I have never curated something as large as Chennai Photo Bienaale – Pushpmala N.

by Ekatmata Sharma
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The most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art – Pushpmala N. shares her experience as the Artistic Director of Chennai Photo Biennale and her journey as an artist with diverse interests.

What is the concept of Chennai photo biennale this year?

The concept is around the title “Fauna of mirrors”. I found this Asian Chinese myth which said that behind the mirror lies another world which is inhabited by unknown and strange creatures. I am using it as metaphor to talk about photography itself. So, I am seeing photography as a mirror portal or doorway which has created this world of ghosts, which are actually images, which exist all around us and create a parallel world around us. The idea came to my mind when I was doing a research for myself and read about it on Wikipedia. I was keeping it aside for my work, as a work a lot on mirror images and reflections.

What was your curatorial process behind Chennai Photo Biennale?

I had some works in mind and invited the photographers for it. I first saw the places and then decided what works I wanted for the Biennale. ‘Fauna of mirrors’ is the general concept of the whole show, its divided into nine shows, so there are nine exhibitions within the Biennale, they are all under different broad themes. These are broad themes that are happening today and addressing what is happening in the world today. Themes like agricultural land, cinema, and Chennai itself. The Biennale is very carefully designed and responds to the architectural environment. For eg, In Senate House, all the works are on the theme of archives. The works showcased are photographs, sculptor installations and videos. I also wanted to show that how you can use the different photographic languages in different ways. There are works by over 50 artists in print from 13 countries across the city of Chennai.

How are you involving Chennai city to participate in the Biennale?

We have invited educational institutions to participate and engage with photography workshops and school and college kids are being taken through curated walks. At stations, we have works installed, where thousands of people are passing by and seeing the works. We also have collateral events with Veda Gallery, Forum and Art Houz. There are many ways through which we are involving the city through institution participation.

How was the experience of curating a festival spread throughout the city?

I have not curated something of such a large canvas. It is great fun and lot of learning. On one hand you multiply your experience on how to organize things and how to think conceptually and on the other hand it’s totally a fresh experience of having a huge canvas. The works here are also an extension in the way I think and work. I think a lot about locations when I work. I use a lot of cinematic elements, lots of archives in my own works and sculptures too. I really believe in the subjectivity of the curator. It’s to do something with your own interest. Every single work I like, you communicate that to you. Each work that I have selected I love them all. Many of the works I only saw on the computer and not as prints. When I saw them put up, it was real pleasure. It has a mix of International artists, locals and Indian artists.

What inspires you to do such varied works of art?

One leads to the other. Sometimes one is opposite to the other, The ‘Family recipes’ video was after I did ‘Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs’. It’s an experimental short film. I was so exhausted with the intense work, as for four years I was working on that project, I just wanted to do a completely different project. I applied for a grant to work on family recipe books as I had a collection of Family recipe books. One project leads from one to other and at the same time can be quite different in form. I feel like exploring something else after one body of work is over. In fact, at that time I wanted to do this big exhibition on Mother India, but it was too exhausting to get into it.

Which has been your most challenging project?

I think at every point there is a challenge. I try to challenge myself at every point and each time I try to give myself different things. I push myself in different directions, which are unknown. I am scared and nervous about it and that gives me the charge. One of the fears an artist has is that it doesn’t become an old bore. After sometime when you keep working, you churn out more and more. I have spent one year of my life on the Chennai Photo Biennale. It rejuvenates my practice. I love going into other artists minds. I get a lot of new ideas. It’s very intensely engaging.

Which is your most liked work?

There are several milestones starting from my sculpture days. If I have to think of one work then in the popular imagination it would be ‘Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs’ that was done between the year 2000-2004. It’s a major work that has been taught in Universities all over the world and continuously being exhibited somewhere or the other. It’s seen as the signature work of mine, but sometimes I get very irritated with it. In fact, one month ago I had a show in Delhi and I think that is also a milestone work. It’s called ‘The Body Politic’ showcased at Nature Morte.

Chennai Photo Biennale continues till 24 March 2019 at multiple locations in Chennai.

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