Kochi Muziris Biennale Kerala Art in the Tropics

I recently visited the Kochi Muziris Biennale in Kerala, which was the first event of its kind in India. It was first held in 2012. Visitors were treated to works of art in a variety of media by both International and Indian contemporary artists.

The importance of a Biennale is not to be overlooked – art is brought out of the gallery and museum context and into the public realm. Thus contemporary art is made more familiar and less elitist: this was aim of the founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, both Indian contemporary artists themselves. The Biennale exhibits art for everyone to understand and appreciate and not just for art connoisseurs. Mr Krishnamachari told me there were more local visitors to the event than art aficionados and tourists. When I sat with Krishnamachari and Komu, they emphasised the importance of the accessibility of art and promoted instinctive appreciation of art, which is not solely dependent on prior knowledge. The Biennale should not be seen as a purely artistic venture but is also a brilliant exploitation of many of the town’s beautiful historic ‘heritage sites’ many of which are not normally open to the public, such as the main Aspinwall exhibition complex and the CSI bungalow. Most buildings face the beautiful lagoon of Kochi and visitors can enjoy welcome cool breezes by the waterside. It is hard to ignore the overbearing sticky heat of Kochi but sitting by the fans while appreciating a work of art you can almost forget the beads of sweat on your brow. If it does get too hot, almost every site of the Biennale has a lovely café, which serves refreshing cool drinks at affordable prices.

The centre of the Biennale was Aspinwall House, an old derelict British spice-trading centre, which sits directly on the waterfront. Other venues that I particularly liked were David Hall – a souvenir of the Dutch occupation of Cochin; Pepper House; and Durbar Hall (across the water in Ernakulam). The Aspinwall site is a complex of five buildings and it houses 69 works of art, each one with a room or space of its own. With so much choice it was easy to find many things that piqued my interest. I found that the most interesting pieces were mostly by artists whom I had not previously heard of. Generally the more famous names like Anish Kapoor and Mona Hatoum did not disappoint, but the inclusion of Yoko Ono’s Earth Piece as reproduction postcards which visitors could take home was slightly underwhelming.

For me, one of the greatest wonders of the Biennale was experiencing so much intriguing and exciting art by artists from all around the world, whom I had previously never encountered. It has broadened my horizons on contemporary art and made me regard it as something that can now only be understood as a global phenomenon. I shall now mention some my favourite works of art at the show.

Albanian artist Adrian Paci’s film The Column documented the journey of a ship carrying Chinese workers carving an intricate marble Greek-style column from China to Europe – the film portrays the length of the journey through the time it takes for the craftsmen to create the column. It illustrates the hardships that the workers face while working for a client who sits in comfort waiting for his or her column to arrive and as such has quite a socialist message.

American artist Janine Antoni’s video performance Touch captivated me greatly. In the video she walks a tightrope along the horizon line of the sea in the Bahamas and the image covers the surface of a wall. The artist walking back and forth along the rope on the beach is a very peaceful image and is accompanied by the sounds of the waves crashing against the sand. What is perhaps most powerful about this work is that behind the physical wall of Aspinwall, onto which the video is projected, you are met with the tangible horizon of the Kochi Lagoon and so the performance seamlessly fits its site.

In Pakistani installation artist Iqra Tanveer’s Paradise of Paradox you enter a dark room filled with dust and there is only a window of light to guide your way. An assistant demonstrated the missing action of the artist to us by blowing a handful of dust into the light and thereby formed a sparkling galaxy of dust and stars in space. This was installed in its own room, and the idea was that the viewer became the artist. I ‘painted’ with handfuls of dust in the light to create my own temporary installation. The work was magical because of its simplicity and the beautiful patterns that the dust created in the light. A particularly enchanting piece was Ethiopian London born artist Theo Eshetu’s Anima Mundi, which cleverly brought together images of Christ and Christianity with popular culture and images of daily life. As you got closer to the centre of the piece the single TV screen multiplied into a globe made up of numerous screens reflected in several mirrors. The mirrors ensured that the viewer was truly integrated into the work of art and the flashing images hypnotised you into a transcendental state.

Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen’s disturbing Phythagoras films surrounded the viewer with four screens which played serially,  but never simultaneously and ‘sucked’ the viewer into the ‘cube’, making you unsure from which direction videos would appear next, or when you would be plunged into darkness. The images themselves were also very haunting: one almost static image of sprawled bodies, centred around a blindfolded man, reminded me of the painting The Death of Sardanapalus. The whole experience was both uncomfortable and fascinating. Finally, Dayanita Singh’s series of wooden screens 1.9.2014 Dear Mr Walter showed refreshing views of Indian life in monochrome photographs, framed by wooden panels. Her work did not need to be disturbing to make an impact on the viewer and you were simply left appreciative of her artistic eye and ability to make the banal everyday into an interesting scene.

The one thing I would criticise about Aspinwall and also the other venues of the Biennale was the proliferation of the American you-tuber Michael Steven’s Vsauce videos – these left much to be desired and I do not think that they were a worthwhile addition to the Biennale. One more work of art deserves my mention and that is the South African artist William Kentridge’s animated illustrations at Durbar Hall at Ernarkalum. These flip book films Workshop Receipts, The Anatomy of Melancholy and Practical Enquiries were a refreshing and amusing addition to the Biennale and were definitely worth a trip across the waters from Fort Kochi to see.

Mattancherry, adjacent to Fort Kochi, housed the Student Biennale, the artists’ residency, and the Children’s Biennale. This was also a rewarding visit. The most wonderful thing about the Biennale was its use of existing buildings in their unchanged state and that the curators and artists worked around, and acknowledged,, the space they had. The children’s biennale, which exhibited Keralan child prodigy artist Edmund Thomas Clint, who died aged 7 years, was housed in an antique shop. The curators simply included the beautiful hand crafted antiques in their exhibition. The art was not confined only to the buildings that were assigned to the Biennale but also it appeared on walls all over Fort Kochi. The street art was beautiful and fun, making the Biennale one without boundaries, and the area of Fort Kochi became a true GesamtKunstwerk (Total Work of Art).

The name given to the second Biennale ‘Whorled Explorations’, according to the vision of artistic director Jitish Kallat, contains a particularly apt pun suggesting the water of Kochi, the ‘World’ itself and the human fingerprint that created the Biennale; the title is exemplified in Anish Kapoor’s whirlpool Descension where a pool of water gradually increases in speed to form a vortex onto which the viewer looks. Video art dominated the show and there was a strong emphasis on the horizon as subject matter as well as a stellar aesthetic. I have only described pieces that I particularly enjoyed, but what was also great about the Biennale was that there were very few things that were unlikely to appeal to anybody; there was something for everyone. It was an amazingly well curated show and there was little that i found uninteresting. Pepper House library, which houses founder Bose Krishnamachari’s own private collection of books, is a permanent feature at Fort Kochi and a lovely place to relax at the end of a hot day.

The Biennale at Kochi is one of a kind and the enthusiasm for it was wide spread: chatting to Rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers and restaurant staff I could see that this Biennale was something that everyone was proud of. The Biennale is only one of the attractions of Fort Kochi and I would strongly recommend visiting the place to experience its wonderful almost Mediterranean laid-back nature. There will be a third Biennale in December 2016 and although far away from Venice both geographically and in spirit, this is an experience like no other and should not be missed.

Words/Photos: Mala Yamey  © Artlyst 2015

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