To make out the sea that was Kochi-Muziris
Focused on creating a space for the quiet, dissenting and the introspective, the third edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB 2016) was an exciting experience for unexpected reasons. As it hosted artworks by 97 artists from 31 countries, in a variety of media including live performance spread across its duration and video pieces that required attentive viewing, it would take a committed viewer about two weeks to have a full understanding of KMB 2016 spread across the 12 main venues, numerous collateral projects and a full-fledged students' biennale that showcased works from 55 art schools around India. Here, instead of putting together a report, I will try and run you through a handful of works that left a lasting impression on me.
The Slovenian Ales Steger's The Pyramid of Exiled Poets 2016 required immediate attention as you walk into the main biennale venue, the historic Aspinwall House. Located in the middle of the central courtyard, the pyramid referenced the Khufu pyramid in Giza, and was monumental and covered with a layer of locally sourced cow-dung that had dried and cracked into the shape of thousands of cow-dung patties that we in this part of the world are familiar with as fuel. The sheer scale of the work pushed it toward the superficial and banal, but once you entered the pyramid's depth and negotiated the dark, narrow and claustrophobic alleys inside, and heard the sound of poems by Dante, Bertolt Brecht, Cesar Vallejo and others, you felt that your self-righteous confidence was on the wane. It was an unnerving experience, and conveyed to us the experience of exiled poets through history – through direct sensory perception and allusion.
Nearby, in four separate rooms, was spread out the very intriguing Four Sound Portraits by Miller Puckette. It brought us extraordinary musical renditions of visual portraits of four geniuses. Each room provided a setting, required the sensibility of the listener/viewer, and was keen on pushing the visual into the aural. Iannis Xenakis and John Cage featured seamlessly, and that indeed was extraordinary.
When you reached India's Sharmistha Mohanty's projected poem in an enclosure, you needed to pause. The immersive environment presented to us through projection on walls and floors was an installation with poetry and sound. It required quiet absorption and reflection and a willingness of the viewer to spend time with it, and instigated questions like 'what does language mean to you?' and 'how do the words become space?'
Sound again, in its pure form and not in words, was vital to Japan's Yuko Mohri's Calls 2013-2016, which was a cluster of kinetic-sonic sculptures that pulled the seemingly random and non-accessible into the realm of our rational awareness. 'She makes the invisible, the unseen, the disappeared visible through sculptural forms that respond to the space they find themselves in. Mohri uses contextual conditions, including the accidental human presence or absence, to animate her work,' read the label. As we moved around the sonic sculptures, the air moved and disturbed compass needles and thus their surrounding magnetic fields triggered a bell to chime here, a horn to blow there, a gong to ring at yet another corner. The ideas of recall and remembrance – their feasibility and futility – are beautifully explored.
A Sea of Pain wasprobably the most talked about piece of KMB 2016. One encountered it in one corner of the Aspinwall. Sudarshan Shetty, an artist of stellar repute, revealed that he had selected this particular project as the first of all others as he immersed himself in the task of guestcurating the biennale's current edition. What had struck him most about the Chilean poet Raul Zurita's project was the 'honesty of intention.' Zurita happens to be one of Latin America's most controversial and celebrated poets, whose poems sprung from a position of resistance to the dictatorial regime that the Chileans lived through (1973-1990).The ground floor of an entire warehouse was flooded with knee-high sea water and viewers are invited to wade through it and read the text on eight canvas panels (700 x 340 cm each) hanging on the adjoining walls. The text moved through the staccato and haunting 'Never? Never? Never?'...'Never?'... 'Won't you come back? Never again?' to 'Don't you listen? Don't you look?' to the last panel that bore a poem written in memory of Galip Kurdi, who went down in history as 'the brother of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old boy whose body washed ashore a beach on the 2nd of September, 2015 -- his image becoming synonymous with the refugee crisis.' You would have to wade through the 100 feet or so long stretch of water to be able to read the final text and then again, wade all the way back. The panel at the far end had a poem, and here is an excerpt:
'...I wasn't there,
I am not his father.'
There are no photographs of Galip Kurdi, he can't hear, he can't
see, he can't feel, and the silence comes down like immense
Below the silence you can make out a piece of sea, of the sea
of pain. I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son.
French-born Indian artist Chittrovanu Mazumdar's River of Ideas 2016 (sculpture and video installation, dimensions variable) on the first floor of the Aspinwall was in obvious dialogue with A Sea of Pain. Hundreds of incandescent bulbs cascading in a watery flow did bring us a river of light, and quite materially so, but it also reflected back to us the votive lamps or 'diya-s' that are regularly offered on rivers at many places of the subcontinent at the onset of dusk, albeit through the futuristic lens of metal-worked bulbs. It no doubt referred to the threat that climate change poses to lakes and rivers, to the many ways that industry pollutes rivers and turns the water into poisonous flames – it may well have referred to Phlegethon, the Greek river of boiling blood made popular by Dante in which the souls of those who committed crimes against fellow humans must eternally boil.’ Above all, it obviously referred back to the disappeared Saraswati river, that directly relates to Shetty's vision, which was 'to draw from mythical accounts of the land of seven rivers, set amidst seven seas, anchored by a mountain at its navel. 'As rivers flow, overflow and recede, can a biennale accumulate meaning over time and spill into the future? The flow of these streams, their convergence and divergence, inspires a series of questions and propositions about the varied forms and approaches to knowledge presented by the objects performed as part of the Biennale. One of these rivers – a hidden river, whose sightings are elusive and ephemeral – exists in our belief and imagination. Knowing nothing of its origins or its end – quests to find this hidden river give rise to narratives, stories, poetry and perhaps to language itself.'
Mazumdar explored these future and past narratives in a language crafted by the relations in which the objects in his artwork held themselves to each other, through books that carried on their pages the images of water flowing across, or through the 'creative cabinets of imagined geographies' that included crumpled lampshades, iron ladders reaching up into darkness or pebbles from a river-bed. River of Ideas 2016 was both an abstraction and a distillation of the 'river', reminding us of the many ways that water bodies are vital to our habits and rituals. You would have to step into the work spread across a large bridge and four smaller rooms, and negotiate it to arrive at something of your own. The work, like all good works, did not tell you what to feel or see. It just laid out the alphabets and you needed to form your own words of understanding, and it remained partially elusive for it was a somewhat cryptic language that Mazumdar spoke. Which, again, was no doubt a reflection on the irrational, the unseen and the elusive that generally drives the KMB 2016 like a subterranean flow.
Water – the experience or absence of it – plays an important role throughout the biennale (understandably so since Kochi and Muziris stand on the Arabian Sea and were significant ports in global trade), and I am not speaking of Anamika Haksar's theatre and installation piece called Composition on Water 2016, whose performance I could not attend, but instead turned to Latvia's Voldemars Johanson's 5.1 minute-long, single channel video loop, Thirst 2015, which recorded five minutes of the stormy North Atlantic. Projected on a massive screen taking up a whole wall, the ocean waves battled it out with the sky and air. Recorded with a mind-chilling indifference, it reverberated across the Aspinwall floors and even shook the seats we sat on (and here I bypass the other work that must connect to this by formal association, the excitable benches of Camille Norment that came to buzzing life as you sat on them and watched the Kerala backwaters downstairs). The sound echoing against the distant walls best utilised the warehouse's acoustic asset, and created an immersive environment. One in which the onslaught of Nature's wrath was so overwhelming that it forced us into observing it and recognizing ourselves as the puny humans we are, in relation to it. It was scale that mattered here, the size of the screen and the resultant vibrations on the floors and walls, were no doubt vital to the work's success. Despite the roar of the raging waves, it was an intimate work in the sense that it needed to be enjoyed in privacy, and secondly, triggered intellectual reflection rather than a smug 'gotcha!
Opposite it stood, or rather was balanced, a full-sized, ship cabin that was poised on the floor on one single point of contact. It looked almost as if the massive cabin was floating in air at an angle, with bellowing lace curtains, and its tilted floor-chairs-tables frozen in time. A single cigar lay on an ashtray, 'forever burning, an offering to the Kappiri Muthappan or the local deity that represents the African slaves that were killed here…' By 'here' was meant Kerala, and this offered us a glimpse into a history that the region witnessed – 'kappiri' could well be 'kafir', the generic name given to abundantly mistreated, African slaves brought to Kerala by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Later, when the Dutch pushed the Portuguese traders out, the traders killed their slaves and buried them so that their souls would guard the wealth. It is believed that the ghosts of 'kappiri-s' abound in Kerala, even today. The benign Kappiri Muthappan is still worshipped in a shrine in Mattancherry in Kochi and so, Lester's Dwelling Kappiri Spirits 2016, not only brought us a whiff of local beliefs, but together with Thirst 2016, it came across as a symbol for the visible and invisible dialogues going on between the artworks in the biennale, dialogues that questioned our single-minded pursuit of the empirically proven at the cost of the intuitive.
During my visit I found artists’ spaces tucked into the KMB venues, strewn with to-be-finished works or settings meant for performative practices that would come alive in late January or February again. KMB 2016 was very much about the process of coming into being, instead of delivering a ready-made idea or experience. This wasprobably why it was such a hit despite having consciously steered clear of the expected and international roster of biennale artists, and despite having a core vision that challenged our received notions when it came to cultural production. And perhaps also because it dareds to allow space to a certain quietness that would hopefully bring back into fashion 'intimate reflection' as opposed to the accessible and monumental.
But two works stood out in this space. The first was Australian Alex Seton's marble sculpture, Refuge 2015. It was a work that did invoke layers of meaning in terms of its content, and was easy to decipher, given even a mediocre awareness of global issues. But the fact that it was finely carved out of white marble, inevitably introduced classical resonance and helped weave the piece into past histories and impending nightmares. In an adjacent room stood the very complex but immensely rewarding installation, Out of Ousia 2016, by Polish Alicja Kwade. The Greek word 'ouisia' may roughly be translated into 'being' or conversely, 'substance'. The work comprised an intersecting concrete wall, a mirror and a wooden frame with objects like rocks and branches placed around it so that as you circled around its four sections, each set of objects seemed to seamlessly bleed into the next and you ended up receiving mixed images on your retina and accessing a 'notional, parallel plane where verifiable objects and their makeshift doubles are jumbled and confused.' Your memory of the objects just viewed was interrupted by what was immediately placed before you. A superb play on memory and comprehension.
The most pervasive, the most visible and yet the most low-key of all works at KMB 2016 was Argentinian Sergio Chejfec's Dissemination of a Novel 2016 that could be read on many improbable roadside walls around the city. An English translation of his Spanish novel Baroni: A Journey was still being inscribed on the city's many walls as we toured the biennale in early January. Flyers bearing printed text from the same had also been given out at street corners, we heard. A text that explored 'ephemerality, the body and language,' the presentation of work materially embodied its very content, and therefore was not only intriguing, but gratifying too. It felt we were chasing a narrative that constantly eluded us with its incomprehensible proportion and yet the fragments piqued our interest enough to keep up the chase. Something like what the biennale theme itself did, which was 'forming in the pupil of an eye' that tried to bring us the multiplicity of the universe reflected back at us from a single point, the point being KMB 2016 itself.
Surrounded by all these, the Students' Biennale held its own and surprisingly so. I found the North-East pavilion particularly exciting, with its nine videos created by art students from five cities of the North-east. Freshly introduced to the medium, the students had pulled off simultaneously incisive and meditative works under the curatorial guidance of Sarojini Lewis. Very little of this was seen in the mainstream art world from this region, and so there was an added element of surprise for us viewers, as we watched the camera negotiate issues of identity and marginalisation, language, and presence. One particular piece was inescapable in its relevance to the overarching curatorial theme, which showed a poem in the disappearing mai tai language being inscribed on a poet's back as he hugged a forest tree. The Kashmir pavilion, curated by Aryakrishnan Ramkrishnan, was less aesthetic, though expectedly explosive and contained mostly objects and a video that documented the sufferings of a civilian population held hostage by violence.
KMB 2016 was envisioned on the fulcrum of 'multiplicity' encapsulated in the biennale's theme: 'forming in the pupil of an eye,' which drew on the imagery of an entire universe reflected back from a sage's eye to a disciple. It queried into the various means of knowledge production and how such production must remain open to continuous interpretation and refreshed communication. Refreshing no doubt!
Sections of the text have appeared in The Kathmandu Post in 2017.
KURCHI DASGUPTA is an artist and writer based in Kathmandu.