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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Who took the Bint? American Gary Hill’s playful shards “Aloidia Piorm” (2014) was one of the few exhibits at Ernakulam.

Kochi: the City and its Biennale

By Sharaad Kuttan

(1020 words, 10-minute read)

Don’t all Biennales compete with the cities they are sited in? It’s certainly true of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, a state located on the south-western coast of India. Set largely in the increasingly gentrified Fort Kochi, the biennale also takes on the additional name of a first A.D. port identified in Greco-Roman and Tamil historical sources as Muziris, going further back in time, way past the British Raj, that excuse for so many costume dramas.

A tourist map of Fort Kochi and Ernakulam - the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea gets tamed by the natural channels and waterways.
A tourist map of Fort Kochi and Ernakulam – the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea gets tamed by the natural channels and waterways.

The trade routes that shaped the ancient coastal cities of this part of India continue as the modern state of Kerala’s growth is fuelled in large part by remittances from the Gulf states, situated across the Arabian Sea. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Money Order’ state, modern Kerala’s unique demographic mix, with an almost equal proportion of Hindu, Christian and Muslim populations, makes it a model for the challenges of intercultural understanding and living.

Scotland-based Hanna Tuulikki’s “Sourcemouth: Liquidbody” (2016) video installation at Pepper House competes the diaphanous roof. Her work engages with Indian dance tradition in particular the symbolism of the river.
Scotland-based Hanna Tuulikki’s “Sourcemouth: Liquidbody” (2016) video installation at Pepper House competes the diaphanous roof. Her work engages with Indian dance tradition in particular the symbolism of the river.

“In 2010, we chose to locate the biennale in Fort Kochi because it carries a history of multiculturalism,” said Riyas Komu, the founder of the biennale (Frontline), invoking a modern concept which cannot adequately be read back into history. Whether his statement was a gesture against the rising tide of intolerance nationally or not, what’s very likely is that the economic growth of the area underscores this choice.

Sichuan, China-based ar Ouyang Jianghe’s “Tears of Taj Mahal” (2016), hanging scroll installation points to a trans-Himalayan conversation that is several millennia old. Its a conversation not fully explored in the Biennale.
Sichuan, China-based ar Ouyang Jianghe’s “Tears of Taj Mahal” (2016), hanging scroll installation points to a trans-Himalayan conversation that is several millennia old. It’s a conversation not fully explored in the Biennale.

I visited the third edition of the biennale – with the esoteric sounding theme, “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye” – which started in the cool month of December 2016 and is coming to a conclusion as the climate slowly starts to boil towards the end of March this year.

Spanish artist Javier Perez’s 2013 video work “En Puntas” is 9 minutes of pure at the edge of your seat watching. “Performing entirely en pointe, the ballerina wears a customised set of shoes that extend beyond the toe box with a pair of sharp kitchen knives.”
Spanish artist Javier Perez’s 2013 video work “En Puntas” is 9 minutes of pure at the edge of your seat watching. “Performing entirely en pointe, the ballerina wears a customised set of shoes that extend beyond the toe box with a pair of sharp kitchen knives.”

A large array of artists, 97 in all, from 30 countries, were placed at 10 venues centered mostly at Fort Kochi, with two venues in the bustling city of Ernakulam, a short ferry ride away. The offering was far too generous for me to consume on my short trip, with many works, especially films, demanding a lot of time. Along with the featured works were other activities, for instance a colloquium on “Good Government – A Philosophical Quest” or “Cinema and Visual Politics in the Age of ‘Hollowgrams'”. Will all this establish the 3-month long festival in the life of the city?

Posters - “Good Government - A Philosophical Quest”, in a country with an already vibrant press, engaged literary scene and a domestic democratic politics on steroids, what conversations are best to stage at a Biennale?
Posters – “Good Government – A Philosophical Quest”, in a country with an already vibrant press, engaged literary scene and a domestic democratic politics on steroids, what conversations are best to stage at a Biennale?

Ernakulam is in a gaudy embrace of global capital and its goodies, which includes the super-sized Lulu Mall and a metro system, soon to be completed, which weaves its way from the city centre to the town of Aluva, my maternal grandmother’s ancestral home. One wonders if a greater engagement with this madding city might have framed the biennale more clearly within the economic and cultural forces that envelope the production and distribution of contemporary art.

Moscow collective AES+F's stunningly detailed series of light-boxes “Defile” (2000 - 2007) have the recently deceased dressed in high fashion. Its not the clothes, but the skin, already showing the effects of decay, the expressions of once animate people, that fills one with the pathos of death.
Moscow collective AES+F’s stunningly detailed series of light-boxes “Defile” (2000 – 2007) have the recently deceased dressed in high fashion. It’s not the clothes, but the skin, already showing the effects of decay, the expressions of once animate people, that fills one with the pathos of death.

Its elegant alter-ego, Fort Kochi, however, has many advantages as a staging post for the festival, not only an abundance of buildings recalling complex histories of trade and politics, but also a human scale that makes the festival a walking tour. Here works competed with, or were complemented by, spaces with perhaps far too much character, with light and sound streaming in through cracks. I secretly wished for a white cube at times, so I could focus my attention on the works but these distractions were mostly minor.

Beijing-based Liu Wei, “Big Dog” (2006-2016) work made of oxhide, metal and wood, continues the theme of decay in man-made structures.
Beijing-based Liu Wei, “Big Dog” (2006 – 2016) work made of ox-hide, metal and wood, continues the theme of decay in man-made structures.

Venues like Aspinwall House – the largest of the venues, housing over 70 exhibits – had, as it were, ‘something for everyone’ but was a mind-aching smorgasbord of works if you were trying to capture the totality of the event. A task best left to curators and art critics. Taken piecemeal, however, and at a leisurely pace, most venues such as Pepper House and Cabral Yard, a pavilion built for performances, provided art at your doorstep for those staying at Fort Kochi. This speaks volumes to the ambitions of the area to be a tourist destination.

In Swiss Bob Gramsma’s “riff off, OI#16238” (2016), concrete and coconut trunks unearth the ground beneath your feet, if you care to let it. People stroll seemingly unaware of the tectonic shifts below.
In Swiss Bob Gramsma’s “riff off, OI#16238” (2016), concrete and coconut trunks unearth the ground beneath your feet, if you care to let it. People stroll seemingly unaware of the tectonic shifts below.

To attest to the quaint character of the area, a three-part BBC TV series, “The Real Marigold”, was set here to explore the idea of ‘retirement’, with a cast of older celebrities staying a month at “Le Colonial”, a hotel established in 1506, and whose lives revolved around cooking lessons, yoga classes and Ayurveda, a traditional form of healing.

Pondicherry-based British born artist, Desmond Lazaro’s “Family Portraits” (2016) explores the all too familiar story of the Indian diaspora, rendering it beautiful. Where was the pain, what was the price of displacement, I asked myself.
Pondicherry-based British born artist, Desmond Lazaro’s “Family Portraits” (2016) explores the all too familiar story of the Indian diaspora, rendering it beautiful. Where was the pain, what was the price of displacement, I asked myself.

The lives of the superannuated aside, themes such as migration, decay, or the focus on feeling whether through sound and sensation, does build up to quite a show. Artworks on the quotidian dimension of life like Abir Karmakar’s “Home”, photo-realist interiors of a small house, or Dia Mehta Bhopal’s “Bathroom Set”, a model public lavatory made entirely from rolled up pages of magazines, were as delightful to the eye, as Raul Zurita’s “The Sea of Pain” was heart-wrenching or Wu Tien-Chang’s video installation “Farewell, Spring and Autumn Pavilions” was a crowd pleaser.

Kochi muralist PK Sadanandan’s “12 Stories” (2016) was painted throughout the festival. The artist engaged with his audience, taking up not only the practice of traditional mural painting but also the question of caste depicted in the Parayi Petta Panthiru Kulam story he painted.
Kochi muralist PK Sadanandan’s “12 Stories” (2016) was painted throughout the festival. The artist engaged with his audience, taking up not only the practice of traditional mural painting but also the question of caste depicted in the Parayi Petta Panthiru Kulam story he painted.

A delight to the ears was Miller Puckette’s “Four Sound Portraits”, a pedagogical work on contemporary music, as well as Camille Norment’s “Prime”, where benches vibrated with an African-American “Church practice of moaning”, while allowing one a view of the ships plying Kochi’s waterways.

Mumbai-based Dia Mehta Bhupal’s “Bathroom Set” (2016) brings into sharp relief the national obsession with toilets, this made entirely of pages of popular magazines sans the all too familiar smells.
Mumbai-based Dia Mehta Bhupal’s “Bathroom Set” (2016) brings into sharp relief the national obsession with toilets, this made entirely of pages of popular magazines sans the all too familiar smells.

Also on offer was an exhibition of modern visual polemicist, Brij Mohan Anand, with his striking scratchboards and sketches, articulating a stridently anti-capitalist worldview. His works are now preserved by a foundation but it does raise tricky questions about the re-appropriation of protest.

Chilean Raul Zurita “The Sea of Pain” (2016) demonstrated the versatile spaces available at venues like Aspinwall House. With the huge aircraft-hanger like space, a pool of salt water beckoned. You wade through to the end to read a poem about a dead Syrian child, the unphotographed brother of the iconic, immortalised portrait of Alan Kurdi. Words fail always.
Chilean Raul Zurita “The Sea of Pain” (2016) demonstrated the versatile spaces available at venues like Aspinwall House. With the huge aircraft-hanger like space, a pool of salt water beckoned. You wade through to the end to read a poem about a dead Syrian child, the unphotographed brother of the iconic, immortalised portrait of Alan Kurdi. Words fail always.

Yardena Kurulkar’s “Kenosis”, a disintegrating terracotta replica of her own heart, Degradation Movement Manifesto group’s “Shell Mycelium” installation, AES+F’s “Defile” of cadavers in high fashion, and Liu Wei’s fantastical scaled down animal-edible architectural replicas in meltdown, all point to the truism of a world in flux – cities expand but also decay, trade routes flourish but also disappear, buildings go up and fall into disrepair, and our bodies start with the divisions of cells, sometimes mutate, but always degenerate.

Mumbai-based Yardena Kurulkar’s “Kenosis” (2015). A terracotta heart modeled after her own, photographed dissolving in water.
Mumbai-based Yardena Kurulkar’s “Kenosis” (2015). A terracotta heart modeled after her own, photographed dissolving in water.

 

Baroda, Gujurat-based Abir Karmakar’s delighful oil on canvas “Home” (2016) flattens the domestic mess and aesthetic so familiar to Asians. Placed almost to fit in a small Fort Kochi house, making the encounter almost serendipitous.
Baroda, Gujurat-based Abir Karmakar’s delighful oil on canvas “Home” (2016) flattens the domestic mess and aesthetic so familiar to Asians. Placed almost to fit in a small Fort Kochi house, making the encounter almost serendipitous.

And on Valentine’s Day, a concert of Hindustani and Carnatic love songs by Shahabaz Aman – who started singing as a muezzin at a Kerala mosque – played to a packed audience at the pavilion. What’s notable about this tradition of love songs is that the lyrics often involve a double move where a smile raises questions of tears, the pain of loss is welcomed if only to experience the presence of loved one. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale perhaps also turns on a double move, looking back historically while having an eye firmly on the future.

 


The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 held in Kochi, Kerala, India, commenced on 12 December 2016 and is set to conclude on 29 March 2017.

Guest Contributor Sharaad Kuttan is a journalist with BFM89.9 in the Klang Valley.

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