Exhibition Review: PHOTO 2021

A photography festival that celebrates artists from a vast range of backgrounds, experience, and stages in their artistic careers.

What is the nature of ‘truth’? It’s a big question isn’t it. Ancient philosophers such as Socrates grappled with this idea when he talked about Natural Law. It was a moral theory that asserted that an objective truth exists, bestowed by a transcendent power and that we, as humans, could access this truth. Modernism too states that lasting truths reflect the ‘universal conditions of humanity’; arguing such truths are to be found through myth and archetypes. Postmodernists on the other hand suggest that truths do not necessarily last but instead alter and shift relative to time, culture and perspective.

It appears then that ‘culture, belief, history and the universal aspects of human nature’ might all play a part in the way we interpret ‘truth’ and it is this theme that the photographic artists participating in the PHOTO 2021 Festival explore through their works.

‘The aim is to celebrate photography as an art form as well as to provide much needed support to the arts community.’

Originally planned for 2020, Australia’s largest photographic event was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Featuring indoor and outdoor sites in Melbourne’s centre and surrounding suburbs as well as regional Victoria, this free festival spans a two week period from 18 February to 7 March. Partnering with over 40 academic and cultural institutions, exhibitions can be seen in public spaces and gallery settings.

Read: Exhibition Review: Redemption of Colour, Canberra Glassworks

Artistic director Elias Redstone and the PHOTO 2021 team, along with partnering institutions, have curated over 160 artists, local and international, from 25 countries as well as commissioning more than 30 artists to create new work; the aim is to celebrate photography as an art form as well as to provide much needed support to the arts community.

Garden Variety: Photography, Politics and the Picturesque at the  Royal Botanic Gardens for PHOTO 2021. Photo by Zan Wimberly,  courtesy of Photo Australia.

Celebrating artists from a vast range of backgrounds, experience, and stages in their artistic careers, the festival also has an expansive online presence: the PHOTO Channel, which features a plethora of content such as interviews, essays and artist talks that challenge the notion of ‘truth’ in a post truth era: live streaming conversations with artists dealing with issues from identity, belonging and human rights to social justice. 

Photography on billboards, such as Sara Oscar’s Most Wanted, premieres in AC/DC Lane and explores, through the mugshot trope, the notion of evidence or document’; removing the subject from its possible ‘criminal context’ by displaying portraits without captions.  Influenced by the dispersion of images through social media, Oscar questions the context and authenticity of these images; they might come from a tinder profile, a fashion headshot or a family album.

Sara Oscar,Most Wanted (2020), PHOTO 2021 installation view.Commissioned byPhoto Australia for PHOTO 2021. Photo by J Forsyth, courtesy of Photo Australia.

One of Australia’s most influential artists, Pat Brassington delves into the notion of truth through her latest body of work, Night Swimming, 2021, at Arc One gallery, Flinders Lane. Brassington interrogates the inner states of her subjects through narratives that explore sexuality, identity and memory by combing the ordinary with the extraordinary. Employing photomontage, monochromatic images and washed out, pixilated forms that bleed to strong dark outlines, she creates startling contrasts; challenging the viewer through unsettling juxtapositions such as an eel slipping down a women’s throat to studded buttocks and a crystal ball reflecting back to the viewer their own image.

Recipient of the State Library of Victoria’s Photography Fellowship, Hayley Millar-Baker, draws off childhood memories of cautionary tales; warnings passed down in the form of myth and ghost stories. I Will Survive premieres at the State Library Victoria forecourt, Melbourne and Vivien Anderson Gallery, St Kilda. Presented as photographic installations ‘the series considers how personal and collective memories change over time in their telling’ through combining landscape photography with studio self-portraits to create eerie, unsettling narratives.

‘Like a phoenix raising from the ashes of 2020, PHOTO 2021 has set an impressive example for this biennial festival…’

Supported by a broad range of partnerships, the PHOTO 2021 Festival presents a stimulating exploration into the photographic form and the myriad of ways the photograph can communicate and challenge its audience. A catalogue is available from most exhibition sites which includes vignettes of artworks and artists, special projects, awards and prizes as well as what’s available online. Maps of locations of exhibitions are also located at the back of the catalogue.

Like a phoenix raising from the ashes of 2020, PHOTO 2021 has set an impressive example for this biennial festival and despite closed local and international boarders much of its content can be accessed online anywhere in the world. Monumental in scope and inspiring both in content and intent. What a pity the festival was not showing for longer.

Rating: 4½ stars out of 5 ★★★★☆

PHOTO 2021 International Festival of Photography
Photo Australia
Various locations, Melbourne, Victoria

18 February – 7 March 2021

Mem Capp
About the Author
Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.