Visual Art

Portraits are a constant in this year’s Ballarat International Foto Biennale, which rewards repeated viewings.

By Sophie Cunningham.

Ballarat International Foto Biennale

24 Hrs in Photos, 2011.
24 Hrs in Photos, 2011.
Credit: Erik Kessels

As a group of us walked towards the St Andrew’s Uniting Church to see Dutch photographer Erik Kessels’ 24HRS in Photos, one of our party commented that their grandfather had been the church’s minister some decades ago. We carried that sense of history with us as we walked up bluestone stairs and across paving etched with lichen, did the QR code/ticket dance and entered the building.

The church is no longer used, its glory faded, and 350,000 photos towered over us, spilling around and across the pews: a veritable tsunami of images, all of them printouts of images uploaded to Flickr in the same 24-hour period. It was excessive and impressive – a form of cultural hoarding. That exhibition became my touchstone for the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

It raised lots of questions. What is a photograph? Who is its audience? What can a photo do? How is it affected by the way it is presented, by the building or streetscape that frames it? What if it’s raining? What other artworks have you walked past on your way to get to wherever you’re going and how do they set you up for what you see next?

Erik Kessels is one of more than 170 artists exhibited across 100 venues at this year’s biennale. Following 24HRS in Photos, we walked from the headliner Linda McCartney retrospective to Robert Fielding’s extraordinary Miil-Miilpa (at the Ballarat Art Gallery), saw Alix Marie’s Styx, Steve Arnold’s Notes from a Queer Mystic and Chow and Lin’s The Poverty Line (National Centre For Photography). We looked at Raining Embers and We Will all Eventually Return to the Earth (The Mining Exchange). We walked past Bookface (Collin Booksellers) then down Police Lane where we pored over Rhonda Senbergs’ Time and Place. We stood in Alfred Deakin Place a while with Gideon Mendel’s Submerged Portraits. When the rain set in later in the day, we drove to Dibalik (Bakery Hill) and then through Ballarat’s General Cemetery to see Say it with Flowers, an exhibition that considers the significance of flowers, death and ritual on an atmospheric site weighed down by history.

The staff at each venue offered advice on where we might go next. They shared their views on the exhibitions. There was a lot to talk and think about. What is the relationship between photography and nostalgia? Do the photos capture a specific moment in time or transcend that moment? Do they offer commentary on specific events? Where do aesthetics fit in?

The McCartney and Senbergs exhibitions spoke to each other – both photographers documented a particular period and scene and both, whether or not it was their intention, rouse nostalgia. Their images are simultaneously transient and enduring.

Rhonda Senbergs took close to 16,000 photographs from 1970 until her death in 1998. As I walked along Police Lane I saw images of people I knew – the artist Katherine Hattam, the writer Peter Mathers and, to my surprise, my great-aunt Jean Campbell, author of the 1939 novel The Babe Is Wise. She is close to 80 in the photo, wiry hair in a halo around her head, leaning forward to have her cigarette lit. Other subjects include Fred Williams, Bob Hawke and Margaret Olley. Senbergs’ photos give Campbell – give all their subjects – the aura of celebrity.

Linda McCartney’s photographs, despite the fame of their subjects – Jagger, Morrison, Joplin, Hendrix, The Beatles – often capture private moments. They’re intimate. Her husband, Paul, looks like an ordinary dad, not a rockstar. When you look at the shot of The Beatles, taken by McCartney when she was documenting the Abbey Road cover shoot, it’s not clear if The Beatles have made McCartney’s work special, or vice versa. Is the shot posed? Or was it a snap? In another shot her young son James is captured, mid-leap, mid-air, like a bird in flight. Her work is technically impressive. While the black-and-white photos are evocative, it is her use of colour film, including Polaroid, that really made me stand back.

Wonderful additions to the retrospective are the photos taken of Linda by others – most often, but not exclusively, Paul. The photo taken by Jim Morrison in 1967 is charged, erotic – it’s impossible not to assume they were lovers. This was a pleasure: the sense that the connections between the photographer and subject were real, not manufactured.

Portraiture is a constant. Miil-Miilpa (Sacred) from Robert Fielding – an artist of Pakistani, Afghan, Western Arrente and Yankunytjatjara descent – contains photos of elders who live in his community as well as images of the Country on which they live, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands. The portraits are extraordinary: rich, dense. They sit in relationship with the landscapes in the next room, which have been produced by experiments with ultraviolet exposure. In Bookface, a series of loose, hanging scrolls curl into the ground. Portraits of the subjects of books – Helen Garner, Bob Hawke, Paul Kelly – are converted into ceiling-to-floor posters and displayed in the windows of a bookstore.

Gideon Mendel’s series Submerged Portraits – part of a larger series, Drowning World – shows arresting images of people standing in or outside their flooded homes. The homes in peril come from around the world: England, Brazil, Bangladesh, India, France, Pakistan, the United States, Nigeria, Haiti. Their portraits are political, theatrical. They capture the challenges of the present and make you fear for the future. Some of the subjects stand in water running as high as their neck. They look straight into the camera. You can almost hear them saying: So. Here we are. What are we going to do about it?

Mendel’s photos sit alongside the work of Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin. The Poverty Line (2010-20) is a series of images built out of data from 36 countries. The artists established the poverty line for each country they were documenting and spent that sum in local markets on every food group: vegetables, fruits, starchy foods, protein and snacks. Each product was photographed on a local newspaper from the day of the shoot, highlighting what poverty means in different countries. Foods recur: pineapples, avocados, wild greens, scraps of meat, eggs, bread. In Norway the magic number is 65 kroner ($10.40 a day), which buys a few bananas, root vegetables and bits and pieces of crab and caviar. In India, 32 rupee (57 cents) buys you not much at all. The result is visually compelling, intelligent, engrossing.

Dibalik features Indonesian photographers. The warehouse that houses this exhibition is used to powerful effect and how the photos are displayed – many of them printed onto fabric hanging down like curtains, while others sit on a table in an almost casual fashion – enriches the entire experience. Erika Ernawan’s work gestures towards sexual trauma, as do Meicy Sitorus’s photos of women who were enslaved during World War II to work as “comfort women”. These photos used dim and diffuse light and afford their subjects privacy. Tamarra’s photographs, in visual contrast, honour gender diversity – a tradition long recognised in precolonial Indonesia. Their signature is strength of both body and gaze, and sharpness, clarity. Arum Dayu’s work is different again: it playfully resists clichés about, and the objectification of, women in hijab.

Other spaces worked less well. The Mining Exchange housed Raining Embers, surreal photographs of the recent traumatic and catastrophic bushfires. These could have been framed in a way that invited comparison to the Submerged Portraits, but the room didn’t allow these images to be displayed to their best advantage. The exhibition We Will All Eventually Return to the Earth also battled the Mining Exchange space. Those displayed in nooks worked well but Slippage’s vivid and powerful series, Drunken Swine, standing in the middle of the hall, is done a disservice.

Everyone will find their own way through the extensive indoor and outdoor programs and focus on different artists. The experience of the biennale is rich: the high standards and curatorial care are evident at every turn. You couldn’t get through it in a single day, but it rewards repeated treks up the Western Highway. For those who can’t get to Ballarat, there is an extensive digital program. There are also guided walks and night-time outdoor projections that feel like must-sees, including Kris Graves’ American Monuments and Ferne Millen’s Journey on Wadawurrung Country. I, for one, am heading back to Ballarat as soon as I can. 

The Ballarat International Foto Biennale runs until January 9, 2022.


Arts Diary

INSTALLATION Michael Zavros: Z Garden

Sullivan and Strumpf Sydney, until November 13

THEATRE Forthcoming

Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, until November 7

VISUAL ART Maggie Jeffries: All the Pearls

Despard Gallery, Hobart, until November 13

VISUAL ART Found and Gathered: Rosalie Gascoigne | Lorraine Connelly-Northey

The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Melbourne, October 30–February 20, 2022

MUSICAL Disney in Concert: A Dream is a Wish

Riverside Theatre, Perth, October 29–30

Last chance


Nexus Arts, Adelaide, October 24

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2021 as "Face value".

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Sophie Cunningham is the author of seven books and the editor of one.

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