Ballarat International Foto Biennale

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David LaChapelle’s splashy colour tableaux cross-pollinate sacred, pop and profane tales. He presents a world in which Jesus cradles Michael Jackson one moment, and Courtney Love cradles Kurt Cobain in a Jesus-like pose the next. Yet despite all his fine work referencing art history, while cavorting with celebrity fame, the American photo artist has never had a solo show in Australia before.

For the 12th Ballarat International Foto Biennale artistic director Fiona Sweet has brought almost 90 of LaChapelle’s works to Australia as the centrepiece of the 2017 program. “I really wanted a drawcard for the Biennale and for the town, and I had seen a book of his work,” says Sweet. “I discovered he hadn’t exhibited here before.” LaChapelle’s works are coming, but he is not. He has abandoned plans to come to Australia in order to work on a new book.

This is Sweet’s first time as artistic director of the Biennale and she has increased the offering of exhibitions for this iteration, while contracting its footprint: it is now possible to see more exhibitions in a shorter walking space.

David LaChapelle, Last Supper, 2003
David LaChapelle, Last Supper, 2003.

“I had to make it bigger,” she says. “I’ve had 14 months to put this together. As it evolved. I walked the streets of Ballarat and met more people to ask them what they knew of the Biennale, and they told me they didn’t know as much about it as I thought they would. I decided I really needed to take advantage of the fact that Ballarat is not very big and make it a very visible festival in the town.”

A focal point is the historic Mining Exchange building in Lydiard Street which harks back to Ballarat’s 19th century gold rush days. At this location the show TELL will bring together works by 19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, including: Destiny Deacon’s photographs of family and friends posing with Aboriginalia, the Tasmanian community figures captured by Ricky Maynard, the taboo perceptions of Indigenous identity explored by Bindi Cole Chocka, and the authority figures presented by filmmaker Warwick Thornton.

These artists are well known, but photographers at any level can get a look-in at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

Portfolio reviews will again be offered, but this time split into three streams: artist, professional and student.

Other highlights include Rearranging Boundaries at Ballarat Trades Hall which brings together the work of documentary photographers and “visual activists” from around the globe, and A Field Guide to the Stars at the Ballarat Municipal Observatory and Museum which presents images of the cosmos, from the vintage to the present. There will also be outdoor video projections and a site-specific camera obscura.

jpeg 5 Fieldguide to the Stars Exhibition - Sunshadow_Hillary Wiedemann_SunshadowFieldguide to the stars
Hilary Weidemann, Sunshadow, (Fieldguide to the Stars)

And this Biennale won’t be afraid of opening itself to charges of encouraging narcissism. The exhibition Self/Selfie at Backspace Gallery explores the 21st century phenomenon of the love of self portrait photography. “It’s a debate,” says Sweet. “Is the selfie narcissism, or is it just that the means to take a photo is now so readily available? It’s not going to go away, and if we can push it past the area of self-image into more of an art practice, that’s what I’m interested in.”

Ballarat International Foto Biennale
Various venues in Ballarat
19 August – 17 September

Steve Dow