An ordinary Indian’s guide to the Kochi Muziris Biennale

Art-naive Tisha Srivastav visits the Biennale for the first time and finds that she learns to witness her times again.

Think most contemporary art today goes over your head, never mind. Don’t know what a Biennale is – alright. Tired of a lack of imagination in responses to issues and concerns of our time – makes sense.  Wish to meet an array of thought, design, exploration, material from many parts of the world coming together, including an interesting Asian presence. The Kochi Muziris Biennale is a splendid chance then, fellow Indians to answer that last wish. For all of the above is how I thought too. So here goes, a direct dunk. The Camille Norment Trio here. (Video)

Camille Norment, sonic artist, American born living in Oslo, seats you on a wooden bench by the seaside.

Just as you sit, a deep groan of a chant emerges from under the bench, shoots through your body and makes you feel something akin to a call of the very deep.This pre-lingual feel has a provenance in the African American church practice of moaning. But when one tastes it now, through her sonic art, the lingering effect is one of the sea talking back to you. It just holds you, even when ships and boats, continue to ply as on any normal day in the life of seaside harbour Kochi. Even when the Indian Coast Guard liner comes into view and its own horn gruffs and puffs over this seemingly gigantic moan. She doesn’t name it for you, but the CN Trio using an electric guitar, a Norwegian hardingfele and the beauteous and rare glass harmonica, all have something in common. They have at one point or another been banned for the effect they would have on the listener in various societies. The aural-visual effect is an immediate register of sound as something that touches, sound as a wonder language and as communication. As the official write up on her muses– what is music and what is it made up of?
While her questioning is a sensation filled experience, it leaves you stuttering to articulate it. In the hands of an utterly now-utterly primeval kind of DJ artistry, you somewhat taste the spirit of the waters. And are reminded that sound can nourish us into the present, into pure feeling. (Which in excess noise in the Indian urbanscape may be leaving us a little tone deaf)

So the first thing the Biennale does, is offer the visitor inclusive, original and diverse conversations, direct and immersive experiences and an often resonant dialogue between the current and tradition. From sea-view sonic art to a somewhat more claustrophobic closed door ash as substance, in Karnataka’s G.R. Iranna’s work – Garbh.

A giant womb of vibhuti, both expansive, intimate and evoking life and death in the same moment vitally. A parikrama here is primal, sans the joy of company and like the sanctum sanctorum of zindagi itself, alive, potent and connected.
This conversation between medium and idea, between tool and expression, between impermanence and installation quickly alerts me to not being a passive consumer-taster of art, but a vigilant dunking in. What and where to see, quickly replaced by what I am witnessing in what is before me. Human, material, space, all in an inventively alive a la carte of Kochi locations, which auto rickshaw fellows here have been trained to take visitors to (find them with the Biennale sticker on front glass area of auto) A diverse balm whizzing in possibility often, neither coerced by instruction or the need to convince.

The second thing that hits me here, is a record of the contemporary moment, almost as if the breaking news of the year has broken here gently. Equally powerful as the televised image, also using media here, but tasted in an undistracted, experiential way. Poet Raul Zurita’s words on a wall beckon ‘Do you hear me, do you listen’, they say, as one walks into a black pool of real water. Awalk through this Sea of pain, while not particularly original is moving in its effect. This is a tribute to that kid’s brother who became the image of forced migration this year, across social media – the Turkish Aylan Kurdi’s brother who didn’t make it, nor did his mother. Although you are spared their photographs, the water works to remind you (Video) of this burgeoning international statistic, in ways that touch the individual and reflect the collective. You also come away with a fine sense of abandonment, in a bhool bhulaiyaish route constructed inside a mud laden pyramid, by Slovenian Ales Steger. On the outside it looks like this,

The Pyramid of Exiled Poets by Ales Steger
As if this ‘mythic archaeological site’ belongs to those forgotten in and by history. But walking quietly inside in the dark, the exiled poets call out. One is reminded of the implicit horror of the gallows too. When one emerges in sunny Kochi from this darkness, it takes more than an hour to sit, stare at this pyramid from all sides outside and recover. This is exile as lost and found ground, made by an artist who has a nostalgia for lost labyrinths.
(Tip: Let the volunteer at the installation tell you about it and go when there are fewer people standing in line to get in.)

A fine sense of Movement, another theme, of the Biennale emerges in a Collateral exhibition superbly curated by Girish Shahane, at Gallery OED. This is the more classical art gallery, close to Jew Town. In one such painting, Vibha Galhotra has picked up sediments from the polluted river in her hometown and hurled it at the painting. The effect on a one time environmental journalist like yours truly, is one of empathy with the range of feelings behind this anger.

Another artist here has used the space between one ad/commercial messages replacing the other in a powerful, ordinary way.

Is that my little blink of attention span before being quickly painted over by the fresh needs of commerce? Where is the space to be human beyond an economic being? This entire hallway of paintings maybe called abstract chronicles vis-à-vis their art, but they hold a power which makes one think, makes one look at material like tin plates on roadsides with a new vigour and a recognition that had we been better schooled at witnessing the contemporary, we would recognise more graciously the very ‘movement’ we too are part of.
For this alone please try not to miss Abhishek Hazra’s gallery walks at Aspinwall House. He will tell you a bunch of on the spot made up stories, make you listen in to alternative readings of the work before us. In other words, many kinds of lies. Pushing the limits of ‘movement’ inside already moving installations, this ‘guided tour,’ this mobile lecture is called Submergent Topologies. And given the hype around a photostateable nationalism, this comes across as resolutely quirky, if not subversive. At another end of the same venue, Orijit Sen’s Go Playces, is a different kind of invite to get moving. A Hyderabad puzzle, a Punjabi history and Goa’s Mapusa market conversations, all playfully educative and offering a surprise if you get down to putting the Hyderabad jigsaw together (which I will not spoil for you). Daniele Galliano’s ongoing project called Bad Trip, where old artworks find new intruders, will remind you of photobomb memes, but a little while later, you may wonder who the real squatter is.

Is it a plea against the most ordinary vandalism that tourism brings and does he achieve it through sabotaging archaic art works with backpacker images? See for yourself.

While apparently there are no major names at the Biennale, the Asian presence to me, is very welcome.

Chinese Yang Hongwei’s Ye Yan Tu is 12 metres of what might have been pleasurable, but is painful sex – seen through the hurting eyes of coldblooded policies, mechanised loops and power games. The style is traditional Chinese paper and ink and the themes take you into the broad Asian reality of faceless rural migration, inhuman conditions to have sex in and a hardened patriarchy. A much softer evocation of tradition comes in Yuko Mohri’s sonic illusion of classical Japanese ghost presences. The work has ordinary objects tinkling beautifully and suddenly in unlikely corners, in a hall which actually was a former laboratory. The unseen comes to have a playful presence in ways that don’t actually spook you out. Reminiscent of manga’s appeal, the materials here are everyday things like spoons and forks and has nothing in common with comics.
There is the now deceased Li Bo’an’s decade long effort – a 2 meter scroll chronicle from source to mouth, of the Yellow River in China, at Kottapuram Fort. Then, Iranian Sirous Nimazi’s 12.30, a view of a home before the hour they have to escape. These are absences we feel when as humans we sit down in our own homes to grieve around many BHK of accumulations – things and the memories they hold too. Imagine being thrown out of your own land overnight then.

Other Indian folk to look out for are Odishan Subrat Behara’s curious paintings, historic Kodungallur’s photographic gallery of communities which no longer are, as you see them and Kolkata’s Praneet Soi’s coir sculptures, which evokes the disconnect of industry and the humane directly.

Nothing I see here feels revolutionary or radical, but a creative action replay of tradition/al material to depict more contemporary realities.

Which brings me to the Biennale’s most natural appeal – the range of venue/local histories and a particular mix of the organic, formal and exploratory in spaces where art comes at you. Expect a badminton court, a warehouse, a spice market, a jetty front, a fort wall among many others. In the year where the notion of plurality, openness and multiple narratives has faced many counter forces, this begins to somehow free one up. Pick up the free map, walk around and look for a gully sitting cheek by spice in Jew town’s now touristy market, or the formal greens of Cochin Club. A Pichhvai exhibition shows at a stunning gallery which has a boat for company, a curation of the history of seating called Kissa Kursi Ka, shows inside an antique store. A student version of the Biennale gets space at a warehouse. The sea comes in your face at some locations and at others, a busy trade of spice does. Seems appropriate for a Kochi Muziris Biennale, where Muziris evokes the long history of port-trade, which Kochi now builds on.
The focal space for many conversations and concerts is a yard turned into an auditorium. But this auditorium has used tarpaulin, asbestos like sheets, recycled sarees to create a wonderful, inviting and highly dismantle able venue (with arecanut seating).

Created on invitation by Tony Joseph, this one changes colour and reveals contemporary texture as you take your seat for a performance. The lighting too brings its own natural drama through the pipeline of hanging sarees. An impressive feat in a land where we look only at the traditionally constructed as sturdy or inviting, when there is probably nothing in the world that has not faced the marks of its own time. Can’t remember when an auditorium made me even think, rather than just appreciate its strange physical beauty. A taste of it in two photographs then.

This is so completely itself with such a breadth, that unwittingly, it becomes a soft, a quite multi-narrative slap from many talented creators to the current IST – Indian Sarkaari Time.The volunteers are helpful and after providing state support, no visible VIP dom. There is a minimal presence of police, including the Pink Patrol, women only cop vans. All in all, a splendid, spacious provocation on a scale rare to witness outside relatively closed art circles, in India. Far more atmospheric and thought out than Delhi’s somehow more cubicle like Art Fair. There is a fairly regular space for performances – especially readied for the Biennale, as there is a range of ongoing art outreach programmes.
May this free-on-Monday contemporary art fair give you many moments of reckoning and see the Fort Kochi/ Mattancheri area come alive with the historic and the now. I return, not passively entertained but thoughtful and refreshed.

The KM Biennale began on 12th December, 2016 and will go on until end March 2017.
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The writer tweets at .@TishaSrivastav

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