The selection of Fiona Foley and Liu Bolin as the ‘headline’ artists for this year’s Ballarat International Foto Biennale in many ways beautifully sums up the spirit of this regional festival of photography. With these two artists – not to mention the rest of a diverse and provocative program – the biennale poses searching questions regarding Australian identity and history, as well as global cultural upheaval.
Foley, a Badtjala woman, has long been known for work that confronts historic maltreatment of Indigenous communities as well as the nation’s inherent social inequality and lopsided power dynamics in relation to Aboriginal people. In Ballarat, she presents Who Are These Strangers And Where Are They Going?, a multi-platform work designed to tie in with the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The centrepiece of the work is a sound piece inspired by the Badtjala people’s exchange with Captain Cook. It will appear across interactive, site-specific installations.
“It’s incredible for a regional city like Ballarat to host Dr Foley’s work,” says artistic director Fiona Sweet, “not only because of the calibre of the work and the prestige it brings to the town, but also because Foley’s work is incredibly powerful and can help to open dialogue for the Indigenous population in Ballarat.”
Liu Bolin, a contemporary Chinese artist, comes to Ballarat with Camouflage. This exhibition considers Liu’s career going back nearly 20 years, focusing on his signature motif of painted human bodies ‘camouflaged’ and hiding amid recognisable places and settings, as in the striking work Balloon No.1, 2012, in which the artist seems to become part of a wall of shiny foil balloons.
For Sweet, Bolin’s work fits into a wider biennale theme of reflecting the ongoing volatility in the world’s political climate since the last Ballarat Foto in 2017. This year’s event has a theme of ‘Hello World,’ which has led to an expansive and inclusive range of photographic themes.
“Cultural upheaval runs as an undercurrent in so many issues,” says Sweet. “We’ve tried to represent a diverse range of issues that are current and topical, and our photographic artists bring new and different perspectives to many topics.”
“Polar Heir by Korean artist Han Sungpil highlights the issue of global warming by transforming a laneway location into an urban iceberg. French-Venezuelan Mathieu Asselin’s Stock Market explores the issue of genetically modified foods and how the centralisation of power in a few global multi-nationals feeds into the issues of commercial food production.”
In 2011, the biennale came to national attention when a photo by Czech artist Jan Saudek was pulled from display after complaints that the work was, as the ABC put it at the time, “suggestive of child prostitution.” While Sweet anticipates no such issues in 2019, she emphasises that the biennale remains committed to taking risks and confronting subjects that might be distasteful to some.
“While I don’t see them as hugely controversial, there are certainly works within the biennale that tackle challenging subject matter and are not necessarily designed to illicit a sense of comfort in the viewer,” she explains.
“The celebrated Spanish photographer Laia Abril’s series A History of Misogyny, Chapter One: On Abortion is an unflinching look at the history of reproductive rights, and how 47,000 women die each year around the world through lack of access to safe abortion methods. It’s not comfortable viewing, but it’s not meant to be.”
Other intriguing exhibitions at this year’s biennale come from artists such as Taysir Batniji from Palestine, and Australians Monty Coles and Eugenia Lim.
“We anticipate that the festival this year will be quite immersive,” says Sweet, “and that both the works and how they are presented will create a memorable impact.”
The full Ballarat International Foto Biennale program is available online.
The $15,000 Martin Kantor Portrait Prize was won by Penelope Hunt for her portrait of Australian artist and ceramist Alan Constable, Finding Focus.Yichen Zho won the $10,000 Alane Fineman New Photography Award for the series Daily Talk.