International Curators Program: Q&A with Varun Gupta
In advance of Australia Council's International Curators Program, Chennai Photo Biennale Varun Gupta tells us about launching a festival in India, creating large-scale public arts interventions for historical sites, and how artists can put themselves forward for the next biennale.
As a photographer for the last 15 years I have become jaded by the digital image. I find myself repulsed by my collection of digital gear and find myself exclusively shooting on film and other analogue processes. Over this lockdown period, I have been journeying deeper into the realm of historical photographic practices and my goal is to develop my own ‘pure analogue’ workflow involving the wet plate ambrotype technique and chemical based printmaking.
As a practicing photographer, and now a director of a photo biennale, I have seen the medium evolve rapidly in the past 15 years. This refers to not just the technical progress but primarily the usage of the medium by artists who play with our evolution as ‘image people’ and question the exigent circumstances of our time. As a biennale with heritage venues where one cannot display on the walls or create white cube spaces, our interest is in immersive viewing experiences that lie at the intersection of form and message.
The Chennai Photo Biennale was established to create a home for the photography community in India and South Asia. Imagined as a large-format public arts festival spanning multiple weeks against the backdrop of the ocean-side city of Chennai, its colonial heritage and its unique blending of popular culture vis-a-vis cinema and politics. Through a curated program of exhibitions, workshops, discussions and talks the biennale looks to educate and inspire both audiences and practitioners.
The program is hinged on large-scale public arts interventions across the city of Chennai. In 2019, we hosted 15 exhibitions spanning a physical distance of 40km in venues as varied as historical buildings, train stations, public beaches and white-cube galleries. Across the biennale period we hosted curated tours, panel discussions, artist talks, hands-on workshops, portfolio reviews and photo contests.
Chennai Photo Biennale from its 2nd edition pivoted to a curated model and for the upcoming 3rd edition has selected a four-member team comprising of Arko Datto (Kolkata), Bhooma Padmanabhan (Chennai), Boaz Levin (Berlin) and Kerstin Meincke (Essen). The international curatorial team after visiting Chennai have been in discussions and revealed the thematic for Edition 3: The Maps of Disquiet along with a first list of artists. We welcome portfolios from artists working with video/photography who find their work resonates with our theme—please visit edition3.chennaiphotobiennale.com to read the concept note and send us folios to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chennai Photo Biennale was greatly inspired by its predecessor the Delhi Photo Festival which galvanised the community to a great extent in the North of India. The gathering of talented photographers in one place and both formal and informal exchanges and friendships was our inspiration to launch CPB. Visiting Arles over the years has definitely brought the international perspective to the way we look at presenting photography and facilitate interactions. More recently, our visit to the Biennale for Aktuell Fotografie in Mannheim, Germany has been a wonderful exposure to how one should collaborate with the city, the local museums and regional governments and has crystalised some ideas to help us work in Chennai.
At a time of Deep Fakes and AI created imagery, the photographic image has lost its sanctity as a tool to document ‘reality.’ Artists and practitioners have taken to the medium to create evocative images that are a hybrid of reality loaded with messaging to probe the nature of truth and shine a light on crises of our time.
We are looking to find emerging artists who are working on immersive visual experiences built on photographic processes. Given the theme of our upcoming edition, we are looking to discover deep and meaningful work that questions the status quo.
I was really looking forward to seeing the works of Italian artists Filippo Menichetti and Martin Errichiello, the intricate layered work of Anne Zahalka and the group exhibition at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. I am a huge fan of art in public space and sadly will miss feeling the experience first hand.
As a curator of photography, one has to keep abreast of recent developments and trends from a global perspective while building deeper knowledge and connections within the local scene. My advice would be to spend time to connect with artists whose work you admire regardless of a curatorial project at hand, often these relationships and conversations will spark projects and collaborations that could become centre stage for your practice.