the team displays ample ambition; Gupta wants to put Chennai on the map as the “photo capital of India” and the home for photography the country lacks at present. More prosaically, they’d like to see Chennai as a place on people’s calendars, somewhere to go, like Venice, like Kochi, a place where all the best, the most critical and the most socially relevant gather every two years. And, as a consequence, bring other benefits to the city, such as increased footfalls and business.
With the foundation also working with the photography community to host regular events such as workshops and talks through the year, in addition to the Biennale, another 10-year goal is to build a museum in Chennai, with a focus on archiving the photography of South India.