Archive for February, 2013

January 24 & 25, 2013

An unexpected change of plans left me with a few extra days at Kerala and off I went to Kochi, with a couple of friends, to catch up on the rest of the Biennale. I had spent about a day and a half in my earlier visit but could only see a portion of the Biennale. Since we set off early, we reached Fort Kochi by around 11 and decided to start with the Pepper House this time as we were sure that if we started with the Aspinwall House, we would spend all of our time there only. As is the proper course of action on these sort of jaunts, we started with a leisurely coffee in the quaint little café inside Pepper House. The first exhibit that catches your eye is a rusted anchor with a broken chain that reaches upwards, as if the scene is frozen, as the anchor is dropped. I felt that an anchor is something that really connects one with Kochi and Muziris with all its history of maritime trade. This is installed in the open courtyard and the position of the sun was such that the chain threw a shadow in the shape of a question mark. I am not sure whether this was intended but it was a fitting opener for the rest of the day.

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The next was an installation by an Iranian artist, Hossein Valamanesh. This consisted of many Persian carpets laid crisscross on the floor with alternate columns of black and white hung from the ceilings. The white columns were provided with internal lighting. We had to remove our shoes before we entered and that very act somehow brought a feeling that one was entering a holy or a revered space. The rugs added to that feeling. Since there was no other light in the room apart from the white columns, one’s attention was automatically drawn to the circular patches of light falling on the carpets from the white columns. I found the interleaving of the bright and the dark quite interesting and the overall feel was one of peace and quiet. Those portions of the rugs, under the unlit, black columns were not visible at all; they were in the dark, unseen and hence unsung. Sections falling under the white tubes that have been lit from above, are in glory. Funny enough, I was reminded of a young Australian Christian missionary I had met in Brigade Road many years ago, who insisted that I had to accept Christ as my god and “come into the light”. So, what shall we do with the unlit tubes?

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An ink painting by Clifford Charles was next. The explanation talked about the artist’s preoccupation with water as a substance. The painting itself was titled “Steps from Villa Sebollini, Belaggio” and it seems that the work was started in Belaggio and finished in Fort Kochi. Apart from the fact that I have been to Belaggio and Fort Kochi, I could not connect with the art work at all.

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Physiognomy is the study of a person’s character or personality from his or her external appearance, especially the face. This was an ancient science, much used by the Greeks. In modern times, a Swiss Pastor by name of Johann Lavater revived this science and Lavater himself was given to the quest of reconstructing Jesus Christ’s face or his “true image”. He tried to do this by reverse engineering what the physical appearance of the face of a person like Christ could have been and then giving these instructions to various artists. The instructions themselves (a copy was displayed) were very specific. However, he was never satisfied with the images these artists produced as he felt that they were always influenced by the existing images of Christ.

In the Biennale, a Dutch artist by name of Gert Jan Kocken has retraced the steps of Lavater and has commissioned three sculptors (Vinu VV, Anoop Kottekatt & Sanul KK) to create faces based on the descriptions. The only difference being that the artists were not told that the description was that of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, the artist was trying to take away the influence that Lavater always objected to.

It was interesting to see the output of these artists. One did indeed look like the Christ we see in pictures and one looked a bit like Abraham Lincoln! I thought it would be interesting to apply this technique to the Hindu Gods and see the output. I am sure it would lead to a lot of issues. We are so bound to the images that we are used to. For instance, one is so used to the South Indian depiction of well rounded Gods and Goddesses that it is somehow irritating to see the lean frames as painted by some North Indian painters. I can only imagine the frustration that Lavater must have caused in the artists by insisting that they had to forget the image that they were used to.

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As we were going around the courtyard, we came to a doorway that led to the pier and the words “All of past must be resurrected” were painted over it. We were a bit confused at first as to whether these words were part of the building even before the Biennale started or whether it was done for the Biennale. It was only as we read the explanation provided that we realized that it was part of an installation by an artist named UBIK. As you pass under the arch, you enter a short corridor and then emerge out of an old door on to the pier, which overlooks the modern port of Vallaarpaadam. The view shifts from a dilapidated old building to spanking new infrastructure. The corridor was what I connected with. I viewed that as “transitory land”, a neither-here-nor-there position; something which I often find myself in when I look at the nostalgia tinted past and the reality of the present.

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I had heard about KP Krishnakumar and a friend had spoken very highly of his work. His work, called Boatman, was displayed at Pepper House. Sculptures have never really resonated with me but I could connect a little bit more with this. It was quite expressive and the face kept drawing me back to the work.

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In the same room was a very large painting by KP Reji. This depicted the legend of “Thoombinkal Chathan”, a Dalit, who sacrificed himself to save a paddy field from flooding. The painting is split into three panels with a huge naval ship (looked like an aircraft carrier) in the background. While the panels on the two sides looked similar, with depictions of a green tree, children etc. the one in the centre was different with the tree looking dead with crows sitting on the branches eating dead fish. The children are obviously school-going children but they have in their hands some implements which can be tools or weapons, depending on how you look at it. There were a multitude of images in the painting and I felt that I could not understand what the artist was trying to convey fully, though I felt I got the overall gist; I felt drawn to the picture and spent a long time with it. It made me think about these myths that we repeat with admiration and pride, about the man who was brave enough to sacrifice himself for what is ostensibly the common good; but we seldom reflect on the fact that it is often for the good of the landlord only. Invariably, the ones that are the “heroes” in such stories are the downtrodden, mostly from “lower” castes. They are made into heroes for that one act, and then relegated back into their old status. Their progeny gain nothing but the right to feel proud about a story – a story that will be kept alive by the powerful as they need more such “heroes” to be ready for other deeds.

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In the very next room was a very nice visual treat. Thirty white violins had been suspended from the ceiling in a neat row. There was also a video that showed violins exploding with the accompanying sound. This installation is by an artist named Ibrahim Quraishi. The overall visual impact was very nice and it was good feel to walk alongside these violins but I could not get what the artist was trying to convey. The long room with its whitewashed walls and the white violins gave a peculiar feel.

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Next stop on the agenda was Aspinwall House and we proceeded there after lunch. Last time, I had seen Vivan Sundaram’s installation but I had not seen the video he had made using the installation. The video was made by having the camera zoom in and out and move at different angles around the installation. Water was poured onto the installation and dried black pepper seeds were floating on the water, in some of the videos. Overall, it gave me the sense of a city going under flood waters or that of small islands and the visuals were captivating. This video was arranged in three large panels and projected on to the floor. So, it gave a sense of one standing over the land and watching the happenings from a vantage point. To me, it conveyed a sense of disquiet and calamity.

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From the calamity that befell a great city, we moved on to a work depicting the five basic elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air & Sky. The artist (T. Venkanna) is talking to us about how we abuse these five elements. There are five wooden discs suspended from the ceiling with etchings of such destructive items as battle tanks, airplanes, submarines etc. coupled with five large canvases. These are hung on walls and also placed on the ceiling and the floor. The canvases are filled up with charcoal drawings and collages of very many images. The images are pretty strong and bring out the conflicts and the acts of abuse. It conveys a sense of horror and doom about where we are headed.  Many of images were very disturbing indeed.

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I was not going through the exhibits in any particular sequence and the next one I saw was a work involving Kalidasan’s Meghasandesam. This was by an artist Alfredo Jaar and it consisted of one verse from Meghasandesam written with neon lighting and fixed on to one wall. The room was totally dark and the floor was filled with water; a wooden walkway provided access to the room. The text was inverted and so unreadable when one looked at the wall but was reflected clearly in the water. The verse itself is English translation from Sanskrit and the work is titled “Cloud for Kochi”.

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What happens to things that we have no more any use for? This is the theme of an installation by Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz. They have collected 170 grinding stones and then strewn them around in random fashion, leading to the pier, almost as if the stones are falling into the sea. Before the days of the electric mixers, the grinding stone was an integral part of each house. Once we all adapted to the convenience of the electric mixers, these were no longer needed and thus, were abandoned. Once abandoned, these become part of urban debris and we no longer notice these stones, which were once critical for us to make food. I liked this installation quite a lot and spent some time sitting there. The obvious connect to me was to people even in our own lives, who share the fate of these grinding stones. What struck me was how these artists had thought up this connection. We also had grinding stones in our houses when we were young but I have never bothered to think about what happened to those later. There was also a grid of black and white on one wall in the room in which the grinding stones were lying. Items are relevant only when they are able to fulfill their utilitarian role, a rather black-and-white concept.

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The first sight that greets you as you enter Aspinwall House is an installation by Srinivasa Prasad – a  cocoon suspended in mid-air with steps made of gunny sacks leading up to it. The cocoon itself is made of bamboo, wire and thorns and there is an opening in the cocoon into which, one can insert one’s head. Supposedly, you leave bad memories and thoughts in the cocoon. Finally, the cocoon is supposed to be taken down and burnt, erasing all those bad thoughts. How fortunate, if it were so easy! Out of curiosity, I went up the steps and tried to leave some thoughts in the cocoon but my thoughts seemed too wedded to me.

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By this time the day was gone and we were pretty tired as well. The next day morning, we got up very early and decided to have a drive around Fort Kochi and Mattancherry taking in the early morning sights. We wandered around the deserted streets leading to the synagogue. I have been there before but had not got a chance to go inside the synagogue. It was odd to walk around a part of Kerala where you could see Hebrew writing and Star of David on the walls. There is also an old burial ground here. There was a plaque set into the wall of the cemetery that spoke about who had erected the wall – the Malayalam used was a bit odd, perhaps because it was written more than a century ago.

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We saw a building in Fort Kochi with a beautiful mural painted on it. The work was titled “The Debtor’s Prison”. Curiously, it had Kamala Suraiyya’s image also in it. I am not sure whether this was done as part of the Biennale but it was quite an interesting work.

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Further along the road, we saw a reading room that is quite characteristic of Kerala. It reminded me of a work that I had seen during my previous visit to the Biennale.

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There were many paintings on the walls along the street. I guess most of those were done by people in connection with the Biennale. Some of the graffiti style paintings reminded me of similar work I ahd seen in the streets of London.

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Opposite to these paintings we noticed a series titled “Guess Who” and the images were just fantastic. A poster exhorted one to not believe what one saw but to believe what one was told. The pictures were quite eye catching and later on, we saw some more such images near other venues of the Biennale. There was no indication as to who the artist was, but it has obviously been done by someone who wanted to set people thinking. I could not make up my mind on whether this person was for or against the Biennale.

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The early morning outing was quite a nice experience and the overall ambience of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry with all those old buildings and all the art work around can only be experienced and not explained.

Moidu’s Heritage is yet another endearing venue and we started there in the morning. In the attic there is an installation by a Brazilian artist called Ernesto Neto titled “Life is a river”. It is made up of cotton fabric and sacks of spices are hung in the fabric. Overall, it had conveyed a strange, colourful picture. From some angles, it looked like the udder of a giant cow. This was totally beyond my abilities of comprehension and I drew a total blank. The overall experience was enjoyable but I could not fathom what the artist meant or how the installation connected with its title.

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Since I had not been able to make it to the synagogue last time I was in Mattancherry, I went there to have a look around. Unfortunately, it had slipped my mind that it was a Friday and so, once again, I could not get inside the synagogue. I saw that there was a KMB venue – Mandalay House – on the street leading to the synagogue and I dropped in. It was a venue dedicated to the struggle of the Burmese people against the military dictatorship there. The “8888 Uprising” started on 8th August, 1988 and was put down brutally by the military junta. Sitt Nyein Aye, who was a student and a celebrated artist in Burma, had taken part in the uprising and had flee to India in the aftermath of the struggle. He made a painting with the figure 8, while at Manipur, in 1990. The painting was remade in 2000 and when the organizers of KMB were looking at this painting, they discovered an amazing fact. In their own words: “When we began working on the exhibition, we realized this painting needed restoration as it had a small tear in it. Two conservators Harriet Pearson and Mark Coombs, then living in Bombay, began studying the work. The identified other things, like older re-touchings, splashes of dirt and water that discoloured the red layers, and bird droppings. This led us to ponder the peculiar history of this work. How it had been painted in a small border town, two years after the uprising, and how later, Sitt Nyein Aye had used it in demonstrations and protest marches on the streets of Delhi. This work was never meant for the wall. It had had a life on the streets. That the conservators decided to let the work be, deciding to mend the tear, but leaving this surface intact as a testimony of its history, is a credit to them.” To me, it became much more than a painting when I read this explanation. It was a piece that embodied the resistance of a people denied freedom in their own land, a symbol of the undying human spirit, an object to be revered.

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The whole of Mandalay House was dedicated to the Burmese struggle and in the next room was an installation by Htein Lin, called “Dream of a gun-tree revolution”. It seems many Burmese students had crossed into India with the hope that the Indian government would support an armed struggle and give them weapons. Instead, they found themselves in refugee camps with all the associated ills; food was scarce but for some reason they got a lot of turmeric powder. They kept asking for guns but supposedly, the Indian government just kept sending mosquito nets so that they could sleep well. Some students even made guns out of tree limbs for training. Ultimately, the government never sent arms and the idea of the “gun-tree revolution” fizzled out. The installation was amusing with its mosquito nets, wooden rifles etc. Yet, what it showed was the death of a dream. Of course, it is worth pondering whether it was proper for the Indian government to send them arms!

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Htein Lin seems taken up by nets. The next installation was dedicated to a book called “Bones will crow” – an anthology of contemporary Burmese poems published in 2012. It is supposed to be a meditative space with text and drawings on the nets, the point being that these stories will not die and will be told, however much they are oppressed.

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After this, I went back to Aspinwall House as I had seen photos of a fun-looking installation by Zhang Enli that I wanted to see. This was a couple of rooms, the walls of which were painted with water colours. There were some windows through which you could see into the other room. The colours used were bright, fun colours and the feeling was one of gaiety and light-heartedness.

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I had been told to watch a video installation by a path breaking Spanish artist, Santiago Sierra. This was titled “Destroyed Word”. This work took two years to make and was made across 10 countries. Each letter of the word “KAPITALISM” was constructed in one country and so it tool ten different countries to make up the word. The materials used were relevant to that country. Each letter was installed and then destroyed using different means. The video showed the destruction of all the letters simultaneously, thus showing the destruction of the word itself. The travails that capitalism is going through currently must have prompted the artist to create this work. Or did he mean that Capitalism leads to globalization and thus the loss of the “indigenous relevance”? I am not sure whether Capitalism would be defeated that easily – it will adapt and move on, with all its cunning. The new avatar is “Conscious Capitalism!” An oxymoron?

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There were still some more venues to be visited and some more works to be seen even in the venues I had visited. However, all good things come to an end and so too, my visit to Kochi-Muziris Biennale. To me, this was a great event which provided a fantastic opportunity to view many world-class art works. A point that needs particular mention is the selection of venues. Most of the venues were rickety old buildings which conveyed great character. Indeed, these buildings are remnants from a time when commerce was centred around maritime trade in Kochi. I doubt whether the ambience would have been as appealing as this had the venues been sleek, modern buildings.

In these times, as our society seems to fall lower and lower in matters of ethics and values, I feel that art has a great role to play. This problem can only be solved through an improvement in our overall culture and art and the awakening it creates, is one part of the solution. An event like Biennale is a dire need in Kerala today and to organize such an event, despite all the challenges, is a wonderful achievement that needs to applauded. Bose Krishnamachari and  Riyaz Komu deserve rich praise for staying the course and going through with the event and for all the wonderful work in the curation, selection of venues etc. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was a cherished experience for me and I thank the organizers for this; it is my fervent hope that the event would be back in this wonderful location in two years’ time.