Chennai Photo Biennale navigates visible implications of photography

In the first part of a three-part series, STIR examines the curatorial framework of the third edition of Chennai Photo Biennale titled Maps of Disquiet.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jan 22, 2022

The third edition of Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB), curated by Arko Datto, Bhooma Padmanabhan, Boaz Levin, and Kerstin Meincke, is an exploration of the theme Maps of Disquiet through layers of six sub-themes including labour, urban imaginaries, the commons, economic and migratory flows, archaeology and mining. The exhibition, part of the CPB in both physical and virtual formats, has on display a wide spectrum of works by artists from across the world. The names include Amitesh Grover, Anaïs Tondeur, Andreas Langfeld, Sarabhi Ravichandran, Arthur Crestani, Babu Eshwar Prasad, Carolina Caycedo, Gauri Gill, Harun Farocki, Hito Steyerl, James P Tylor, Jane Jin Kaisen, Katja Stuke, Oliver Sieber, Katrin Koenning, Lisa Rave, Michael Hanna, Mohini Chandra, Nico Joana Weber, Parvathi Nayar, Nayantara Nayar, Patrick Pound, Rohini Devasher, Rohit Saha, Rory Pilgrim, Ruth Patir, Sanchayan Ghosh, Saranraj, Senthil Kumaran, Siva Sai Jeevanantham, Soumya Sankar Bose, Sridhar Balasubramanium, Susanne Kriemann, Tobias Zielony, Vamika Jain, Vasudha Thozhur, and Yuvan Aves. The physical exhibition is spread at different places in Chennai including Forum Art Gallery, Ashvita's Gallery, Roja Muthiah Research Library, and Madras Literary Society. Furthermore, the hybrid screenings of video works are part of the Goethe-Institut, Chennai programme.

A walkthrough of the third edition of Chennai Photo Biennale | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
A walkthrough of the third edition of Chennai Photo Biennale Image: Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

For more than two decades now, the societies and nation-states have been facing the rise of majoritarian politics, ecological imbalance and technology-led-dystopia – a lead up to the strategic stifling of the alternate spaces. The current edition of CPB takes cognizance of such urgencies, punctuating the times ridden with myopic vision, only to expand the field of the vision by reclaiming the plurality of thought, voice, and art – a way to forge a new circuit of solidarity and care.

Mohini Chandra, Paradise Lost | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Mohini Chandra, Paradise Lost Image: Mohini Chandra, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

The map-making exercise of the 19th century, in the hands of the colonisers, insisted upon the practice to survey, identify and mark the geographies limited to the borders and boundaries. Overlapping this production of knowledge system on the records of classification, the rise of photography offered the white supremacist of the Enlightenment age another opportunity to categorize and document the human race in accordance with physiognomy, and dilapidated architectural sites as the testimony to West and East disparity. The totalising effect meted out by the twin tasks - cartography and photography – was the corollary of the blanket approach to the web of diversity available at the ‘other’ side of the globe. The reverberation of the polarity rooted in the 19th century, despite the passage of time, could be experienced many years later too, albeit labelled with the tag of global capitalism. 

Kerstin Meincke | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Kerstin Meincke Image: Kerstin Meincke, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

To disturb the conformity of truth shared equally between maps and photography, the third edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale carefully treads the path of mining the routes of the ruptures and its many forms and manifestations in the current day. Opposed to the act to silence the voice of the other and perpetuate the asymmetrical relations of the West-East, the biennale within the frame of photography navigates the patterns of “disquiet” to create the “maps” of what has been pushed to the periphery of the concerns of the centre.

Kerstin Meincke’s Portrait | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of the Chennai Photo Biennale Image: Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

Kerstin Meincke, one of the four curators of the Chennai Photo Biennale, in an interview with STIR talks about the entanglement of mapping practices, and the genesis of the medium of photography as the backdrop to the curatorial concept from where, “we attempt to unfold an alternative, resistant cartography that questions this powerful encounter that was momentously performed under colonial circumstances and continues to be relevant until today. This resistant cartography along with the six interwoven and shifting layers of enquiries explore the ‘fear of small numbers’, an expression formulated by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai 10 years ago to describe the growing hostility towards minorities across the world.” 

Michael Hanna, A Living Colour Index | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Michael Hanna, A Living Colour Index Image: Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

The scope of the curatorial theme played out in the region synonymous with the expansive history dotted with colonial invasion, political diversions and cultural revitalism holds the promise of being a daunting affair. Moreover, when the history of photography in the region of South Asia - the dissemination centre of the CPB - is largely dominated by the genre of documentary, the CPB as a platform gauges the materiality of the photograph to trace the voice of resistance against the dominant histories.  

Siva Sai Jeevanantham, In The Same River | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Siva Sai Jeevanantham, In The Same River Image: Siva Sai Jeevanantham, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

Towards this end, the biennale builds a network of new critical vocabularies around the medium when its exponential rise in the technologically driven environment remains inexorable. Meincke walks us through the artistic projects that radically challenge and negotiate the ‘photographic evidence’, “Andreas Langfeld and Sarabhi Ravichandran, explore, for their collaborative work Excavating an Imagination, the linkage between photography and archaeology, and, more precisely, how this linkage shaped and defined cultural identity and historical narratives, also in Tamil Nadu.”

Susanne Kriemann, Mngrv | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Susanne Kriemann, Mngrv Image: Susanne Kriemann, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

The large body of work produced by Susanne Kriemann discusses the material ecology of image production and display. Her work Mngrv, featured in the CPB, in the words of Meincke, “proposes the classification of a new plant species: a hybrid of plant and plastic, nature and culture, emerging in Southeast Asian mangroves as their rhizomatic roots, constantly exposed and dependent on the rhythm of the tides, get entangled with fishnets, plastic waste, and oil remnants, such as chunks of raw oil, that become an integral part of the photographic art process by serving as a pigment.” 

Patrick Pound, Spherical Games | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Patrick Pound, Spherical Games Image: Patrick Pound, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

The purpose of the photograph as a document of evidence is heightened when the high politics strategically aims to erase the subaltern discourse. In the Indian context, this is a recurrent practice when it comes to the region of Kashmir. While highlighting the work In The Same River by Siva Sai Jeevanantham, where photographic images and documents become political agents in the centre of a contested terrain, that is the Kashmir region, the curators raise the significance of their political meanings tied to their circulation and existence. Meincke adds, “Bringing together an archive of documents and images related to Kashmiri families who have lost one of their own to the long-running struggle for justice, photographs are key to their fight against being forgotten.”  

Jane Jin Kaisen, Sweeping the Forest Floor | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Jane Jin Kaisen, Sweeping the Forest Floor Image: Jane Jin Kaisen, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

The CPB is the first biennale India is having after two years of grappling with the coronavirus pandemic - the perils of which still loom large. When the play of technology has subverted the conventional way of preparing and organising the biennales in the face of collective catastrophe, the CPB is a reminder not to forget the human response and resilience to crisis. Nurturing audience engagement, Meincke puts it acutely when she thinks of the CPB as a space to, “offer the possibility of rethinking our futures through broader parameters that address the complexity of the disquiet that we are experiencing.”

Senthil Kumaran Rajendran, Tamed Tusker | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
Senthil Kumaran Rajendran, Tamed Tusker Image: Senthil Kumaran Rajendran, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale
View from the expedition, Carbon black, Anaïs Tondeur | Chennai Photo Biennale | STIRworld
View from the expedition, Carbon black, Anaïs Tondeur Image: Anaïs Tondeur, Courtesy of the Chennai Photo Biennale

(The third edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale 'Maps of Disquiet' runs across the city of Chennai, India, until February 06, 2022.) 

Also read:
Part II: Nico Joana Weber looks at the Tropical Architecture Movement in Nigeria
Part III: Empty frames of 'All That We Saw' by Amitesh Grover stimulate viewer's memory

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