There was a time when we used to look at family albums and relive the days gone by. How people looked when they were younger. Family photos had triggers that could take you back in time. That they were printed on paper added a certain preciousness to them. It was as if the photos themselves were some sort of relics endowed with magical powers. As a kid I remember being moved by this movie scene where Rati Agnihotri lights up her boyfriend’s picture, mixes the ashes in her tea and drinks it up to spite her parents. It is was defiance, poetry and the power of photographs in one scene of cinematic brilliance.
This power of pictures printed on paper is somehow gradually fading from our midst as most of our memories are now shared digitally. So it was lovely to see this power of photography beautifully reconjured for us in this year’s Chennai Photo Biennale. Not only that, it also gave us many diverse interpretations of the act of picture-making itself.
What I found particularly endearing was the idea that distantly hung over the Biennale like a cloud. And I mean this in the best possible of ways. The idea of a ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ comes from an old Chinese legend of an emperor who colonized the world that existed on the other side of the mirror. These ‘mirror people’ though earlier a friendly lot became hostile towards humans because of the emperor’s occupation and have ever since been feuding with them. The tale in itself seems to be an allegory of human discomfort at being shown the mirror but in the context of the Biennale it became a deeply intended encapsulation of what curator Pushpamala N. had in mind. I have been a fan of Pushpamala, the artist, whose work I adore because of her use of impersonation as a way of paring down the hyperboles of the Subcontinent.
In that the Biennale is true to its ideal of holding a mirror to the changing face of the planet. I found Archana Hande’s work extremely thoughtful as it dissolved many binaries not just of image-making but also of looking at the colonial enterprise, as only an exploiter of human beings. Titled ‘The Golden Feral Trail’ it reimagines the exploitative trade of the Indian camel that was shipped to Australia to work in the mines there. Set in a projection pit strewn with crystals the work involves moving animations of camels, trains, drilling equipment snaking through the Australian outback in a quest for gold.
Manit Sriwanchipoom from Thailand too furrows deep into the trauma of his country’s past, 1976 to be exact when student protests were violently quelled by the ruling military junta. The most well-known of these was the Thammasat University massacre where protesting students were lynched, shot and raped under the watch of the military. The death toll in the massacre is still disputed though official figures are said to be a fraction of the actual numbers. Manit in his works has inserted a ‘pink man’ in some of the massacre’s most iconic (and gruesome) pictures creating images that evoke both humour and horror. “I want to make authoritarian governments look like they are someone we should ridicule, make fun of. This is the power of humour where you can play with them,” he explains.
Indu Antony takes to humour in a more gendered way picking out the aspect of women behaving as men. In her photographs she is Superman, Captain Jack Sparrow, a coconut seller, a police inspector; all archetypes of stud masculinity. But even as she indulges in this roleplay one isn’t allowed to forget that her underlying message is seriously concerned about the freedom that’s often denied to women in public spaces.
Arun Vijai Mathavan focuses his lens on autopsy workers in Indian hospitals. These aren’t doctors but ‘sanitary workers’ often from Dalit communities who cut and stitch corpses because no one else will. Mathavan’s pictures capture the grisly anatomy of the post-mortem ritual. It is a sight one is not familiar with but Mathavan bravely goes where no other Indian photographer has gone before.
Catherine Leutenegger takes you to an American suburb that was for much of the 20th century a household name. Her series ‘Kodak City’ chronicles the wiping out of a film-reel manufacturing hub set up by George Eastman himself. When Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 many of its office buildings were razed to the ground. Videos of these Catherine has made part of her work that consists mostly of pictures of Kodak buildings in Rochester, New York. The images are deeply ironical—a study of loss and disappearance—about a ‘photo city’ becoming invisible because of digital photography.
Another form of loss and decay Angela Grauerholz showcases in her works ‘Privation’ and ‘The Empty Shelf’. Through her two giant photo books Angela creates a catalogue of disappearance. ‘Privation’ is a personal work that has scanned (not photographed) images of her own books that were gutted in an accidental fire. “I realized that the books were very beautiful after they burnt,” she says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of books and how can I sort of participate in the photographic reflection of that. Also the future of the materiality of photography.”
What I thought was also spectacular about the Chennai Photo Biennale was the intuitive way works were placed across the city in venues that are old and beautiful. It gave me a lot of hope for the future of photography and the histories they’re seeking to preserve.
Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.