Posts Tagged ‘Cochin’

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.

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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.

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.