Archive for December, 2012

After much debate and discussion, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) opened on December 12, 2012. I had been following the news and had decided to make a visit. A few months back, I had visited one of the sites of Sydney Biennale and was curious to see how we would fare.

Art and its modern movements had been largely alien to me in general. I was always a bit curious on what these scribbles and strokes were about and it started getting the better of me four or five years back. At that time, I connected back with an old friend, Jayaraj, and I had frequent discussions and arguments with him and his wife, Sripriya, about the art pieces that we saw when we visited museums like Tate Modern. I started from whether these could be called works of art in the first place. Soon, Jayaraj introduced me to one of his artist friends, Murali Cheeroth and Murali too became a victim of my constant barrage on this matter. Through these discussions and the patience of the trio, I started to realize how art has become much more socially and politically committed and relevant in these modern times. I started to realize why it is important to know the various happenings in the society that the artist lives in and his or her reactions to those, their political positions etc. to fully understand their art. I started to realize why it is important to have clarity on my own thoughts and positions to better appreciate modern art. I also started to understand that seeing more and more art and assimilating what one can, is very important.

The main venue of KMB is Aspinwall House, in Fort Kochi. This is set in a very picturesque location, by the water. Such old abandoned venues are perfectly suited for this sort of an event that invites participation by the public. The first exhibit that we viewed was a video installation by Justin Ponmany called “Done and Dusted”. I cannot say that I understood much of this despite the introduction provided at the door of the hall. So, I started out right, being bewildered!

In the very next hall were two photographs by Vivek Vilasini. The first was a series of photographs which had Vivek’s own face juxtaposed with faces of famous personalities like Gandhi, Che Guevera, Sree Naryana Guru, Mother Teresa, Ambedkar, Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer, VKN etc. The whole impact was quite interesting and it was well exhibited. It made me reflect on the various influences in my own life. The next was titled “Last Supper – Gaza” and the visual impact itself was quite stunning; not to speak of the emotions and thoughts it stirred up. I could not but marvel at the imagination of the artist and his ability to bring together these thoughts of conflicts and brutality into a frame that denotes such tranquility.

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Next was an installation by Sumedh Rajendran, which I have to confess I did not understand at all. It had various legs, tables, inverted chairs etc. but I could not get what was intended and hence did not enjoy this much.

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The next section was taken up by Amar Kanwar. I had heard of him but was not very familiar but Murali had recommended it highly and had insisted that I spend enough time on this. The installation is titled “The Sovereign Forest” and it consists of very many things including two movies, books, a seed collection and some photographs. The central theme is about destruction and displacement that happens when large factories and other projects take up the fields owned by indigenous people and it is based on stories from Orissa. As one enters the room, what strikes the eye is a collection of rice seeds. This is arranged in small, open boxes fixed to the wall. 266 varieties of indigenous rice seeds found in Orissa are exhibited here. I guess some of these are extinct while some are still cultivated. If we continue the way we are, most will soon be extinct.

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There are three large books on hand made paper with writing on one page and video projection on the other side. I had never seen a piece like this and it was very interesting. I wanted to go through all the books but could not finish even one book as there were a lot of people around.

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The story captured in the book “The Counting Sisters and Other Stories” is connected with the movie “The Scene of Crime”. The movie itself is 42 minutes long and I watched it two times. The quality of the video and the shots are amazing. There is no dialogue or narrative apart from the few short sentences that appear from time to time. The sound track is original with sound as present in the scenes being recorded, with no music added. Scenes move along slowly with small gaps between different shots; yet it is a very gripping movie with a powerful story. It reaches deep inside you and disturbs and evokes thoughts about how to have a balanced concept on development. The injustice of and trauma caused by what passes for “development” comes through very clearly. The rape and destruction of our land and our people by the custodians themselves, is hard to digest. What came to my mind was the statement made by the Chairman of Vedanta a few days back on how India could increase its GDP by a few percentage points if it were to “liberalise” its mining laws – the very same Vedanta which has often been accused of completely unfair practices and abuse of the people of Orissa. Even to my untrained eye, it was evident that Amar Kanwar is at a different league as an artist and my friend, who was with me, remarked that he is actually an activist. His socio-political commitment and position appealed to us. There was another short video called “A Love Story” and that also had a similar tale to tell. How soon before the images and sounds that we know of and are familiar with, are gone?

Next, we saw an installation by a South African artist, Clifford Charles, called “Talking Skins”. It was spread over five rooms and each room had a theme of its own. One room was a replica of reading rooms managed by the Communist Party that are seen in many parts of Kerala and one was called “Absence of Labour” and the other three experimented with colours, memories, our sense of protection etc. This one also stumped me and I was totally out of my depths here. I guess my sense of aesthetics needs more work.

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By now, we were starting to run out of time and it was pretty evident that we would have to pick and choose what we could look at before the end of the day and there were three more artists that we wanted to see – Vivan Sundaram, Subodh Gupta and Tallur.

Muziris was an ancient seaport in Kerala that dated back to 1st Century AD. Muziris was a very important town in its time and three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – arrived in India through this port. Muziris was destroyed in a major flood in river Periyar in 1341 AD and the exact location of the town was forgotten later. Vivan Sundaram has created a miniature city using thousands of small clay tile pieces dug up from the archaeological site of Pattanam, which is currently believed to be the site of Muziris. This is a large installation laid out in a rectangle of about 25 feet by 10 feet and what struck me first was the enormity of the artist’s imagination. Each piece is not more than two or three inches long and to contemplate such a large installation made of these small pieces, does require a special mind. The “city” has nice boulevards, circles, temples, orderly spaces, clutter, everything. I felt the structures were European, perhaps to show the connection between Muziris and Europe.

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I tried to get a “low” shot by placing the camera almost at the level of the tiles and that image was somehow disturbing to me.

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I felt that there is more to this work than what I could comprehend and this definitely calls for a revisit. Towards the end of the day, we also saw a video on this work but by that time, I had “art deluge” and so I could not concentrate on that; again, one for the next visit.

After looking at this city, which was lost in flood waters, you look up to see a massive boat – an installation by Subodh Gupta. It is very difficult to explain the exact feeling that one gets when you see the continuity of the two installations. A city, which one deems to be “permanent” is lost and we take refuge in a boat, which is at best a transitory location. All our material possessions are crammed into the boat. In the boat, we try to create a place of refuge. It conveyed many things to me – our tendency to withdraw in times of hardship, our unwillingness to let go, how we carry on with all baggage from the past and much more. The overall impact was quite significant and we spent a lot of time in that room. The boat is a regular fishing boat and looks quite large, especially within the confines of the room.

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The connectivity between these two pieces of art is stunning and it is very evident why these two artists are so highly respected.

The last one for the day was an installation by Tallur LN. I had seen an image of this installation in a magazine and was shot from the exact same angle as the photograph below.

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I could not at all comprehend what this was about and hence had wanted to see it. The explanatory note posted near the installation spoke about how man’s innermost desire is about conquest and that is evident even in the practice of Hatha Yoga, which is about conquering one’s body and mind. The note then went on to speak about how missionaries of Basel Mission set up tile factories to provide employment for the people they converted into Christianity. Later, these tile factories came under the British Government; at the same time, they set up a museum in Bombay and they wanted to create an ethnological collection there and Hatha Yogi figures were also made for the museum. After I read this note and saw the installation from a different angle, it became very interesting. I felt that this observation by the artist about man’s preoccupation with conquests and conquering is very profound indeed and various thoughts crossed my mind as I walked around the piece.

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Unfortunately, we ran out of time and we were tired as well; though our hearts and minds were full. There is much more to be seen and I would definitely want to go back and spend a couple more days at KMB. The curators, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu, deserve credit for putting such a great event together, with so little support from the Government. The opportunity to see the works of so many world class artists in one location is very rare and is indeed a boon for all of us.

I have written only very little about the thoughts, feelings and emotions that passed through me as I watched the art works; I would need many, many pages if I were to do that. Vivek Vilasini brought thoughts about the influences in my life, Amar Kanwar made me think of the dichotomy between development and nature, Vivan Sundaram and Subodh Gupta about the permanency of the transitory and vice versa, Tallur about our deepfelt need for conquest and so on.  It is quite possible that the thoughts and ideas that came to my mind had no connection with what the artist intended but that is fine as what counts is my interpretation and the value I derive from the experience; that is the beauty of art and the space it provides. KMB was a very singular experience indeed and I hope to return to view the rest of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012.