Ballarat International Foto Biennale brings the world to Victorian city

ABC News, September 14, 2021

Sifting through 350,000 photographs randomly downloaded from the internet for an art installation, a visitor at a gallery found a photograph of his girlfriend.


The discovery flew in the face of Dutch artist Erik Kessels's intention for the work, now on display at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB), which was meant to embody the endless, largely meaningless flood of images most of us experience on a daily basis.

Speaking over the phone from Amsterdam, Kessels said the find was "totally bizarre".


"I couldn't believe it," he said.


Kessels, who works with found photography and is known for the reappropriation of images he finds online or in discarded family albums, is one of more than 170 artists, exhibited across one hundred venues at BIFB this year.


The 24hrs In Photos installation, comprised of images downloaded from Flikr, speaks to Kessels's contention that most people see more photographs before lunch each day than someone in the 19th century would have seen in their lifetime.


"This does something to our brain," he said.


The BIFB opened today to regional Victorians and has been extended until January 9, 2022 to allow time for Melburnians to get in on the action.


Beware the crossing

French artist Alix Marie says she is interested in how people's bodies respond to her work.

Her installation Styx, a world premiere commissioned by BIFB and Photoworks, draws on the ancient Greek myth of the deity and the river in the space between Earth and the underworld.


But it has also been informed by her experience living and working through the pandemic.

"Bodies of water were really present in my head, because I knew I wasn't going to be able to travel to Australia, across the world through oceans," Marie said.

She said the exposed wooden and steel ceiling that her installation hangs in the new National Centre for Photography (NCP) reminds her of the bowels of a ship.


Maintain the elements'

Originally a bank, the NCP is one of Ballarat's many historic buildings hosting BIFB exhibitions this year.


Artistic director Fiona Sweet says while the building is about to undergo a renovation, the plan is not to restore it but rather to "maintain the elements we have here".

"Then add to them to create quite an exciting view for audiences," she said.

In the basement of Ballarat's Mechanic's Institute, which has long been closed to the public, the exhibition Number One Gudinski pays homage to Michael Gudinski's musical legacy and the photographers who capture the exhilaration and theatre of live music.

Woven between the indoor exhibitions are 16 outdoor installations in Ballarat's streets and alleyways.


"We really wanted people who would not often come into the traditional white cube gallery to experience the art, to stop and be surprised," Ms Sweet said.


"We're very interested in growing the audiences for photography."



Aspiring for 10

On Ballarat's main street is Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh's exhibition The World is 9, which is named after a favourite saying of her grandmother's.


"She always said the world is never a perfect 10 — it's always a nine, so we should aspire to get as close to 10 as possible," Muluneh said.


The educator and founder of the Addis Foto Fest says her work pays homage to traditional Ethiopian forms of self-expression as well as a vision of the future she desires.

"One of the things that I really advocate for is Afrofuturism, which is basically to have a futuristic element as it relates to the representation of what I see as being Africa," she said.


Muluneh says she feels driven to confront misrepresentations of Ethiopia and Africa and foster a photographic industry that encourages self-representation.


"One of the key aspects for me is how do we show the other perspective," she said.


"There's always the one-sided story, which hasn't really been to the advantage of Africa."


Muluneh hopes when people stop to look at her work they will be curious to seek out other contemporary photographers and artists working across Africa.


A record 36,000 people attended the Biennale in 2019, and while lockdowns are expected to impact numbers this year, there is plenty on offer for those who can make it.