Posts Tagged ‘Fort Kochi’

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.

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.