People's biennale

Published : Feb 15, 2017 12:30 IST

"Untitled", 2016, by Jonathan Owen. 19th century marble statue with further carving.

"Untitled", 2016, by Jonathan Owen. 19th century marble statue with further carving.

OVER the past two millennia, Fort Kochi, the strip of land between the bustling modern city of Kochi and the Arabian Sea, has become a palimpsest of history. It has absorbed myriad historical influences and had early contacts with the Arabs and the Chinese. Fort Kochi, which was part of the kingdom of Cochin, was occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British at different points of time. Vestiges of these diverse influences are reflected in its space, architecture and the names of its roads and bylanes. Many important events have played out in this tiny canton, which retains a distinct vibe even now. Muziris, the fabled port of the ancient world, was located somewhere in its vicinity. Tourists often flock to St. Francis’ Church, one of the early European churches in India, where Vasco da Gama was buried. (His remains were later transported to Lisbon. In the evening, as the Chinese fishing nets are lowered, the beach promenade is filled with an assortment of people soaking in the languorous flavour of Fort Kochi. The area retains a sense of history with much of its period architecture intact and is like an open-air museum with deep layers of the past that visitors come across as they walk around.

It is fitting, then, that an event like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) has been located within this historical area. Riyas Komu, the founder of the biennale, said: “In 2010, we chose to locate the biennale in Fort Kochi because it carries a history of multiculturalism. More than 30 communities live together in this compact area of four square kilometres. The Kochi Biennale stands out as a people’s biennale.” It adds to Kerala’s reputation as a Mecca for art aficionados. The third edition of the biennale, which was inaugurated on December 12, 2016, and will run for 108 days until the end of March 2017, adds to the State’s reputation as a strong supporter of artistic events.

Globally, the Italian noun “biennale” is usually used for a large international contemporary art event that occurs once every two years. Prominent biennales of the world include the ones that happen at Venice, Berlin and Shanghai. With the growth of a variety of installations and video art, the most attractive draws at these events have been large and quirky works that immediately attract the visitors’ attention; but the scope of a biennale extends beyond this display of varied mixed-media work with a broad underlying theme.

Forming in the pupil of an eye

The theme for this year’s biennale at Kochi is “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye”. It is sufficiently grandiloquent and abstract to subsume a wide variety of artistic works within it and befits an art event of this standard. The curatorial note says: “Selecting from and bringing together a multiplicity of disparate sources of material, the artists [at the Kochi biennale] gather and layer all the complexity of the world into their representations of it.”

The theme is borrowed from a poem by Sharmistha Mohanty, an avant-garde author and poet, whose poem “I make new the song born of old” has been “installed” at the biennale along with the works of many other writers. Thus, the lines between various forms of art have been blurred in this jamboree of 97 artists from 31 countries spread across 10 venues in and around Fort Kochi. Curated by Sudarshan Shetty, an internationally well-known art practitioner himself, the biennale is a magnificent achievement. (Interview with Sudarshan Shetty, “Conversations on Multiplicity”, Frontline , January 20.) Shetty sees his role as curator as that of a “creator of knowledge”.

The main venue of the biennale is Aspinwall House, a majestic sea-facing stadium constructed in the mid 19th century. The works of more than 50 artists are displayed within its expansive walls, and visitors scurry frenetically from one work to the other located in the many buildings on the premises. “Art” assaults and overwhelms the viewer as he or she walks around this arena, soaking in the range of emotions that one experiences in the presence of the works of world-class imaginations. How does one engage with such a prodigious quotient of aesthetic fantasies?

Art and truth

One answer may be found in the work of Sundar Sarukkai, a Bengaluru-based philosopher who has reflected extensively on art. Addressing a group of enthusiasts at an event leading up to the biennale, he dwelt on the intricate connection between perception, truth and art. His thesis, when broken down, would be like this: “There is an inherent suspicion of perception because of which the quest for truth is flawed. Art is involved in trying to grasp this truth.” This simplistic framework resonates from the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French philosopher who wrote on perception and art, and works like a handy mnemonic when one visits the biennale and sees the often seemingly arcane work on display.

The versatility in the mediums of work at the biennale demands that visitors engage with all their senses. Take the work of the Chilean poet Raul Zurita for instance: one has to remove one’s footwear as one enters “The Sea of Pain” and wade across a pool of knee-deep water in a large warehouse to reach the other end. A poem dedicated to Galip Kurdi, the brother of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee boy who was washed ashore on a Turkish beach in September last year, awaits the viewer. The poem ends on a forlorn note: “Below the silence you can make out a piece of sea, of the sea of pain. I’m not his father but Galip Kurdi is my son.”

Zurita is mainly a poet, but the profundity of his poem deepens in the setting of the biennale, and it was his participation that set the tone for this year’s event.

Further on, one enters a large room that opens out to a sunny verandah overlooking the sea. People are seated on wooden benches looking out at the ships sailing past. You sit down on a bench looking for “art” when a deep moan reverberates through the bench and up your thighs. Camille Norment’s musical installation, “Prime 2016”, uses the deep baritones from African-American church practices to bring out a variety of emotions that shiver up the wooden seats.

Pyramid of exiled poets

As one walks around, it is hard to not look at the imposing pyramid caked with cow dung in the middle of Aspinwall House. “The Pyramid of Exiled Poets” is the work of Slovene Ales Steger, and a walk through the dark chamber is haunting as poems of those exiled from their lands over centuries ambush the listener. Towards the left of the monument is what appears to be the remnant of an incomplete construction. A large concrete block lies half excavated from the earth. Visitors look at it quizzically and wonder what it could be. Only when they realise that it is also an installation do they begin to grasp the audacious vision of the Swiss artist Bob Gramsma’s work “Riff Off”. The land artist has tried to create “space”, a term often used by artists to the point of abuse, and his work is also pertinent because it shrilly asks the question as to when an object can be designated as “art”.

Sharmishta Mohanty’s poem has been installed at Aspinwall as well. With the smart use of projectors and sound in a darkened room and a window from where the sea is visible, one gets a feel of Sharmishta Mohanty’s poem. Lines from her poem are narrated as ships, barges, fishing boats and freighters pass by in the background. The poem remains incomplete as the scene in front of the open window keeps changing. Sound is an important component of many of the works on display, but none of the artists uses it as an installation in the way in which the American sound artist Miller Puckette does in his “Four Sound Portraits”. With the help of four small chambers, bare but for minimal personalisations, he uses sounds to make portraits of four separate personalities.

The Russian collective AES+F’s work “Defile” is morbid as it consists of high-quality life-sized photographs of corpses dressed up in high-end fashion. It is grotesque and macabre but also beautiful in the way it makes us question ideas of fashion, its ephemerality and its links with death. Deep in the chambers of the Aspinwall House lies an evocative self-sculpture by the Japanese Takayuki Yamamoto. Titled “Tale of the God of Kiln”, it evokes great despair in its enervated pose.

The graphic novelist Orijit Sen’s bright and colourful images capture the lives of Indians in three different locations: in Mapusa Market in Goa, in the Charminar area of Hyderabad and in the Punjabi heartland. There is also the work of American Tom Burkhardt called “Studio Flood”, a child-like installation in an inverted artist’s studio. Romanian artist Istvan Csakany’s “Ghost Keeping” depicts a textile factory and the mundaneness of the work therein. Photographs of rural Rajasthan by Gauri Gill and of the residents of Ponnani in Kerala by K.R. Sunil add to the biennnale’s allure.

The Chinese artist Yang Hongwei’s epic 12-metre scroll, a statement on Chinese society, produced with traditional Chinese paper and ink, is on display along with the work of his countryman Dai Xiang, who has stitched digital photographs together to present a 25-metre long scene called “The New Along the River”. Mumbai-based artist Yardena Kurulkar’s installation “Kenosis” consists of photographs of a disintegrating terracotta heart modelled on her own heart showing the futility of this organ.


At another venue, Pepper House, a historic building which has links to the spice trade in colonial times, the world-famous video artist Leighton Pierce, who has been active since the 1980s, takes us on a surreal trip in an installation called “Thresholds of Affinity” consisting of 14 LED screens in a darkened and broad corridor. As you walk through the corridor, it is hard not to slowly be enveloped by a surreal sensuality. The Mumbai-based video artist Kabir Mohanty’s epic and ambitious cinematic experiment “Song for an Ancient Land” is also part of the biennale.

The venues are spread all over Fort Kochi. At one end, at Kashi Art Gallery, Abir Karmakar’s “Home” finds space; here, the artist ruminates on the idea of what makes a home. In Cabral Yard, an open-air venue, French artists Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe, have built a futuristic two-cylinder installation in praise of madness inspired by Antonin Artaud’s text “The Suicide of Society”. At MAP Warehouse, Khaled Sabsabi’s work “70,000 Veils” is a 100-channel HD video that needs to be viewed with red-tinted glasses for full effect.

There are some very political works, such as the visual collaboration by the Pakistani-American artist Salman Toor and poet Hasan Mujtaba. Sirous Namazi’s “12:30” uses the memory of home to depict the fleeing of the Bahais from Iran in 1978.

Performance art also finds space at the biennale with the work of Anamika Haksar who presents an improvisational theatre and installation work called “Composition on Water” which engages with the theme of oppression through Dalit writings. Zuleikha Chaudhari’s “Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case” looks at the complicated case of Kumar of Bhawal from the early 20th century.

Gary Hill is an early video artist whose work has enthralled his peers for a few decades. His installation is located at Durbar Hall in Ernakulam. The easiest way to get there is to take a ferry from the jetty at Fort Kochi and hop off at Ernakulam.

“Dream Stop, 2015-16” must be one of the most expensive installations of this biennale as Hill has used 30-odd projectors to beam visitors’ images captured by tiny cameras in a mandala-like device placed in the middle of a large open room. The visitor will encounter a multiplicity of his or her own images. Some of these images are enlarged, while others are miniaturised. Others are inverted, while another one, in the distance, is a mere silhouette.

The many ways in which one encounters one’s image is evident here as visitors position, and then reposition themselves, to see how their perspective changes. The many ways in which things become visible is explored by Hill in this fantastic piece.

There are also some “incomplete” art works or works in progress that make one question as to when an artistic work is complete. Is a work-in-progress also art? P.K. Sadanandan, the great mural artist of Kerala, is working on an epic mural painting on subjects drawn from the history of Kerala; he intends to finish towards the end of the biennale.

The Italian artist Daniele Galliano is also painting one picture a day during the 108 days of the biennale in a creative act of endurance while inhabiting an open studio space. He paints on previous art works, thus rupturing the idea of art.

Only a handful of artists have been discussed in this essay. What should be pointed out is that each artist brings something unique to the biennale. A visit to the biennale brings about a feeling of synaesthesia—a satisfactory conjunction of all of one’s senses. Puritans of art might contend that there is an overwhelming dominance of video and installation art. They might also locate the art work in a historical trajectory and sceptically examine the links between the art world and commerce and see how the agenda has been set by institutions and critics. They may even go ahead and proclaim the death of the artist.

Scope of the biennale

But for most visitors, the scope of the exhibition will invite a deep and meaningful engagement that will make one question one’s own perceptions of reality and, more importantly, art.

The biennale intervenes socio-politically and pushes the limits of our logical sensations. With its mandate of being a “people’s biennale” (the entry fee is priced at only Rs.100), it creates an audience for varied art practices and this is evident in the diversity of the visitors. Along with the biennale at locations like Shanghai, this event in Kochi is also questioning the euro-centrism of the art world. At the end, it makes us think and question our own notions about art. Art is shown to be not only about aesthetics, a logical meeting point of sensations, but also about encountering problems and offering solutions. It is about the politicisation of aesthetics. It is about provocation. It is a rigorous discipline and not a manically inspired act. There is a deep conceptual underpinning to aesthetic decisions.

The artists at the biennale are adding something to our perspectives and the way in which we see the world as they connect dots in novel ways.

This takes us back to Sarukkai’s point that art is a way to see the truth in the world, and the ways in which it can do this, as the biennale at Kochi demonstrates, are infinite.

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