Last weekend my partner and I donned coats, hats and scarves, and headed up the highway to the Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2013 (BIFB). I love photography, perhaps as much as I love painting, and I wasn’t going to miss this smorgasbord of contemporary photographic work. BIFB has over 200 exhibitions or events, held in more than 70 venues around Ballarat, so this was a good chance to immerse myself in current photographic explorations.
Fortunately, Ballarat’s notoriously nippy winter weather was kind to us – it was a balmy 13 degrees so we were able to stroll from venue to venue without fear of freezing. We wandered leisurely around the streets, admiring the grand old dames of colonial architecture, and randomly discovering the photography shows in various galleries, cafes and shops. We realised we couldn’t possibly see everything so we decided to focus on the Core Program.
We started at the Mining Exchange and saw Sudarios (Shrouds) by Colombian artist Erika Diettes. In this haunting work, Diettes has photographed the faces of women who witnessed the torture and murder of their loved ones (victims of drug related violence in Antioquia). She captured the women’s facial expressions, often with their eyes closed, as they remembered the atrocities. The images are printed on large sheets of diaphanous silk and, wafting in the breeze, these portraits assume a ghostly presence, as though the spirits of the dead hover in the sadness etched on their faces. Despite the gravity of the work, it doesn’t feel overly oppressive – the lightness of the materials and the high elevation seem to spiritualise the experience – very poignant.
Another highlight was the exciting series of self portraits, 99 Variations, by South Korean photographer Young Ho Kang. He has photographed himself dancing in a mirror and adorning his body with unusual materials such as sticky molasses, string, plants and lights. They are quite absurd and I found myself giggling at some but squirming uncomfortably at others (the one with the wire is excrutiating). During Kang’s photographic shoot different aspects of his personality have manifested as archetypes from Asian mythology. These are compelling images, and we found ourselves at once bemused, disturbed, entertained and curious. Who is the subject and who is the object in these mirrored images?
Young Ho Kang explains his work in the exhibition catalogue: “I bought a key (the camera), opened the door to the secret passage (the mirror), woke up my mythical archetypes, and lured them out into the world… It is at such times that one’s self and another self are mixed, and the clear, objective self soon disappears. The subject and the object endlessly exchange places, causing the fixed identity of the self to disappear.”
You can see more of Young Ho Kang’s work on his website.
We also enjoyed the retrospective of esteemed Australian photographer John Cato who taught photography in Melbourne for many years in the photography department at Prahran College of Advanced Education. Cato’s poetic images of the Australian landscape, captured on black and white film, reveal his deep appreciation for nature and his exploration of the five natural elements. And the tones! Such a magnificent range of tones! Even more remarkable is the fact that Cato would go out to a location and wait for hours to get the shot and even then he might only take one or two photos. None of the shooting hundreds of images on digital nonsense! This exhibition, instigated by friends and colleagues, is a tribute to Cato who died in 2011, honouring his significant contribution to photography in Australia.
Some artists in the biennale have used unusual techniques to produce their work. Sonia Macak’s series of photographs of children Through the Looking Glass look like they were made 150 years ago. She employs an archaic technique called wet plate collodion, a process that was popular in the 1800s. The photos have a timeless quality about them as the children gaze enigmatically at the camera. It takes several seconds to expose the plate so the children had to be still – it must have been a challenge for both the photographer and her subjects but clearly well worth the effort as many of the images have a rich resonance.
From old technology to new, the monstrous insect heads by German photographer Claudia Fährenkemper were created with a Scanning Electron Microscope, in another process that requires technical skill and dedication. At high magnification, amazing surface details from insects are revealed that are not apparent to the naked eye. My skin was crawling looking at them.
We wandered down to the Art Gallery of Ballarat and admired the start contrasts in Tony Hewitt’s concrete landscapes, the brilliant colour in Marrigje de Maar’s exotic interiors and the gritty realism in Meredith O’Shea’s everyday environment.
The marriage of text and photography can offer a multilayered experience for the viewer and this was never more apparent than in Doc Ross’s 37 Portraits. Ross photographed 37 people in six shots of varying exposures totalling 37 seconds, the approximate length of time that it took for the earthquake to devastate Christchurch. Next to each portrait, the subjects have written about their experience of the earthquake in 37 words. It was very moving to read these personal accounts, enriching our experience of the portraits. The portraits themselves are often blurred in places due to the long exposure, suggesting a movement or a shake thus reiterating the earthquake incident.
Down the road at the Ballarat Town Hall, we were treated to the amazing work in the Head On Portrait Prize. It was great to see Melbourne photographer Kerry Pryor’s work in the Head On exhibition – she taught photography in my writing class several years ago and ignited my interest in it. By the way, she is currently exhibiting her work at Edmund Pearce Gallery in Melbourne. Sight Unseen features portraits Pryor made in Africa documenting the work of Eyes for Africa, a nonprofit organisation that funds cataract eye surgery for people in extreme poverty and living in remote areas of Ethiopia.
These are just a few of the artists exhibiting in BIFB. There are stacks more to discover but rather than me prattle on, I will cut to the chase – go to BIFB and see the photography on display – you won’t be disappointed! In addition to the exhibitions, BIFB offers workshops, seminars, master classes, artist floor talks, portfolio reviews and more. Check out the BIFB website for all the details.