Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Moscow has been a very familiar name since childhood and one had heard about the Red Square, Kremlin etc. from a young age. In November 2019, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of days at Moscow. The fascination with the USSR and consequently Moscow, had started with some of the Soviet publicity books that I had read when I was young. Kerala, with its Communist roots, was always interested in the USSR and the stories of the October revolution, Lenin etc. were quite commonplace.

Naturally, my first port of call was the Red Square. Given the Communist history of Russia, my impression was that the origin of the name Red Square must have been connected somehow with the revolution. However, I understand this is not the case. This has been the main commercial square in Moscow since many centuries and it has been called so since 1662 or so. It separates the Kremlin (palace of the Tsars and currently of the Russian President) and the historic merchant area. This has been a very important location in Russian history and many ceremonial activities including coronation of the Tsars took place in the Red Square.

This rather large square borders the Kremlin on one side and the main attractions are the most famous icon of Russia, the St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s mausoleum etc. There is a very large department store (called the GUM) that occupies one side of the Red Square where the erstwhile commercial quarter was located. This store is more than a hundred years old, I understand.

 

On one side of the Red Square is the Kazan Cathedral. After defeating the Polish army in 1612, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky entered the Kremlin through the Red Square and in commemoration of that success, he built this Cathedral and consecrated it in 1625. The original building was of wood and burned down in a fire in 1632 and was rebuilt using brick and consecrated in 1636. It was considered as one of the most important churches in Russia and on the anniversary of liberation of Moscow from the Polish forces, the Tsar and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church used to lead a procession around the Red Square. As part of removing religion from public life, Stalin ordered the demolition of the church in 1936 and a temporary building to host the offices of the Communist International was constructed on the site. After the fall of USSR, this was the first church to be reconstructed (1990-1993) and has been made to look like the old church.

 

St. Basil’s Cathedral is arguably the most reproduced image from Moscow and is regarded as a cultural symbol of the country. It is now a museum. its original name was The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed. Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia (1547 to 1584), constructed this church to celebrate the capture of two cities – Kazan and Astrakhan. The construction took six years from 1555 to 1561 and it had nine chapels with eight chapels around the central ninth one. A tenth chapel was added later, in 1588, to honour a local saint named Vasily (Basil in English). In the Soviet era, this church was taken over by the state and converted to a museum and all religious activities stopped. After the collapse of USSR, some church services have been resumed since 1997.

This building has a very unique architecture and resembles a fire rising up to the sky. Supposedly, there is no other building with a similar architecture in Russia. I read somewhere that an old mosque in the captured city of Kazan may have been the inspiration for this architecture and to the untrained eye, the building does look more like a mosque than a church, with its massive domes.

 

The interior of the Cathedral is very beautiful and richly decorated with icons, altars and nice paintings.

 

 

The GUM department store is a very impressive looking building and the roads outside were all decorated, possibly in anticipation of the New Year and Christmas (Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 7th January).

 

The next day morning, I decided to visit one of the most popular monuments in Russia – Lenin’s Mausoleum. It seems this monument attracts the highest number of visitors in a year. Lenin’s body has been embalmed and displayed here since his death in 1924; except for a brief period during the Second World War when the body was moved to a city in Siberia as it was feared that the Germans might capture Moscow. The mausoleum stands on one side of the Red Square; the square, squat red marble tiled building on the left side of the image below. When I arrived, there was a queue waiting for the museum to be opened; Mercury had fallen below zero and it was extremely cold, with a wicked wind, but people waited patiently.

 

After Stalin died in 1953, his body was also embalmed and displayed right next to Lenin’s. However, Stalin’s body was removed in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization drive and buried in the Kremlin wall along with other leaders. Photography was not allowed inside the Mausoleum and so I could not take a picture of the body. It looks as if Lenin is sleeping on his back, with a blanket covering the lower half of his body. It looks very life like and you wouldn’t think almost a hundred years have passed since his death.

Two thoughts crossed my mind as I stood there looking at the great leader’s body. This was a man who had changed the world and made a new order of society and politics possible. John Reed, an American Journalist and Communist, was a witness to the October Revolution and he saw the whole event unfold, from close quarters. In about a year from then, he published his book “Ten days that shook the world”, which is an eyewitness account of the revolution. This was an unbiased account as it was published in 1919, before the people that came to power after the revolution had any opportunity to influence what was written. As you go through the book, it becomes very evident that the two people that made the revolution possible were Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It is also equally evident that Josef Stalin did not have much of a role in the revolution. In the whole book, he is just mentioned in two places and that too as passing references. From the two, the body of one lies preserved in all this grandeur as a sign of respect and gratitude of the state while the other, Leon Trotsky, lies buried in a small grave in a non-descript cottage in Mexico City; after he was murdered by the KGB agents sent by the usurper, Stalin.

 

The second thought was about the seeming absurdity of making a shrine out of a Communist leader’s dead body. In a strange way, I was reminded about the relics and preserved dead bodies of Christian saints. I am sure that the state benefits from the symbolism of Lenin’s dead body but somehow I felt it was not in keeping with what this great leader stood for. After all, he was the proponent of a philosophy which was rooted in logic and not symbolism.

Next stop on the agenda was The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. This church was built in the nineteenth century and was demolished in 1931 on the orders of Stalin. It was rebuilt between 1995 and 2000, after the fall of the USSR. It is an imposing building and stands right on the banks of the Moscow river. You can walk up to the terrace there are some very beautiful views of the Moscow city from there.

 

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is just a short walk from the Cathedral. It has the largest collection of European art in Moscow and is a visual treat. There were works by many masters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin etc.

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: Hans Vredeman De Vries

View of the old market in Dresden: Bernardo Bellotto

Bucentaur’s return to the pier by the Palazzo Ducale: Canaletto

View of the Grand Canal in Venice from the Fondamenta Del Vin: Michele Marieschi

The bridge across the Marne at Creteil: Paul Cezanne

Nude woman sitting on a couch: Pierre Auguste Renoir

White water lilies: Claude Monet

Luncheon on the grass: Claude Monet

A mother’s kiss: Eugene Carriere

Girls on the bridge: Edvard Munch

Young acrobat on a ball: Picasso

Spanish woman from Majorca: Picasso

Old jew and a boy: Picasso

Jaguar attacking a horse: Henri Rousseau

The muse inspiring the poet: Henri Rousseau

Mirror above a washstand: Pierre Bonnard

The King’s wife: Paul Gauguin

Her name was Vairaumati: Paul Gauguin

Gathering fruit: Paul Gauguin

What, are you jealous: Paul Gauguin

The ford: Paul Gauguin

Landscape at Auvers after the rain: Van Gogh

The red vineyard at Arles: Van Gogh

The prison courtyard: Van Gogh

 

Bolshoi Theatre is a very well known Russian icon with the Bolshoi Theatre Company having been founded in 1776. The company operates in various cities in Russia and the building in Moscow itself is very well known and is even featured in the Russian One Hundred Ruble note. I was staying very near the Theatre and used the opportunity to watch a short performance. This was on one of the side stages and not the main one and was an orchestra. It lasted for about 40 minutes and was quite enjoyable.

 

The State Tretyakov Gallery has the best collection of Russian fine art and was started by a merchant from Moscow by name of Pavel Mikhailovich Tretyakov in 1856. Having seen some works by Nicholas Roerich in the gallery in Mysore; I was quite keen to visit this collection of Russian art. I found that many of the works from the 19th Century had very relevant and interesting social themes; especially those by an artist named Vasily Grigorevich Perov. Interestingly, the Gallery did not have many works from the Soviet era; not sure why.

 

This painting is titled “The appearance of Christ to the people” by the artist Alexander Ivanov. It is a huge work measuring 5.40m x 7.50m and this was the most important work in the life of Ivanov. It took him twenty years to finish this painting and he died within a few months of finishing the painting. John the Baptist is the central figure in the painting (wearing an animal skin) and points to the Christ who appears in the distance. Ivanov has painted himself into the portrait as the wanderer with a staff, sitting right in front of John the Baptist. The artist made several small works, probably as studies for the painting, and these were also exhibited at the museum.

 

This piece by Konstantin Flavitsky is titled Princess Tarakanova and is based on the story of a young woman named Tarakanova from Italy, who claimed a right to the Russian throne. Catherine II lured her to Russia and imprisoned her in Petropavlovskaya fortress in a cell that was known to flood every time the waters in the nearby river rose. The painting shows a desperate Tarakanova standing up on her cot as the flood waters have reached almost up to the bed. There is no evidence of whether Tarakanova was indeed killed like this but the painting caused a lot of public outcry and Ivanov was later forced to announce that he had made up the subject from a novel.

I liked this painting (The Unequal Marriage by Vasily Pukirev) quite a lot and it seems it was received with a lot of enthusiasm when it was painted as it did not stick to conventional subjects used till then, but instead chose to show a social issue that was common at that time – old, rich men marrying young women who are unwilling, but are forced into the marriage. A young man, supposedly, the girl’s lover, looks on from the back.

 

Painting titled “Easter Procession in a Village” by VG Perov. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “In the early 1860s, Perov created a series of anticlerical paintings. Its main theme was the clergy that forgot their duty. A bored and drunken procession carrying icons and gonfalons is passing by the viewer. The peasants with half-closed eyes are wading towards a precipice as if they were blind. Their leader, a drunken priest, who has crushed an Easter egg underfoot, has abandoned them. Not far from him we see a woman holding an icon whose image is effaced. Farther off there is a poor man carrying an icon upside down. But the All-Seeing eye on the gonfalon is there as a reminder that these people won’t escape the Supreme Judgment. The dull landscape, dissonant movements of the participants in the procession and bleak dawn emphasise the ugliness of the whole scene. The painting was removed from an exhibition of the Society for the Encouragement of Artists in St Petersburg on grounds of it being an “immoral” work. Its reproduction in the press was banned, and P.M. Tretyakov was advised not to show it to visitors.”

 

This painting titled “Troika” by Perov was the one that touched me the most. It was painted in 1865 and in those days, peasants used to migrate to the city in search of work, because of extreme poverty and their children used to work as apprentices. Perov used three such children as his models in this painting. The boy in the middle was living with his mother and he had no father; they were very poor as well. Shortly after modelling for the painting, the boy contracted some disease and died. The mother was distraught and heart broken and she sold all her belongings and took the meagre amount she had to Perov and asked for him to sell the painting to her as she wanted to be able to see her boy whenever she wanted. By that time, Perov had finished the painting and it was displayed at the The Tretyakov Gallery. Perov took the mother to the gallery and showed her painting.

Funeral Procession: VG Perov

 

Yet another work by Perov that speaks about the social issues of the time: “Tea-party at Mytishchi near Moscow”. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “Ordinary on the face of it, the scene of tea drinking under the shade of a tree is transformed by Perov into an accusatory picture that deals with an acute social issue. The table turned cornerwise to the viewer with a samovar on it halves the small canvas, which is almost square-sized. The world of the painting’s characters also breaks into two parts: on one side, we see a fat, well-fed priest, on the other side – a poor old man and a boy. The impression of social drama is reinforced by the Order of the Hero of the Crimean War on the old man’s chest. At the same time, the idyllic background landscape and the circular rhythm of the painting’s composition embody the idea that justice and harmony lost should be restored in the world.”

 

This painting is titled “Landscape Steppe” and is by an artist named Arkhip Kuindzhi. This work was so very different from the other paintings and I was curious to note that it was painted between 1890 and 1895. I am not sure whether there were many paintings in this style at that time. I was reminded of a photo by Andreas Gursky, which is among the most expensive photos ever sold, having fetched a sum of $4.3 Million in 2011.

 

This work titled “There is Life Everywhere” by Nikolai Yaroshenko was yet another image that I liked a lot. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “ The topic of social contradictions was one of the most important for Yaroshenko. This painting was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s story What Men Live By. The artist originally planned to title his work as Where There Is Love, There Is God. Prisoners have huddled up together at the window of a convict car to feed pigeons. The painting’s idea was to show humanity maintained in inhuman conditions. The central group reminds the Holy Family. Like many other Wanderers, Yaroshenko used parallels with the Gospel to enhance the social resonance of his canvas. “This speaks so much to the heart,” said Leo Tolstoy about this painting.”

 

This painting “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi immediately catches the eye because of the very desolate nature. I quote from the description provided by the museum: “The artist looks upon the Sacred history in the context of the issues of his day. Gospel themes and images served at the time as a way to express ideas of what was good and just. Christ’s personality was understood as the “perfect human being” embodiment; the life journey of a progressive person was a reflection of His earthly path. Kramskoi wrote: “…There is a moment in the life of every human being, who is created in the image of God however slightly or greatly, when they are in a quandary – whether to take the ruble and deny the Lord or not to yield a single step to the evil.” The painting took on a topical nature thanks to the resemblance of Christ’s pose on Kramskoi’s canvas to the pose of Fyodor Dostoevsky in the famous portrait by V.G. Perov. Both paintings were made in 1872 and both were shown at the very same travelling exhibition. Eternal, panhuman problems are the central theme of the painting.”

 

This is a huge work titled “The Princess of a Dream” by an artist named Mikhail Vrubel. It measures 7.5m x 14m and was painted in 1896 with the help of two others. It speaks about a love affair between Geoffroy Rudel and Princess Melisandre. Supposedly, Rudel heard about the beauty of the Princess and travelled across the sea to meet her. Unfortunately, he contracted some illness during his voyage and died at the time of their first meeting and with this, the Princess became a nun. I am not sure whether this is fiction or true story. I was not very exposed to Russian art in the past and Tretyakov definitely set that right. It was quite a beautiful experience.

Moscow has very wide roads and walking around the city itself is a pleasure. I was staying close to the Red Square and many buildings around that area were very impressive. There is some more to see in Moscow and two days were not enough. I hope to be back one day.

 

At the Albertina Museum in Vienna, I came across an exhibition of the works of an artist, whom I had not heard of earlier. Of course, that only points to my lack of familiarity with the art world and Keith Haring – the artist featured – is pretty famous for his work. The show was titled “Alphabet” and it was so named as Haring had developed a pictorial “alphabet” for his work. He was of the view that art is for the public and wanted everyone to understand what he was drawing about. For him, art was a political activity and that was very evident from his work.

Haring was born in Pennsylvania in 1958 and lived but a short time before his death in 1990 from AIDS related complications. Yet, within these 32 years, he achieved great fame as an artist and produced a huge number of drawings and paintings. He had his first solo exhibition when he was just 20 and had more than 500 exhibitions between 1982 and 1989.

He was always bothered about the treatment meted out to minorities and people who were “different” – he himself was gay – and his work reflected this. He was a bit ambivalent in his approach towards money and did not like the idea of making art so that they could be hung in galleries with the viewership limited to a few; however, he considered it important to earn enough money as well. He was very critical of capitalism and its impact and was well aware of its connection to racism and suppression. War horrified him and he was also against nuclear reactors as he was aware of the horrors of the Three Mile nuclear accident, which occurred near his hometown in 1979.

Legendary artist Andy Warhol was a close friend of Haring’s and he considered Warhol as someone who had beaten capitalism at its own game. Yet, he also considered Warhol as the consummate form of the artist as a businessman and that was not a position he appreciated. Haring tried to move away from being an artist for the elite and wanted to create art for the public. Mickey Mouse was one of Haring’s oft used motifs and his ambivalent position towards Andy Warhol might have been the reason for this painting.

 

At times, he collaborated with other artists and one of the first pieces in the exhibition was a miniature Statue of Liberty which he had made in collaboration with the artist LA-II (Angel Oritz). This work is considered to be Haring’s criticism of the American promise of equal opportunity for all – take note of the black bulb instead of the torch.

 

There were about 100 works in the exhibition and good many of those are reproduced in these pages.

 

He tried to develop his own pictorial language, which he wanted everyone to understand. He borrowed some of the common motifs like the Egyptian god Anubis and the Golden Calf. He also developed his own symbols like the dog, the radiant baby etc. The meaning of these symbols depended on the context in which they appeared. For instance, the dog could be a symbol of justice or protector but could also be an attacker. In his own words: “The dogs really were representational of human and animal. In different combinations they were about the difference between human power and the power of animal instinct. It all came back to the ideas I learned from semiotics and the stuff from William S Burroughs – different juxtapositions would make different meanings.” In the image below, we see the dog attacking a street artist and there is blood all around.

 

The Golden Calf is generally understood to represent idol worship and Haring used it to show mass hysteria and manipulation. I felt that Haring might have had a field day as an artist if he were to live in present day India.

 

He borrowed the happy Porky Pig from Looney Tunes and used it as a reference to consumerist society and the growing alienation from nature. In 1978, he wrote alongside a drawing: “Everyone knows where meat comes from, it comes from the store”.

 

The flying saucer was a symbol that Haring used to depict the other – those outside the “normal” contours of the society – and he considered that these others could strengthen and empower people and society.

 

He tried to communicate through imagery that could be more easily understood and produced a huge amount of drawings. He drew on paper, plastic sheets, tarpaulins; anything that he could lay his hands on. Most of it was about celebrating life, empathizing with the sidelined and the marginalized, protesting against oppression, consumerism, mass culture etc. Good many of this was in the public space, on walls etc.

 

In 1980, John Lennon was shot dead and Haring responded to Lennon’s death with the image of a man with a hole in the middle. In Haring’s own words: “Actually, this image of a man with a hole in his stomach came after I heard of John Lennon’s assassination…I woke up the next morning with this image in my head…and I always associated that image with the death of John Lennon”. This image may also be taken to symbolize the emptiness within modern man.

 

In his early days, he also tried the abstract language as shown in the painting below.

 

However, he soon abandoned this because: “The abstract paintings would not make any sense if they were painted in public space. It was first when I started to draw images which could be read as signs that I went into public space. Because these paintings made sense in the streets – all people, all languages could read them. After studying the theory of communication, information and drawing and how meaning speaks through signs and how this language – because that is what it is – works – I chose a primitive code.”

 

The radiant baby was another of Haring’s most used symbols. He considered babies were always connected with positivity. He said: “Babies represent the possibility of the future, the understanding of perfection, how perfect we could be. There is nothing negative about a baby, ever. The reason that the ‘baby’ has become my logo or signature it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence.” This statement immediately brought to my mind a passage I had read in the autobiography of Elie Wiesel titled “Night”. Wiesel was a survivor of Auschwitz and in the book he talks about how he witnessed live babies being thrown into fire by the Nazis, at the concentration camp. The contrast between how artists like Haring viewed and valued human life and how the fanaticism makes one such values was a telling point.

 

A light bulb as a motif for ideas.

Torture

 

A self-portrait

Haring was against organized religion and in his work, crosses were used by people to commit to murder or people lost their lives on them. “You can only help and encourage people to live for themselves. The most evil people are the people who pretend to have answers. The fundamentalist Christians, all dogmatic ‘control religions’ are evil. The original ideas are good. But they are so convoluted and changed that only a skeleton of good intentions is left.”

 

This painting has a mistake which turned out to be a major hit. When Haring was painting this on a wall, he made a mistake in painting the first eye too far to one side and realized that he was going to be left with a lot of unexplainable empty space. To get over the problem, he painted a third eye – his only intention was to fill up the space. He was later amused to hear about people interpreting the third eye as Haring’s allusion to surveillance, consciousness etc. He had meant nothing of the sort – a classic case of a work going beyond the creator once he or she was done with it.

In addition to the barking and the biting dog, Haring also used a form like that of Anubis. According to Egyptian mythology, Anubis (the dog-headed god) was entrusted with weighing of the heart during the judgment of the dead; thus controlling the fate of the dead person. Here is an image which alludes to the dance of death and how everyone is equal before death.

 

Haring considered his work to be political. He says: “Most of my political concerns and social concerns came from my life experiences. Partly being born in the late 1950s and growing up in the 60s and sort of being around that counter culture but not being able to participate. Definitely being very affected by that and being at an age at the time when I think I was most impressionable, like seeing the Vietnam War when I was ten years old, seeing race riots in television and reading Life magazine.”

 

Sometimes, human shapes are depicted with dotted bodies. This can indicate otherness – skin colour, homosexuality, illness such as AIDS etc.

 

For this painting, I found the note provided by the curator to be quite interesting. “The caterpillar is the actual feeding stage of the butterfly and has to shed its skin several times before achieving its final size. Only after metamorphosis does it transform into the butterfly, whose beauty solely serves the purpose of procreation and the fades. In Haring’s art the caterpillar thus stands for both transformation and metamorphosis and for greed and a craving for food, which is why in some of his works it is depicted as a monster. With a computer replacing its head, the caterpillar turns into a technological ogre. In Haring’s art computers and robots describe the prevalent fear of new technologies, the space age, Silicon Valley, and the potential control of machines over humans. As early as 1978 Haring gave much thought to the subject of computers and to what they mean for our daily lives: “The silicon computer chip has become the new life form. Eventually the only worth of man will be to service and serve the computer. Are we there? In a lot of ways we are.””. To me, it was amazing that he had thought of this man-machine conflict so long back.

 

The Golden Calf is replaced with the red monkey to warn about mass infatuation and hysteria.

 

Towards the end of his life, Haring was sure he was going to contract AIDS as several of his partners had died because of the disease. His art also reflected this preoccupation and danger of the monster.

 

In this work, a deadly monster is shown as grabbing its victims while offering its orifices in deadly invitation.

 

Between 1980 and 1985, Keith Haring started making drawing on the unused billboards in the subway. Such advertisement boards were covered with black paper and he drew with chalk on the black paper. He is believed to have made between 5,000 to 10,000 such drawings but most of these have been lost. This was an illegal activity and was he would have been arrested if caught making the drawing and so he had to work very quickly to avoid getting caught. He considered this as the perfect laboratory for him to experiment on the ideas he was thinking of. Soon, the public started noticing these drawings and started to carry them home as collectibles. This prompted Haring to stop this activity as he wanted his work to be with the public, and be accessible to them, than be in collections.

 

I have generally not been to appreciate this type of art, which looks quite undeveloped and primitive, almost like a child’s drawing. Yet, Keith Haring captivated me; maybe because of his stance and politics in his works, maybe because of what I could sense of him as an individual by seeing his art; maybe I was amazed that such type of art could earn such international acclaim in such a short time. I am not sure, but the fact remains that I spent a good amount of time looking at his work and felt good to know of Keith Haring, his life and art.

Yet another version of the Kochi  Muziris Biennale is around the corner and I suddenly remembered that I had not finished the note I had started writing about KMB 2014. So, here goes…

I had really enjoyed Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 and it was with barely suppressed excitement that I waited for KMB 2014 to begin. The lead up to the event was very well done with lot of functions happening in Kochi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend any of those as I am based at Bangalore but one got all the information through FaceBook. This time, there wasn’t any controversy about whether we should have KMB at all and I was quite pleased with that. To me, this was an indication of the success of KMB 2012 and the public’s interest in the event. Hats off to Bose Krishnamurthy and Riyas Komu, the main organisers of KMB!

The show started on December 12, like last time and went on till March 29, 2015. The theme of the event this time was “Whorled Explorations”. The curatorial note spoke about how the show was about bringing in various elements connected with exploration and travel. So, maritime trade, conquests, mathematics, navigation, colonialism, globalization etc. have all found their way into KMB 2014. A few sentences from the curatorial note struck a chord in me: “…. like exaggerated extensions to gestures we make when we try to see or understand something. We either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly; we also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. Whorled Explorations draws upon this act of deliberation, across axes of time and space to interlace the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial.”

I arrived at Kochi on the morning of December 29th and went straight to Aspinwall House, the main venue of KMB 2014. There cannot be a better location for the KMB than Fort Kochi with its wonderful buildings like Aspinwall House, Pepper House etc. These are just great locations that really add character to the event. You can really feel the difference when you go to Durbar Hall (which is also a venue of KMB), which is more like a conventional gallery; it just doesn’t have the character or ambience of locations like Aspinwall House or Pepper House.

In a repeat of KMB 2012, I could not understand the first installation at all. These were minimalist poems from an American poet – Aram Saroyan – but it was well beyond me. Actually, I was reminded of the candy “m&m” when I saw one of the “poems”.

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Next was a work by Mona Hatoum. When I saw her name in the exhibition catalogue, I had great expectations as I had seen one of her videos (Measures of Distance) at an exhibition at Bangalore and that had left quite an impression on me. The installation at KMB consisted of light bulbs laid out in a circle with a wires crossing each other and snaking out to the bulbs. While there was an element of visual attractiveness around the work, I could not connect with it. It somehow reminded me of Diwali lights!

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Next one that caught my eye was a series of 90 charcoal drawings by Madhusudhanan titled “Logic of Disapperance”. These show some historical figures with connections to some incidents as well and were quite interesting. I particularly liked an image with Lenin’s head the body being made up of the skeleton of a Trojan Horse kind of structure. With the military helmet thrown in, it looked to me to represent Stalin sneaking into power on the back of the Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky. Interesting aside: In the book “Ten days that shook the world” written by American journalist and Communist John Reed who witnessed the Russian Revolution firsthand, Stalin’s name comes up only twice and that too as passing reference.

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It seems the word “journey” owes its origin to “a day’s travel” and there was a work by David Horvitz on this theme. This was a video installation running simultaneously on two mobile phones titled “The Distance of a Day”. The artist created this work by shooting a sunrise in Maldives while his mother shot the sunset in California at precisely the same time. So, at the same instant, sun is rising and setting and being watched by two people separated by distance but united by a bond. To me, this felt like the expression of how what is perceived as truth is a function of location. A sunrise is the truth for me at a given location whereas at the same time, it is the sunset that is the truth for someone else at a different location. If we abstract physical location to locations of the mind, the work achieves an even more interesting dimension.

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On the grounds of Aspinwall House, there was a large sized installation called “Backbone” by Shanthamani Muddiah. This was a long spinal column made of cement and cinder. It seems the artist likes work with charcoal quite a lot because of its connection with remnants of prehistoric times. While it was a interesting sight, I could not connect with the work.

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Janine Antoni’s video installation “Touch” was riveting and I sat in the room and watched it for quite some time. The artist is from Bahamas and she had tied a tightrope in the seashore in front of her house and in the video, she is seen walking on the rope. The rope is interestingly positioned and so it looks as if the artist is walking on the horizon. I felt it connected well with the theme of KMB and man’s desire to reach the horizon which was forever slipping away. On another level, I felt that the work was about our desire to conquer what is essentially an imaginary entity.

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It was in a pensive mood after watching our desire to reach the imaginary that I stepped into the next room, which had another video installation titled “Standard Time” by Mark Formanek. In this video, workers continuously modified wood pieces to accurately reflect the current time. This meant that they were at it each minute as time ticked by; seemingly an exercise in futility. The video was recorded over 24 hours and as I watched it go along with its absurd sequence, I was reminded of the rat race that most of us are engaged in.

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Next was a room with paintings on large pieces of fabric that looked like the sails of ships. This was a work by Lavanya Mani titled “Travellers Tales – Blueprints.” The paintings and the shape of the fabric brought forth thoughts of voyages across seas. The link between colonialism and textiles was quite evident in this work.

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The theme of man’s progress or journey continues on to the next work that caught my interest, a triptych titled “Building a Home; Exploring the World” by Sudhir Patwardhan. The first panel shows the start of migration, perhaps the first long journey, as man started on his trek out of Africa. The second panel has images of Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” and Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” reproduced in a coastal landscape resembling Kochi. This was a depiction of man’s deepfelt desire to build and grow and the third panel shows the continued expansion and extension of the journey as we move to conquer space.

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Artist Nikhil Chopra held a live performance in one of the rooms of Aspinwall House. The performance lasted 50 hours and was about a colonial character named Black Pearl being incarcerated in a cell. He draws the sights he sees from his cell on the walls of the cell. The work was titled “Le Perle Noire: Le Marais”. I did not see the live performance but the cell, with its paintings, was available as an exhibit. I cannot clearly explain what I felt when standing in that room but it was somehow captivating.

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There was a very large (79 ft long) painting by NS Harsha titled “Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam” depicting the universe as one continuous entity. The work itself was beautifully executed with very many interesting details. This one was a bit above me and I could not get a grasp of it.

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“Sea Power” is a work by Hew Locke that explores early stage of globalisation and its connectivity with sea voyages. While the images made out of plastic beads were interesting to look at, I did not feel any connect with the work.

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Often what we see on the outside is not what is inside and there was a wonderful work like this titled “Background Story: Endless Xishan Mountain Scenery” by Xu Bing. This was an arrangement of old newspapers, twigs, straw etc., which when viewed through a translucent screen with back-lighting, replicated a landscape painting by Chinese artist Xu Ben who lived in the Ming Dynasty period. It was a painstakingly created work and fills one with awe. I guess one could read a whole lot of ‘internal-external” aspects into this work.

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Africa is a continent with a lot of failed dreams; independence from colonial masters filled people with hope but slowly, these dreams faded as despot after despot ruled the newly independent countries. I have travelled to many such countries in Africa and have had conversations on related subjects with people there. Hence the work titled “Independence Disillusionment” by Kader Attia was something I could understand very easily. These 26 paintings are reproductions of postage stamps that were released around the time these countries gained independence. The dreams may have been Utopian but they were good dreams to have; but unfortunately, these countries wallow in significant poverty and even civil wars as the rulers continue from where the colonialists had left off.

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Artist Namboodiri is a familiar name from his illustrations that accompanied stories and novels in Mathrubhumi Weekly and I was pleasantly surprised to see a series of drawings he had created specifically for KMB, titled “Vara/Thira”. These were scenes of Kochi, its streets, houses etc.

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Prashant Pandey’s work “Artha” is a huge diamond made up of 10,000 discarded slides that have blood drawn from various people including the artist. According to the artist, the work talks about the sacrifices made in the course of the colonial quest for wealth. To me, it immediately brought to mind the tragedy of “blood diamonds’.

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Punaloor Rajan had photographed many of the public figures in Kerala for a long time and these images and videos form an archive of sorts. Several photographs from this image had been bunched together and exhibited under the title “Perpetual Stills”. It was interesting to see the images of our familiar figures, many of whom have already passed on from this world.

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In one of the rooms a tent had been pitched – it was much like a tent used by travelling traders. This work by Francesco Clemente was titled “Pepper Tent” and was made of fabric painted by Clemente. The images inside the tent connect with trading and travel and to be inside the tent was some sort of an interesting experience. It was quite colourful and visually pleasing.

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Pepper House, as always, is a delightful place with a quaint nice café thrown in. In the courtyard, was a sculpture by NS Harsha titled “Matter”. Sculpture is often quite beyond me and this one was no different. It blended in well with the surroundings.

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Pepper House was also witness to a performance-installation wherein a huge bell was lifted out of the backwaters and installed as a leaky fountain. This was Gigi Scaria’s work titled “Chronicle of the Shores Foretold”. The bell is a symbol of European colonialisation and it was installed with the help of the traditional labourers of Beypore – the khalasis. To me, this was kind of a depiction that colonization was possible only with the help of the locals and it seemed apt to have such an installation in Kochi which had a pliant King who bowed down before the British. However, the bell itself was leaking and so the idea of colonization was never a fully secure idea, as we have seen in history.

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I happened to look at the bell from a room in the first floor and it was an interesting sight from there. The frame reminded of the paintings of Murali Cheeroth.

dsc_0233waSumakshi Singh had created an installation titled “In, Between the Pages’ which is a 70 feet long maze made of scrolls hanging down. Viewed from a particular angle, these split images come together to form two pages inspired by a Sanskrit treatise on astronomy titled Surya Siddhanta and illustrations from a Dutch East India company manual, Hortus Malabaricus. It was quite interesting to walk through the maze as it felt as if one was being part of or inside the image itself.

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A very interesting installation that I found in Durbar Hall was Julian Charriere’s “We Are All Astronauts”. The artist collected mineral samples from all recognized countries of the world and made sandpaper from these samples. He then rubbed the surface of 13 found globes with this sandpaper till all the markings had been erased from the globes. The globes were then suspended over a table on which one can see the dust that resulted from the scraping. Does it mean that international interaction (scraping) will cause boundaries (markings) to fall away? Does it mean that there are no real boundaries even now because of the interplay of civilization and cultures? I found this to be quite an interesting installation.

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In one the other art galleries in Fort Kochi, there was an installation by Murali Cheeroth. It clearly brings out the challenge of the times we live in and I felt it was a piece of art that needs to be seen and understood by everyone in India. Murali had copied Martin Niemoller’s famous poem and inscribed it on glass panels.

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One of the joys that go hand-in-hand with KMB is the chance to see various art works that spring up on the walls in and around Fort Kochi. That is a treat by itself and this time also there were many beautiful pieces of art that were quite interesting.

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Yet another version of Biennale had gone by and it was definitely an improvement over the first one. This is indeed a wonderful event for Kerala and even the whole of India. Hope the 2016 version will keep the show moving ahead.

 

Last month, I found myself in Miami with a couple of days to spare. I was looking for something different apart from the beaches and entertainment parks of Florida and so, I decided to drive to the west coast of Florida and I chanced upon a town called Punta Gorda and dropped anchor there. Punta Gorda is a nice, small town right on the bay. About an hour’s drive from Punta Gorda is Sarasota and while looking through the images in TripAdvisor, a building in Sarasota caught my eye as it looked kind of out-of-place in Florida and I decided to go there. Further showed this to be the Ringling Museum complex and I set out in the morning on a beautiful sunny day.

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I was not much aware of Ringling before the trip though I had heard of Barnum Bailey Circus. John Ringling was born into a family of seven brothers and a sister in 1866 in Iowa. He along with four of his brothers started the Ringling Circus and then they acquired the Barnum Baily Circus to become the largest travelling circus in the US and they called it the Greatest Show on Earth. John turned out to be the most famous of the five brothers and also ventured into areas like real estate development and eventually became one of the richest men in the world at the time. So, when I drove there, I was expecting to see the house of a rich circus man and spend some time in a leisurely manner.

The house stands on 66 acres of land and is built in the Venetian Gothic style and is named “Cà d’Zan”, which means House of John in Venetian dialect. The grounds are beautiful with many wonderful trees and small ponds.

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There are three main attractions to visit – the Circus Museum, Cà d’Zan and the Museum of Art. I started with the Circus Museum. First off, what struck my eye were a series of posters that were quite nostalgic. The Circus museum took me right back to my childhood when the circus was a rare occurrence and a visit was always a keenly awaited event. I think I have only been to the circus twice – it was a different world of amazing, hair raising acts and exotic animals. Of course, at that time, I was too young to realise that life for those performers was totally unlike the glittering visual they presented. Of course, in today’s world where visual treats and images are dime a dozen, the circus has lost out. It is no longer possible to hold interest and cause excitement and amazement through such acts as trapeze or motorbike riding within a globe or jeep jumping or a parade of wild animals. To me, the circus represented an era gone by. Such were the thoughts that flashed through my mind as I walked through the museum. The third face in the poster below is John Ringling.

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Perhaps it was this foresight that the circus would soon die out which caused the artists and sculptor Howard Tibbals to create a miniature replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was the largest circus in the world at the time. This replica is available for view in the Circus Museum and is indeed a grand sight. Till then, I had no idea of the scale of size of this circus. I was thinking of something slightly bigger than the “Gemini Circus”, the whole of which fitted into 3 or 4 trucks. What I saw at the Tibbals exhibit was a circus that owned trains so that it could transport itself to various palces. The “Big Top” or the performance tent had three rings, four stages, a hippodrome track and the show lasted two and a half hours with about 800 artists participating and it could seat 15,000 people! The show was so large that it owned trains that were used to transport all the material, animals and people. The logistics behind the whole show must have been amazing. I read that the Big Top consisted of six centre poles, seventy four quarter poles, one hundred and twenty two sidewall poles, five hundred and fifty stakes and twenty six thousand yards of canvas and what was amazing was that they could erect this tent within four hours!

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There is also an exhibition of some of the real objects that were connected to the show like a human cannon, various cages used to transport animals and the private rail coach (named Wisconsin) that the Ringlings used when they travelled along with the circus.

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Cà d’Zan was finished in 1927 and looks quite beautiful. It sights right on the sea and there are steps leading to the water. The interior is quite rich and ornate with all the conveniences that the time provided.

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After a leisurely lunch at the café, I strolled across to the Museum of Art. Till then, I was thinking of the whole affair as the house of a very rich circus man who had an interest in art and nothing much beyond that. However, I soon got to know that this tale had some other interesting angles. John Ringling and is wife Mable wanted to build an art gallery to build up an awareness of art and culture in the people of the locality. It was not meant to be a museum for the viewing pleasure of a few rich people but was meant to bring the masters to be available for the public. The museum was set up with twenty one galleries and John Ringling gifted this museum with more than 400 art pieces along with an endowment of $1.2 Million to the State of Florida upon his death in 1936. There were works from masters like Peter Paul Rubens, Paolo Veronese, Diego Velazquez, Giambattista Tiepolo, Lunas Cranach the Elder etc. In the courtyard is a 19th century replica of Michelangelo’s David.

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Peter Paul Rubens: Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek

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Lunas Cranach the Elder: Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as Saint Jerome

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Piero di Cosimo: Building of a Palace

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Paulo Veronese: Rest on the flight into Egypt

 

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Franceso del Cairo: Judith with the head of Holofernes

 

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Antonio de Bellis: The flaying of Marsyas by Apollo

 

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Jan Davidsz de Heem: Still Life with Parrots

 

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Peter Paul Rubens: Flight of Lot and his family from Sodom

 

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Peter Paul Rubens and Osias Beert: Pausias and Glycera

 

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Giambattista Tiepolo: Glory and Magnanimity of Princes

 

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Robert Henri: Salome

 

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John Ringling was one of the richest men in the Roaring Twenties and like many of his peers, he too thought that the good times would continue for ever. However that was not to be and the Great Depression arrived. Ringling suffered huge financial losses and he lost his wife Mable also in 1929. When John died in 1936, the man who was once the one of the world’s richest men had a princely sum of $311 in the bank! What struck me was that he had managed to fight his creditors for many years and hold on to his house and the art museum with its priceless works and finally willed it to the state so that all could benefit from it. John Ringling, obviously, was no ordinary circus tycoon.

 

3 January 2016

Chithra Santhe is an annual exhibition of paintings organised by the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. However, it is no ordinary exhibition; it is not held in any air-conditioned gallery but is an open air event held in a location created by blocking off the Kumar Krupa Road! You can see paintings everywhere you look and the variety is just incredible. You can find anything from abstract to Tanjore paintings and murals. Most people are likely to find a piece of art that attracts them and also fits their wallet.

I had visited the event four years back and had the good fortune to be at Bangalore while the event was on this time. However, we had not factored in the growth and so, were a bit short on time. While walking around, I heard an announcement that about 1,300 to 1,500 artists are participating in this year’s event. The crowd had also grown as compared to our last visit and I was very happy to see that even if it meant constant jostling and shouldering to cut through.

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Most of the paintings were well crafted with most of the subjects being traditional. There were only very few works that could be classified as modern art as most paintings were focused on being pleasing to the eye. I do, however, feel that such events are very important in developing a culture of appreciation for the arts. The Chitrakala Parishath deserves a huge round of applause for organising the event. This is the 13th year of the Santhe and I would recommend this as a “must visit” event.

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During a recent trip to Mexico City in May 2014, I found myself with a couple of days to spare and I set off to the Coyoacan neighbourhood of Mexico City to have a look at the Frida Kahlo Museum, otherwise known as the Blue House. Another interesting spot in the area is the house where Leon Trotsky spent his last days and I planned to visit that as well. I had read a bit about Frida Kahlo and was curious to see her house and works and so preferred that over other attractions like the National Gallery.

The house looked plain enough from outside though it was apparent how it got its name.

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Thankfully, they allowed photography inside the house and had an audio guide as well. The moment I set inside, I felt that I am at a place with a different feel to it. The colours were bright and it felt as if you yourself were in the frame of a painting! I do not know whether it was because of the reading I had done on Frida, which made me understand her as a very intense person, I could feel a strange energy in the house and even in the grounds.

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This was where she was born, lived most of her life and died. She had a bad accident when she was quite young and that affected her mobility in her later life and she was often sick as well. She married the famous artist Diego Rivera and they had a tempestuous relationship. Each had various affairs on the side and separated once but remarried after a short while. The house had actually been bought by Diego Rivera to help Frida’s father tide over some financial difficulties but the house is quintessentially Frida. After she died,  a grief stricken Diego decided to make it a museum for her and even though he himself was a famous and important artist in his own right, the place has been maintained as a memorial to Frida Kahlo.

As one set foot inside the house, the first sight is a beautiful fireplace designed by Diego Rivera. Both Frida and Diego had a deep interest in the folk art of Mexico and the design of the fireplace brings out this aspect. The flooring was of a bright yellow, in keeping with the rather bright blue outside. I was wondering how it would be to be surrounded by such bright colours all the time, especially when I contrasted with the pastel shades that I am used to at home.

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Various finished and semi-finished paintings were displayed in the room. Frida was always deeply unhappy about her inability to be a mother and that often affected her works. For instance, the wife of the Mexican President commissioned her to do a painting and she did a still life. However, it was done on a specially made frame the shape of a womb and the fruits were also representative of female genitalia. The President’s wife reportedly refused to pay for the painting!

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There is another unfinished work titled “Frida and the Cesarean”, which also depicts the deep frustration she had on this matter.

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Frida’s father was a photographer and was a big influence in her life. There is a painting in the front room itself.

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Both Frida and Diego were taken up by Marxism and invited Trotsky to Mexico. Trotsky and his wife stayed with them at the Blue House initially and the later on shifted to another house nearby. The photograph below shows Trotsky with Frida and Diego.

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After Trotsky’s death, Frida and Dieg became Stalin’s followers. There were a couple of works that showed her involvement with Marxism.

DSC_0405                                                                                     “Marxism will bring health to the sick”

 

 

DSC_0418                                                                                                                    “Stalin and Frida”

Frida was emotionally quite high strung and was physically unwell as well, many a time. Yet she had a strong will and fought to overcome her adversities. Many of the luminaries of the time were frequent guests of Frida and Diego and they had affairs with some of them as well. Diego’s affairs were all very public whereas Frida was more discreet. I read that Frida was always tormented by Diego’s unfaithful nature but I was a bit amused by that as by all accounts, she herself had enough affairs on the side (supposedly she even had one with Trotsky) as well!

There were many finished and unfinished paintings and sketches all around the house and even the unfinished works held some sort of attraction for me. Overall, I felt strangely drawn to some energy that this woman had left in the house and her works even after sixty years of her death.

DSC_0470                                                                                                                   “Long Live Life”

 

DSC_0475                                                                                                              “Colour Palette”

 

DSC_0458                                                                                                          “Pedregal Landscape”

 

DSC_0468                                                                                                                  “The Brick Kilns”

 

DSC_0424                                                                                       “Portrait of Arija Muray” (Unfinished)

 

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The house is full of bright colours and beautiful objects. There were many traditional utensils and in the kitchen, they used traditional methods for cooking.

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Frida’s studio is on the first floor and I heard in the audio guide that Frida was so unwell many a day that she had to be carried up. The studio itself is brightly lit with sunlight streaming in from all sides.

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Her bedroom is filled with many objects and there is a small ante-chamber that had a day-bed.

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Inside the bed room is an urn designed in the traditional Mexican tribal style. This contains the ashes of Frida and to me it somehow was a bit strange and unsettling to think that her ashes were there inside that urn.

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There were a few of Diego Rivera’s works also in the museum.

DSC_0527                                                                                                                “The Porter”

DSC_0510                                                                                                                  “Landscape”

DSC_0514                                                                                             “Landscape with Locomotive”

DSC_0519                                                                                                      “The Seated Woman”

DSC_0523                                                                                                           “The Alarm Clock”

I stepped out once again in to the garden for a final look around and spent a few minutes contemplating on the life of this very gifted artist and wondered whether she would have been happy in her life. Intense people are often quite unhappy when they are down and reasonably high when they are feeling happy. In the house is a photograph of Frida Kahlo and I felt it captures her intensity very well.

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Perhaps, these extremes are reflected in her work and in the house itself!

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With these thoughts, I bid adieu to the Blue House and walked to the Trotsky Museum, which is quite close to the Frida Kahlo Museum.

If Frida’s house is painted blue, Trotsky’s is all painted red from the outside.

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There is a small but nice garden in the house and the house itself is quite small and very modest. One would never expect that a man like Leon Trotsky, who was a key actor in an event that changed the course of the world – the Russian Revolution – would have lived here.

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In 1929, Trotsky had a fall-out with Stalin and had to leave Russia. Stalin, was of course, in a drive to remove that could be a potential threat to him and his hold on power. Trotsky and his wife lived in different parts of Europe till 1937 and they went to Mexico on the invitation of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They even stayed with them will 1939 and then moved to another house in 1939. In May 1940, an attempt was made on Trotsky’s life, but he survived. The bullet holes from that assassination attempt can be seen on the walls even today. However, a second and successful attempt was made on August 20, 1940 and Trotsky was killed while he sat working on his desk.

DSC_0604                                                                                          Photo of Trotsky reading a book

DSC_0639                                                                                                               Dining room

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DSC_0654                                                                       Trotsky was working on this desk when he was killed

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DSC_0665                                                                             Bullet marks from the first assassination attempt

DSC_0667                                                                                                            Trotsky’s clothes

DSC_0681                                            Trotsky and his wife (who passed away in 1982) are buried in the grounds of the house.

 

In these very humble surroundings, lived a man who dedicated his life to the uplift of the working classes. He was the founder of the Red Guard and I thought about what I had read in John Reed’s “Ten days that shook the world”. In those days when the revolution was actually carried out, two men stood out as the key leaders who made a difference. Without them, the Bolshevik Revolution would definitely have failed. They were Lenin and Trotsky. It was evident that Trotsky had the same impact as Lenin and it must have been true because the book was written in 1919, well before any propaganda regime took over. Stalin is mentioned only twice in the book (and one is just in a list of members in some committee) whereas Trotsky is a presence throughout. Sure enough, Stalin banned the book and any mention of Trotsky soon became anathema in Soviet Russia.

There is a large painting just at the entrance of the museum and it depicts a meeting as part of the VIII Congress of the Soviets of Russia that was held in December, 1920. Lenin and Stalin are both present whereas Trotsky is absent, quite curious as Trotsky would definitely have been present, given his stature in the party. However, a closer look shows an empty chair with a green cap on it – just the one that Trotsky used to wear!

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To me, this painting captured all that went wrong with a noble Revolution. Ultimately, man is greedy and power corrupts; even Stalin, who was a participant in the Revolution himself, was not above it. How right was George Orwell when he wrote in “Animal Farm” – “All animals are equal; bust some animals are more equal than others”.

21 May 2013

Seville, the land of flamenco and bull fighters, was also an important port with a river that connected it to the Atlantic, a 100 km away. It was from that Christopher Columbus set sail to East Indies and ended up discovering America. Immediately after the Moor invasion in the Eighth century, Seville was under the Caliphate of Cordoba. After Cordoba fell in AD 1031, Seville became a small kingdom by itself and was ruled by the Almohad dynasty. As with the rest of Andalusia, Seville also was under constant attack because of the Christian Reconquest and finally, it fell to Fernando III of Castille in AD 1248.

As per the guidebooks, the most important sight in Seville is the Cathedral and so that was our first stop for the day. The Cathedral is built on the location of an old mosque, which was demolished in AD 1401. The construction of the new church took more than a hundred years and was completed in AD 1507. The majestic minaret of the old mosque, called La Giralda, was kept intact and is part of the Cathedral. The building is huge and awe inspiring.

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There was a queue to enter the Cathedral and joined up. The square around was already active with many buggies and such, available for fun rides around the town.

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The La Giralda got this name after a weathervane, in the shape of a statue, was installed on top of the minaret in the Sixteenth Century. This statue represents the victory of Christian faith and that must be why it was placed on top of the minaret that represented Islam. A replica of the status is displayed as one enters the yard of the Cathedral.

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This Cathedral was the largest in the world when it was commissioned and supposedly, the authorities wanted such an impressive building that everyone would think they were “mad”! In any case, it is a colossal structure with very many impressive chapels.

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What attracted me the most was the tomb of Christopher Columbus. This tomb is supposed to contain his mortal remains though there is controversy on the subject as he was originally buried in the Dominican Republic and it is said that most of his remains are still there. The four pall bearers represent the four kingdoms of Spain – Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. The significance of Columbus in Spain’s history is borne out by the fact that the Catholic Monarch, Queen Isabella herself is shown as the pall bearer representing Leon (on the front left with the oar in hand). The other pall bearer in the front holds a spear with a pomegranate, showing the fall of Granada (Granada means pomegranate in Spanish). I was very attracted to this tomb and I spent a lot of time around it. That I was standing close to a man (even if it were the remains) who was such an adventurer and visionary, was a special feeling.

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There are a good many chapels inside the Cathedral and many are very ornate. The one that attracted me the most was the Chapel of Saints Justa and Rufina. They were sisters who lived in Seville in the late Third Century and were ardent Christian believers. They refused to convert to pagan faith and the (pagan) authorities who ruled Seville at that time had the sisters tortured and killed them finally. During one of the pagan festivals, the pagans destroyed the utensils that the sisters had made and in retaliation, they broke a statue of Venus. According to legend, during their imprisonment, one of the sisters (Rufina) was thrown to the lions but the lions refused to attack her and licked her feet. These two incidents are represented in a painting placed in the altar of the chapel dedicated to them. I was wondering whether they would have thought that their story would be remembered 1200 years later and retold when a church was built. Supposedly, the resistance of the sisters represented the resistance of Seville. The La Giralda is also shown in the background in the picture.

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This Cathedral was meant to be a showpiece for Christianity and so is full of pomp and splendour. Many treasures that belong the Cathedral are also displayed. I guess this is to impress visitors as to glory of the faith. However, I could not help feeling that this was quite at loggerheads with what Jesus Christ had imagined.

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The keys of the city of Seville were also to be seen. These were the keys handed over to the Christian conquerors in AD 1248 when the city was captured.

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The La Giralda is about 90 metres high and it is possible to climb up to the bell tower. As can be expected, the views from the tower are fantastic.

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Right next to the Cathedral is the Alcazar, residence of many generations of Kings and Caliphs. This ancient building was first constructed in the Tenth Century and then renovated and rebuilt. Even today, a portion of this palace is used as the official residence of the royal family when in Seville.

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As one steps past the impressive gate, the Alcazar soars in front of the eyes in all its majesty. The façade is very Islamic as care was taken by Pedro I (Peter the First) of Castille, who rebuilt the palace. Pedro I was a Christian king who seems to have been quite an interesting personality. For starters, he seems to be referred to as Peter the Just and Peter the Cruel. The nobility and the aristocracy called him Peter the Cruel whereas the common people called him Peter the Just. Given that he lived in the Fourteenth Century and the subsequent recording of history must have been quite influenced by the nobility, I am inclined to believe that Peter must have been a king who understood the sufferings of the poor and supported them. He also seems to be the only Christian king who exhibited religious tolerance. When he rebuilt the Alcazar, he made sure that he used artisans who were proponents of Islamic architecture and he also used perishable material such as wood and plaster (supposedly, Quran reserves eternal structures for Allah). In some of the doorways, there are Arabic inscriptions that mean: “None but Allah conquers”, “Happiness and prosperity are benefits of Allah” etc. He appreciated the Islamic culture that existed in Seville at the time and it was evidenced in his dress and food. Peter also gave permissions to the Jews to build a synagogue in Toledo. I was quite impressed, especially when I contrasted this against the religious intolerance fostered by the Catholic Monarchs, who were to come later, who ushered in the black period of Spanish Inquisition. Incidentally, a friend told me later that there is still an office of the Inquisition in Seville (it is called by a different name these days).

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This palace is Seville’s answer to the Alhambra of Granada. The rooms are decorated with rich carvings and highly ornate walls and ceilings. I was just lost in the beauty of the place as I wandered from room to room. It was here that the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, spent time while preparing for their conquest of Granada. They used to meet with Christopher Columbus in this palace to discuss his expedition. The beauty of the whole place is breath-taking.

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It was getting late by the time we finished the Alcazar and we decided to visit Plaza de Espana before calling it a day. Plaza de Espana is located in the Maria Luisa Park and was built in 1928 for the World Fair hosted by Seville in 1929. This is a beautiful semicircular building with many exquisite bridges and a very nice fountain in the centre.

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We spent some time wandering around the Plaza and then headed back. Overall, it was a very satisfying day and the personality that stayed with me was Pedro I. He must have been an extraordinary man to have shown such tolerance in those days when everyone else seemed to be headed the other way. I was left wishing how better off we would be if only some of our current leaders could borrow a leaf from his book!

13 May 2013

Spain is a country with a very different or even unique history in Europe and my earliest recollections were what I had read about the Spanish Civil War or the unrest in Basque. In the last few years, I had also developed a taste for Spanish food, especially Tapas. So, this time around, we planned a holiday to Spain. However, it is impossible to cover all the important parts of Spain in 10 days and so we decided to restrict ourselves to Madrid and Andalusia, with plans to visit Cordoba, Granada, Seville and Toledo.

Spain’s history dates back to about 1000 BC when Phoenician traders arrived in the Southern and Eastern parts of Spain. Later, like most of Europe, Spain too came under the Roman rule from about 200 BC to 400 AD. Romans called the peninsula “Hispania” and as was customary of them, developed infrastructure in the country with roads, aqueducts, temples, theatres etc. They also brought in Christianity which became a very important aspect of Spanish life. Most of Spain was covered by forests at that time and it was the Romans who started to cut down the trees for timber. So, deforestation is not a new theme, it started 2000 years ago! As the Roman power waned, Visigoths – a Germanic tribe – gained the upper hand and controlled Spain till the Eighth century. Visigoths seem to have been people who were not as culturally developed as the Romans and left very little impact on the country. Their main contribution seems to have been in creating a fighting mindset, which made a few kings withstand and ultimately overthrow the Muslim invasion and rule.

The Visigoths were not very good rulers and so the country was strife torn and in generally poor shape when Tariq ibn Zayid, the Governor of Tangier, a province in Morocco, landed in Gibraltar with 10,000 troops, in AD 711. The troops were mostly of North African origin and the Moors captured most of the Spanish peninsula and the territory they controlled was called Al-Andalus. This included main cities of the time like Cordoba, Granada and Seville and even Madrid to the North. It was first part of the Caliphate of Damascus which controlled most of the Muslim world and later a Caliphate was established in Cordoba in 929 with the then ruler Abd ar-Rahman III giving himself the title of Caliph. This was the peak of the power and glory of Cordoba.

One kingdom, called Asturias, had held out against the Moors and they started what was called the “Reconquista” in AD 722, to recapture the territories lost to Muslims. This war lasted for 800 years and ended with the fall of Granada in AD 1492 when all of Spain came under Christian rule. I am not sure whether the war was fought on religious grounds or for the then rulers to gain power, but it is portrayed as a war between the believers of Christianity and Islam. An interesting point is that the Christian kingdoms were also fighting amongst themselves while fighting the Muslims. Christians gained the supremacy with the marriage of Queen Isabella, the Queen of Castile, to King Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, in AD 1469, which brought together two powerful kingdoms. They were very faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and managed to expel Muslims and Jews from the country. This royal pair is considered to be responsible for the unification and founding of modern Spain. By all accounts, they seem to have been astute rulers, who understood the great power of combining religion with the state. From whatever I read, I understood that Isabella had significant say in how the country was ruled and was not just a decorative queen. They set up the Inquisition, which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of “non-believers”. This even had repercussions in far away India (we had our own Inquisitions in Goa). When they took control of Spain, there were huge populations of Jews and Muslims in the country but in short time, they banned Judaism and persecuted Muslims and Jews so much that these religions became non-existent in the country. Fittingly, they are referred to as the Catholic Monarchs. I was amused to read that when the Moors ruled Spain, Jews flourished and that all religions were allowed to practise their beliefs and worship their gods. Christians had a bit of a tough time as they had a tax applied on them, but nothing that had any resemblance to Inquisiton, with its inhuman torture and cruelty, was ever applied. Medieval Christianity had very little tolerance as they strove to bring “light” into the life of people. The only exception seems to have been the Christian king Pedro I, who was the king of Castile and Leon from 1350 to 1369.

Ferdinand and Isabella ruled Spain together and one of their important acts was to commission the voyage of Christopher Columbus. This led to the colonization of much of the Americas and brought a lot of wealth to Spain by way of gold and silver. This wealth was soon frittered away and by the time Spain arrived on the twentieth century, it had lost much of its glory. A series of inept rulers had squandered away its strengths and the country was in tatters. In the 1931 elections, a government comprising of socialists, republicans and centrists came to power and the King left on an exile. In 1933, this government was toppled by right-wing parties but in 1936, a left-wing government took over with the Communists leading the government. However, Spain was split down the middle by this time and soon, the Civil War erupted. This was between the elected government on one hand and the right-wing groups led by the Spanish military on the other. The leader of the military was General Franco and he was supported by Nazi Germany. It is believed that half a million people lost their lives in the Spanish civil war; my own personal recollection of the brutality of that war having been acquired when I read Hemingway’s “For whom the bell tolls”. In 1939, Franco became the Dictator of Spain and he ruled till 1975. He had groomed a royal to take over power on his death and Juan Carlos I, became the ruler of Spain when Franco died in 1975. The King was a supporter of democracy and by 1977 Spain had its elections and became a democracy with Juan Carlos I continuing as the King of Spain (he is the current King as well). Somehow, I felt it a bit strange that such an important country as Spain could have remained a dictatorship till as late a period as 1975; especially in Europe; a continent that had democratic leanings as early as 1215 with the signing of Magna Carta.

It was early evening when we got to Madrid and as it was still daylight outside, we went out for a stroll. We were staying in the city centre and so we could walk to Puerta del Sol; this is a busy plaza in Madrid and is considered the central point of Spain. Hence, this is the centre of the radial network of Spanish roads and considered KM 0. The square was very lively with a lot of people walking around. We could also see the statue of King Carlos III (called Charles III in English).

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From Puerta del Sol, Plaza mayor is a short walk away. This looks like Piazza San Marco in Venice; no, it looks like a poor cousin of Piazza San Marco. It seems this was a location where bullfights were held in the past as also executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

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14 May 2013

We set out to Musee del Prado – the most famous museum in Spain – first thing in the morning. This is a huge museum that has about 7,500 art pieces of which only about 1,500 are exhibited. Since we had only about three hours planned, we decided to focus our attention on the most important 50 paintings as defined by a pamphlet provided in the museum. These included works by Goya, Velazquez, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio etc. What struck me about these paintings was how these artists had full mastery over lighting and composition. The masters seem to stand out in this aspect. Most of the paintings were on religious matters as the works were commissioned by the rulers, noblemen or the clergy. Hence the leeway available for the artists to paint other subjects was pretty limited. However, artists being artists, they did pull out some tricks by painting the holy figures like normal people or adding some impish point or the other in the painting, wherever they could get away with it. I think Caravaggio was a definite influence on this front. There were only few still life paintings produced in Spain at that time and this could be the reason for that; of course the Inquisition must have been going on for the most of the time and it would have been good strategy to just toe the line. Yet, there were some that were very different and what remained in my memory were the “black paintings” by Goya and “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch. The latter looked almost like modern art and it is a triptych. In the third panel, there is an image of a monster that eats men in hell and I am very sure that I have seen that image used by some painter in India recently. I could not recall the exact work though. A famous painting by Velazquez, “Las Meninas”, is also part of the most important 50 and is quite interesting. This shows the image of the artist (shown holding the brush) making a painting of the king and the queen (reflected in the mirror behind the princess’ head) with the princess and her friends dropping in to visit. Photography was not allowed in the museum and the few photos given below are sourced from the internet.

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Caravaggio: David Victorious over Goliath; Source: Internet

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Sanchez Cotan: Still life with game, fruit and vegetables; Source: Internet

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Bosch: The garden of earthly delights; Source: Internet

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Velazquez: Las Meninas; Source: Internet

Three hours were nowhere near enough and I could not do justice even to the 50 paintings. I would have loved to spend some more time with the black paintings of Goya; he painted these towards the end of his life and by that time, he had a pretty bleak view on humanity and the human race.

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Goya: Saturn devouring his child; Source: Internet

After lunch, we set out to see the stadium of Real Madrid football club. What struck me the most was their ability to sell their history and make money off it. The various trophies won by the club were exhibited and one could also see the players’ area and also get close to the pitch. It must be awesome to stand there on the field with a stadium full of fans howling and cheering.

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I got a good picture of some boots the club had used when they started about 100 years. This is my “still life”!

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By the time we were done with the stadium, it was drizzling a bit and we retired to our room.

15 May 2013

One of the most important attractions in Madrid, for me, was the Reina Sofia museum as that hosts a display of Salvador Dali’s and Picasso’s paintings, including “Guernica”. This was a keenly anticipated event and we set out for the museum in the morning. Alas, when we arrived there, we found that the museum was closed because of the local festival of San Isidro, who is the patron saint of Madrid. The museum had its weekly holiday on Monday and with this closure on Tuesday, it meant that we had miss out on it altogether. I was feeling a bit down and vowed to myself that I would make some time during my next visit to the city and make it there.

Fortunately, the palace was not closed and so we hopped on a taxi and drove there. The morning was cold and rainy and quite unlike what one expected of Spain. It is called Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and is built on the site of a 9th century fortress that was built by the ruler of Cordoba, when Madrid was still under the Moors. Later, a castle was built on this site in the 16th century and it burned down in 1734. King Felipe V ordered it rebuilt and the castle as we see it today was constructed between the years 1738 to 1755. As a result, there is not much by way of historical significance in this palace. The palace is used only occasionally for official functions as the royal family resides in another, smaller palace. This is a huge palace (supposed to be the largest in Europe by floor area) with around 3,000 rooms (thankfully, only a few are open to the public), many of which are very ornate and rich. One room called the Salon de Gasparini, stood out for its exquisite stucco ceiling and silk embroidered walls. The Throne Room was also quite impressive. Photography was not allowed inside the palace. The most interesting aspect of the palace was the variety of clocks that one found all over the place. Spanish monarchs seemed to have had a fascination with clocks and they even set-up a factory to manufacture clocks. In one room, there was a display of five Stradivarius violins. Stradivarius family made these violins in the 17th and 18th century and these are supposed by many, to be the finest stringed instruments ever made. It is amusing to think that even in this age of such technological development, instruments made three centuries ago are still unmatched. Antonio Stradivarius was the leading practitioner of the trade and his violins fetch millions of Dollars in auctions today.

There is a large courtyard as one enters the palace it offers a very nice view of the palace and a wooded area beside the palace. When looking at the wooded area, you feel that you are somewhere in the countryside and not the middle of a large, bustling city.

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From the palace, we walked to a monument, which one can arguably say, is quite out of place! This is Templo de Debod, which is an ancient Egyptian temple that dates back to the 4th century BC. When the Aswan Dam was being built on river Nile, many temples were under the threat of being submerged in the waters and this was one such. The Egyptian government donated this temple to Spain, in gratitude for the help offered by Spain in saving the temples of Abu Simbel.  The temple was taken apart block by block and rebuilt in Spain in 1968. It stands on a beautiful park looks very beautiful, surrounded by water. There are two gateways and then the temple itself. There were Egyptian hieroglyphs on the inside walls of the temples and it led to a sanctum sanctorum. The light was very poor and so I could not get a good photograph. There was not much explanation provided and so one could not get much information on the temple. Overall, it was good to see the temple and I am sure that sunsets would be great here and when the light is right, a great photo location!

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As it was rainy and a bit cold, we went back to our hotel. With this, our tour of Madrid had ended and we were to leave for Andalusia the next day. One thing that struck me in Madrid this time as compared to my previous visits was the increase in number of people begging on the street. While this is, in no way comparable to what one sees on the streets of any average city in India, the numbers were much larger than what I had encountered any time before. A sign of the hard times that Spain is going through, I am sure. I had read somewhere that during colonization period, Spain frittered away all they wealth they plundered from the colonies, in construction. Centuries later, when Spain became part of EU and got access to large funds, construction boomed once again. Today, unemployment in Spain is at a depressing 27% and it is said that 50% of the youth are unemployed. A bad situation indeed and I hope that this great country finds its way out of these problems soon.

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.

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.