Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016 | Art comes alive in India's first global biennial

Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016 | Art comes alive in India's first global biennial


By Ria Sarkar

A remarkable array of artworks that will enrapture even the most dispassionate viewer, teamed with the quaint fishing village of Fort Kochi makes for an enlivening cultural sojourn. As a city, Kochi serves as the perfect location for a biennale.

For the avid art enthusiast, it is an experience that will leave you breathless, literally and figuratively on account of all the venue-hopping amidst humid coastal weather. As a venture, KMB offers us a unique space where art and culture intermingle beautifully and naturally into a platform built for progress in experimental art practices. Since its inception in 2012, the Kochi Biennale Foundation with co-founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu at its helm has worked tirelessly along with the support of the Government of Kerala, to create a platform for furthering practices, display and education of the contemporary arts on a large scale. In December 2016, The Biennale returned with 97 artists from 31 countries whose works were exhibited across 12 different venues in the Fort Kochi area. While the location has its own charm, Bose explains in a recent interview that the main motive was to cater to the needs and conditions of contemporary art through a meaningful platform, in order to create a viable point of contact between the art and the community.

mixed-media installation

Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis, Will-o-the-Wisp, 2016, mixed-media installation with video, audio, light and architectural structure dimensions and durations variable

Art as a discipline is frequently subject to categorisation and segregated into different forms like performing art, theatre, fine art, literature and sculpture. In reality, they are not separate entities but mutually exclusive and heavily interlinked. Often a great artwork is the culmination of a number of these categories or forms, as we see in contemporary art today.

In the third edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale, artists have exhibited works that combine different forms and mediums into a wonderful blend of novel creations that fall under the umbrella term of arts, without being subject to categorisation. Unlike commercial art fairs or other biennales around the world, what is distinctly found in Kochi is the communion of art with nature, of viewing works purely in the spirit of arts for artist's sake. Adding to the non-commercial aspect is the unique choice of locationsabandoned warehouses hiding away amidst the tightly bunched shops in Fort Kochi, defunct go downs and dilapidated buildings with their own individual histories that comes oozing through the walls. No fresh paint masks the squalor of these locations, revealing something raw and real. The experience of viewing artworks in such spaces brings you closer to the work. Searching for venues in the sweltering heat, and in the process discovering something intriguing made it a very tangible and meaningful experience as if you are embarking on a journey in search of art rather than just coming across it, or viewing them altogether in one space.

Children of Unquiet, 2013-14

Mikhail Karikis, Children of Unquiet, 2013-14, single channel HD video, stereo sound, 15.40 minutes.

Setting aside the aesthetics of the whole event, many questions come to mind when we look at it from a holistic point of view. A lot of the works were individually very appealing, addressing a wide range of themes and socio-political and cultural issues; but they did not necessarily form an instant connection with the underlying curatorial theme of ˜Forming in the Pupil of an Eye.

In his debut curatorial venture, acclaimed Indian artist Sudarshan Shetty's bold attempt at broaching an abstract topic that is inspired from mythical accounts is at once different and unexpected. In his brief, Shetty talks about a young traveler who travels far and long to meet a sage. On meeting, the sage opens his eyes to assimilate all the multiplicities of the world into one single vision, and also reflects it back onto the world. There is no beginning or end, just the entire universe accumulated into the pupil of his eye.

As a concept it is a challenging notion Shetty asks the viewers to experience the biennale as an all encompassing event that accumulates over time and into the future as a living, breathing entity that represents knowledge, possibility and innovation in the universe in its entirety and grows with each successive edition. In part, he succeeds in creating the variety and breadth of possibility, through works that test the imagination, push and pull at underlying memories or create new ones. The mere attempt of trying to address our collective understanding of ˜the contemporary, and going deep into the basics of it all is quite tricky, and would have posed problems for even the most experienced curator. Nevertheless, a certain coherence of theme is missing the proverbial string that ties all the works together and places them in context not just within the theme, but in relation to each other as well. The artists delivered on their end, some of whom created spectacular works that explore and address the concept brilliantly. But without a cohesive idea to support them, they are left as individual units a few coming to the fore as crowd pleasers while others quietly recede into the backdrop, lying in wait for a chance to be seen by the occasional viewer.

Pyramid of Exiled Poets

Ales Steger, The Pyramid of Exiled Poets, 2016, architectural structure and installation with mixed media includes recordings of poems by Publius Ovidius Naso, Dante Alighieri, Bertolt Brecht, Czeslaw Milosz, Mahmoud Darwish, Yan Lian, Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Blatn and Cesar Vallejo.

Moving away from the theme related drawbacks, there were in fact many works that stood out for their innovation and conceptual clarity. Slovenian artist Ales Steger created ˜The Pyramid of Exiled Poets, an interactive installation exhibited at Aspinwall of a pyramid constructed out of dung cakes, wood, matting and mud. Built on the lines of the Great Pyramid in Giza, Steger's work leads the viewer into a pitch dark passage with audio recordings of the voices of poets, re-creating the actual living conditions of poets who have been exiled by republics and nations; forced to spend their days hiding in tombs and caves. An eerie hair-raising experience, save for a few lanterns here and there the complete darkness is disconcerting enough without the addition of disembodied voices and sounds of moaning. The artist has captured the physical reality of exile in an apt manner, engaging the viewer right till the end of a 5-6 minute walk, desperately yearning for a ray of light.

The Sea of Pain

Raul Zurita, The Sea of Pain, 2016

The most talked about work at this year's biennale was Chilean poet Raul Zurita's ˜Sea of Pain. Incidentally, Raul was the first artist to be announced for the 2016 edition. A large enclosure was filled with water up to the knees accompanied by wall text on the left hand side. One line of text asks questions like Dont you see me? Dont you hear me? followed by another line of text with the same few words in repetition In the sea of Pain. Even before you slowly wade through the water past the couples happily clicking selfies, the text has brought out an urgent need to find out the origin of the voice. It turns out to belong to Galip Kurdi, brother of three year old Alan Kurdi whose body washed ashore after a boat filled with Syrian refugees overturned. The photograph of Alan's tiny body face down on the shore was seen by everyone, but there are no photos to document the suffering of his brother. The unimaginable pain of loss, separation and dealing with circumstances that tore Galip's family apart is immersed in the water and Raul's words, displayed at the end of the room.

Other works such as P K Sadanandan's mural made with natural dyes, and Sunil Padwal's collection of photographs, frames and old camera and video equipment were also quite intriguing.

650 framed works

Sunil Padwal, Room for Lies, 2016, 650 framed works including photographs and drawings with lead pencil, isograph pen, colour pastels, colour pencils, charcoal, ink, crowquill, paper collage, found frames. Dimensions variable.

mural painting art

P K Sadanandan, 12 Stories (of the 12 Progeny), 2016, mural painting using natural colours on Marine Ply board, 1500 x 300 cm

There were a large number of video works in the biennale, mostly exhibited in dark rooms with viewing benches. One work that stood out was Spanish artist Javier Perez's En Puntas, where a ballerina performs on a piano table with pointe shoes that have been extended with sharp kitchen knives. The video shows her initially hesitant to stand on the knife-points and struggling to stay balanced inside a small area. As the tempo picks up she gains control over her movement, but the struggle to stay within the boundaries of the table becomes more prominent, eventually ending with aggressive screams accompanied by sharp ear-splitting scrapes and brushes of knives cutting across the delicate piano table. Perez highlights the human condition by using a powerful metaphor to express the weaknesses, limitations and boundaries faced by us during our day to day struggles.

Another interesting work by Voldemars Johansons from Latvia titled ˜THIRST featured an audiovisual documentation of the North Atlantic Ocean during stormy weather. Exhibited in a large room, the depth of the ocean with gigantic turbulent waves transported viewers to the scene taking place somewhere between Norway and Iceland. The sounds of the thrashing waves were oddly enticing and left the viewer with a feeling of awe.

To view more works from the Main Biennale and Student's Biennale venues, follow the link A Look Back at Kochi Biennale 2016

Picture Courtesy Ria Sarkar

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