Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Life and art

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Mumbai-based Anant Joshi's installation 'Three Simple Steps'. Photo: l;flsd;fk

Atul Dodiya reflected upon the mystery of creativity using a poem and many photographs of artists and poets. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Ernesto Neto from Brazil, in 'Life is a River', used local textiles for his creation, complete with pouches that carry spices, whose fragrance contributed to the total impact and turned what was once a coconut fibre-processing factory into a magical cave. Photo: Sangeeth Thali

Ibrahim Quraishi, in his installation 'Islamic Violins', organised a series of violins to invoke a chapter from the history of music and of his country. Photo: afdaf

Subodh Gupta packed a lot of things into from the daily life of the common people in Kerala into a typical Kerala wooden boat, suggesting several contexts. Photo: adfasd

Amar Kanwar, the film-maker and artist, presented the state of the peasants of Odisha through the photographs of farmers who committed suicide, albums, books, newspapers report, paddy seeds and cultural artefacts. Photo: adfsa

Ai Weiwei, the great Chinese artist and dissenter, in his video installation 'So Sorry', reflects on his situation, the destiny of a dissenting artist in a totalitarian regime. He was not allowed to leave China to visit Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Dylan Martorell with his work 'Soundtracks-Kochi'. He crossed the boundaries between music and visual art when he designed his own magical musical instruments from objects he picked up from the locality. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

K.P. Reji at work on his huge canvas depicting village life. Photo: aasdfasd

Behind Cochin Club, the work of Delhi-based Mrida. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

The Portuguese artist Rigo 23's installation. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz paid homage to a vanishing lifestyle by displaying scores of grinding stones, once used to grind spices, rice and wheat but now replaced by electric grinders and mixies. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

A fallen tree at Vasco da Gama Square in Fort Kochi that was painted by the artists at the biennale. Photo: H.Vibhu

Vivek Vilasini with his work 'Last Supper Gaza', on the opening day of the biennale. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

The artist Zhang Enli painted whole walls to create patterns with one dominant hue in the company of many others and duplicated them with mirrors. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

A view of Aspinwall House, the main venue of the biennale. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Durbar Hall, in Ernakulam. An important venue of the biennale. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

A view of Pepper House, which is located between Fort Kochi and Bazar Road, another of the biennale venues. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first such show, provides a much-needed platform for a vital inquiry into today’s art by bringing together artists, curators, critics and the general public in a new form of sociality and productive interrelationship.

ART has travelled a lot from the times of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne and even from those of the Bauhaus and Fluxus, which questioned the age-old distinction between craft and fine art and brought them together in the idea of design. The history of modern installations, video art and other avant-garde manifestations of art can certainly be traced back to those moments of collaboration among designers, artists, architects and poets, and yet what they created was not quite what we see today.

I would like to go with someone like Jacques Ranciere in looking at the post-utopian present of art. The mission of modern art was supposed to be to bear witness to the fact of the unpresentable. The singularity of appearing then must be a negative presentation: Barnett Newman’s monochrome canvas cleaved by a lightning flash or the naked speech of Paul Celan or Primo Levi. The installations that play on the indiscernibility between works of art and objects of commerce can be, as Ranciere says, “a nihilist accomplishment of aesthetic utopia”. What happens in the new art—museum installations; spatialised music; contemporary dance, or “movement art”—is a de-specification of instruments, materials and apparatuses specific to different arts. Here we find that aesthetics is not the name of a discipline but the name of a specific regime for the identification of art. Art moves from subjects to gestures and is political, not because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world nor because of the manner in which it might represent society’s structures or social groups, their identities and conflicts. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space.

Aesthetics does not cover up ugly truths; it is a conscious attention, concern and value applied to surfaces, shapes, arrangements, techniques, movements, dynamics, suspensions, densities, repetitions and their expressive powers as opposed to a limited focus only on ideas, ideologies, content, message, political programme, utility, action, expediency, practicality and materialism. Defence of aesthetics is the defence of imagination, pleasure, sensual and intellectual freedom, curiosity, play (as defined by Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller), experimentation, essay and openness. Art is not necessarily about harmony and wholeness but can be an awareness of discord, dissonance, or “dissensus” (a term Ranciere uses as the opposite of “consensus”). It opposes the capitalist world view by resisting utilitarian co-option: the shape of a poem, cadences, surprises, sounds and spaces cannot be commodified or taken as booty. Art is anathema to oppressors as it always generates new ideas, forms, desires, possibilities, energies and love of existing in the world.

Art opposes all forms of regimentation and invests the quotidian with layers of meaning. The autonomy of art that the avant-garde defends is a refusal to compromise with the practices of power and the aestheticisation of life in the capitalist world. Avant-garde art is the inscription of the unresolved contradictions between the aesthetic promise and the realities of oppression in the world. It breaks down the obvious orders and unsettles traditional patterns in an attempt to redefine the sensible. It resists simple interpretations. It is informed by the products and practices of the everyday but also differs from them in significant ways. It is difficult to question its meanings as it questions the very process of assigning meanings. The aesthetic regime disrupts the boundaries between and redistributes the sense created by other practices. Any profane object could get into the realm of artistic experience and any artistic production could become part of the framing of a new collective life. Art interrogates the hierarchical organisation of the community and creates experiences that disrupt the results of domination in everyday life. Art contributes to revolution by reconfiguring the realm of appearances and reframing the way problems have been posed. It contests the way capacities, voices and roles have been apportioned in the existing order.

Artistic practices redefine what can be seen and said (as defined by the hegemonic forces that constitute and embody the state) and the implicit estimations placed on the members of communities. Art operates upon the aesthetic dimensions of the political as politics itself is a struggle over what can be seen and heard. It denies the rigid identities stamped upon us by the police order and provokes counter-histories that would offer new forms of experience and exchange between art and life.

These were some of the ideas I recollected when I visited the first ever Biennale of Art in India, which opened in Kochi, Kerala, on December 12, 2012. Spread over 14 venues at Fort Kochi and Ernakulam, the biennale is an attempt to showcase contemporary art in its diverse forms from paintings to installations and video art in the rare ambience provided by some of the antique buildings in Kochi with the Arabian sea in its background.

The significance of the location goes beyond its scenic beauty: Muziris in central Kerala was the hub of international trade in India until the third century A.D. where all the ship routes of the world used to terminate. After Muziris ceased to be a port, Kochi, along with Kozhikode on the Malabar coast, came to claim that place as the gateway for the world to enter the subcontinent. It is only proper that these two places were chosen as India’s windows to global art.

From the beginning, the event was haunted by controversies. It really began in China when Ai Weiwei, the great Chinese artist and dissenter, was denied permission to visit Kochi—though his work that expresses his disenchantment with the neoliberal China does find a place at Aspinwall House, the chief of the biennale venues. The earlier Left Front government of Kerala had sanctioned Rs.5 crore from its Muziris research and retrieval project for the biennale, which raised a few eyebrows. A section of the artists in Kerala, including some prominent ones like Kanayi Kunhiraman and N.N. Rimzon, refused to collaborate as the Kerala Lalit Kala Akademi and the College of Arts in Thiruvananthapuram had not been consulted when Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu, two well-known and knowledgeable artists from Mumbai, were appointed curators of the show. They also had certain ideological reservations about turning art into a “tourist spectacle”.

As is usual in Kerala, there were heated debates on the idea of the biennale, the choice of the participating artists, and the way finances were being handled. The present Congress-led government, which looked at the event as a scheme sponsored by its rival predecessor, too fell prey to the anti-biennale propaganda and refused to give further assistance, vital for the show to take off. A section of the media too played into the hands of the detractors though some did offer unstinted support. Despite all this —“against all odds”, as the title of the biennale brochure goes—with the cooperation of artists from around the world who came to the venue on their own and some sponsors who came forward to save the show, the first biennale became a reality though it cannot become a regular event without solid financial support from all concerned.

While looking at the works on display at this discursive event, I was struck equally by their multiple genealogies, their modes of encountering life, their ways of imagining history, the politics of resistance that constitutes many of them, and the way they break the conventional boundaries between life and art as also between the various genres of art like poetry, photography, painting, sculpture and film in order to create an art of our time that cannot be contained in our old calendars and categories. Look for example at Amar Kanwar, the film-maker and artist, presenting the state of the peasants of Odisha through the photographs of farmers who committed suicide, albums, books, newspaper reports, the paddy seeds the farmers use, and the cultural artefacts from their everyday life: a comprehensive statement that a single canvas, however intense, could never have made.

Santiago Sierra, the Spanish artist working in Mexico, travels for two years to collect images from 10 countries constituting the word K A P I T A L I S M and then destroy them in various ways, signifying the need to destroy the capitalist system. Ernesto Neto from Brazil, in “Life is a River”—a wonderful follow-up to his earlier works like “Macro” that I happened to see in a Roman museum and “Monsters” at the last Venice Biennale—uses local textiles to create a hung object complete with pouches that carry spices whose fragrance contributes to the total impact, turning the attic of a 400-year-old building, once a coconut fibre-processing factory, into a magical cave.

Valsan Kolleri assembles several diverse objects from a bygone life-culture in a series of racks to recreate a whole style of existence where every object becomes a memory and a tribute to a lost civilisation. Dyan Martorell, the Australia-based Scottish artist, crosses the boundaries between music and visual art when he designs his own magical musical instruments from objects he picked up from the locality and adds the inviting odour of spices to the sounds to produce one of the greatest attractions in the show.

Zhang Enli paints whole walls to create patterns with one dominant hue in the company of many others and duplicates them with mirrors. Ai Weiwei, in “So Sorry”, reflects on his situation, the destiny of a dissenting artist in a totalitarian regime. Robert Montgomery writes lines of poetry with lights on the top of a wharf in the backyard of Aspinwall House, which faces the sea: “The strange new music of the crying songs of the people we left behind mixing/ as your boat touches stone here as my new bones touch your bones.”

Ibrahim Quraishi organises a series of violins to invoke a chapter from the history of music and of his country in the installation “Islamic Violins”. Alfredo Jaar from Chile, living in the United States, invokes the memory of water using lines of poetry written in neon reflected in still water. Subodh Gupta packs a lot of things from the daily life of the common people in Kerala—pots, pans, an old fan, a chair, table legs, a broken television set…—into a typical Kerala wooden boat, suggesting several contexts: refugees fleeing a flood or war, families seeking their fortune elsewhere, a group of people evicted from their homes, people displaced by a dam or a factory—on the whole a life on the move.

Vivan Sundaram assembles in his “Black Gold” the ruins of clay utensils and other remnants of an old civilisation he collected from the Muziris excavation sites in a design to create an installation from the ruins of history. Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz collect scores of grinding stones, once used to grind spices and rice and wheat to make dough, but now replaced by electric grinders and mixies, to pay homage to a vanishing lifestyle and to connect with the Kerala whose spices had once brought the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and, finally, the British to its shores.

Zakkir Hussain’s polytriptych is deeply political in its implications and so is K.P. Reji’s huge canvas depicting village life. Atul Dodiya reflects upon the mystery of creativity using a poem and many photographs of artists and poets. P.S. Jalaja responds to the patriarchal rape culture by constructing a tomb for the victims and painting a naked, bleeding little girl. L.N. Tallur creates the typical tiled roof of ancient Kerala houses with the tiles punctuated with images of hermits in yogic postures. Jewish life in Kerala is captured in a series of artistic photographs exhibited at the Durbar Hall at Ernakulam. K.P. Krishnakumar’s sculptures come as a reminder of the vibrant period of radical art.

The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) have a fascinating hall of exhibits. There are several video installations that experiment with still and moving images besides a lot of interesting works by Shahidul Alam from Afghanistan, Sosa Joseph, Nalini Malani, Surendran Nair and others from India: 90 artists in all.

The cultural, even constitutive, significance of such a major event can hardly be lost sight of despite the fact that any biennale inevitably tends to be a spectacle and can generate a lot of debate around its politics and economics and its very construction of “the contemporary”. However that may be, it is undeniable that the biennale does provide a much-needed platform for a vital enquiry into today’s art and its conditions of possibility by bringing together artists, curators, critics and viewers in a new form of sociality and productive interrelationship. It displays the diverse artistic positions and practices that shape the cartography of our volatile time, that generate artistic discourse and plural ways of understanding and relating to art as a way of experiencing life. It takes art—its current manifestations as well as the animated contemporary debates around it—away from the museum to the larger public outside, including those who perhaps have never had an exposure to art.

It challenges the logic of the market, the hegemonic form of capitalist reason today, by making art freely available to people and showing the perishability as well as the unrepeatable uniqueness of art. It brings major contemporary artists from around the world to Kerala, most of whom worked with locally available materials—from automobile parts to spices from the market—and worked intelligently on the natural spaces, godowns, galleries, wharfs, courtyards and compound walls offered to them and created artworks that are organically linked to local history or contemporary contexts of life and art. Instead of counterposing the global and the local, it places the local in a larger global historical context in a gesture that is true to Kerala’s history, which can hardly be extricated from world history as Kerala has always interacted with several countries, cultures, religions and traditions of art and literature.

The show erases the distance between real objects and art objects and everyday existence and the life in art by establishing a new aesthetic regime that while embodying ethical witnessing, on the one hand, reveals, on the other, that there is nothing un-representable in the aesthetic regime of art. Amidst all the melancholic discussions on the end of art, the works at the biennale expose the reverse side of art “to the extent that the aesthetic formula ties art to non-art from the start, it sets that life up between two vanishing points: art becoming mere life or art becoming mere art” (Jacques Ranciere).

K. Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet and bilingual critic; e-mail: satchida@gmail.com

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