At the conclusion of the Kochi-Muziri Biennale 2016, ArtAsiaPacific takes a final look around at India’s primary contemporary art festival. The third edition of Kochi-Muziri Biennale, “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye,” was again curated by an artist, this time Sudarshan Shetty. Whereas Jitish Kallat, curator of previous edition, “Whorled Explorations,” looked at the southwestern port city’s economic and cultural history, Shetty took up philosophical themes about vision and perception at large. His curatorial note begins by retelling an old story about a young traveler going to meet a sage who, “through the generation and layering of visions . . . creates multiple understandings of the world.” This seems like a pretty good encapsulation—even in a non-esoteric sense—of what art does, and with 97 artists from 35 countries, what a biennale can do. While it might even be said that all biennales do this just by their nature of bringing together so many individual or collective perspectives, Shetty’s biennale seemed comfortable with its eclecticism (perhaps a conscious reflection of the many faiths practiced in Kochi itself) and the many free-flowing currents that come together but don’t converge into a single narrative or polemic. Though the title might have suggested a hierarchy of the senses, the visual was frequently presented as a gateway not just to the mind but to the body.
At the main venue, Aspinwall House, the massive projection of a video, Thirst (2015) by Voldemars Johansons depicting a storm’s waves crashing on the shores of the Faroe Islands was immersive and classically sublime, leading to senses of awe, terror and fascination. It was paired in the space with Gabriel Lester’s Dwelling Kappiri Spirits (2016), a one-room house turned up on one side with only a single table inside on which a cigar is burning in an ashtray. Curtains trail out of the windows—like a gust from Johansons’s film had blown them that way—a scene caught in an eternally suspended moment. The cigar burns without burning out, like an endlessly looping GIF. The work’s narrative, I read later, relates to the hasty departure of the Portuguese from Kochi after the Dutch captured it in the 17th century. The Portuguese purportedly buried their gold and silver, and chained up their African slaves, and the spirits of those sacrificed are still said to linger in the old colonial homes. (Despite the Biennale’s philosophical approach, Kochi’s history was never too far removed.)
Speaking of ghosts, Lantian Xie’s Ceiling Fans, Stray Dog Barking, Burj Ali (2016) was a kind of evocation of place by absence. In a stairway space of Aspinwall House, the Dubai-based artist had filled the ceiling with as many whirling fans as could fit, humming away at a vigorous speed. Periodically there was the sound of a dog barking, and scratched into the walls were two hand-drawn pictures of the Burj Ali, India’s own miniature replication, in Punjab, of the iconic Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai. The uncanny fusion of two places deeply interconnected through populations and commerce, and the sense of displacement—neither entirely here nor there—captured the lives of many people who move between South Asia and the Gulf for work. Yang Hongwei’s 12-meter-long scroll, a “night feast chart” that allegorically describes the relationship between power, money and sex, and Achraf Toulab’s drawings of kneeling figures and metal serving dishes evoked cycles of life and servitude of the most debased and earthly kinds.
While many of the Biennale’s most captivating works eluded photography (such as a beautiful hand-operated film by Pawel Althamer dedicated to his daughter, and a low-fi installation about the sun, planets and moon by Pedro Gómez-Egaña), others were monumental and responded to the location. Naiza Khan’s installation The Journey We Never Made (2016) comprised drawings of the neglected Manora island in the harbor of Karachi. She supplemented her graphic works with model boats made as local souvenirs that she collected on visits to the island, which in turn reflecting the island’s many histories and epochs of trade. Perhaps the most iconic work of the Biennale was Chilean poet and artist Raúl Zurita’s The Sea of Pain (2016). Zurita filled an entire gallery with a pool of knee-deep water, at the far end of which was a poem dedicated to Galip Kurdi, a young Kurdish boy who along with his brother Alan (captured in a photograph that came to symbolize the refugee crisis) and his mother drowned as his family, fleeing from Kobanî, Syria, was crossing from Turkey to Greece in an overcrowded smuggler’s boat. The work was a bold provocation to use the spectacular parameters of a biennale art installation to memorialize those less-known and less-remembered deaths.
Both István Csákány and Praneet Soi were interested in the local economy. Csákány’s Ghost Keeping (2016) was a carved-wooden re-creation of a textile factory, while Soi’s research project into the region’s coir industry was ongoing throughout the exhibition’s run—with sculptures created in coir positioned in the courtyard of the nearby Pepper House venue. The renowned Kerala mural painter PK Sandanandan was himself still at work in mid-March on a site-specific mural within Aspinwall House. His labor was on full view, with bowls of paints and brushes sitting on a scaffold in the exhibition space, in front of his re-telling of Parayi Petta Panthiru Kulam, a narrative of twelve families of the “paraiah” caste. Dia Mehta Bhupal’s installation of a men’s restroom was another testament to labor: it was a created entirely in rolled paper from magazines. The material transformation in Liu Wei’s Big Dog (2016) models of iconic buildings is into oxhide dog chews, evoking a comically grotesque decline of civilizations. Yuko Mohri created a kind of memorial too—her delicate kinetic-sonic sculptures in Calls and Oni-bi recalling chime-like evocations of the dead created through environmental forces activating her works’ delicate circuitry.
The Biennale spilled out into the city, with installations like Praneet Soi’s coir sculptures at the nearby Pepper House. Argentinean writer Sergio Chejfec’s Dissemination of a Novel (2016) consisted of portions of his novel Baroni: A Journey (2007) being painted on walls throughout the Biennale and the entire city. Anand Warehouse contained the massive projection by AES+F of their animated video Inverso Mundus (2015) and the more emotional eulogy to the medium of film, I am Micro (2012), narrated by filmmaker Kamal Swaroop, by Shumona Goel and Shal Heredia, as well as T. Shanaathanan’s card-catalogue Cabinet of Resistance No. 2 (2016) containing fragments of stories about Tamil communities from final days of the Sri Lankan civil war. David Hall was home to works of three artists including Dana Awartani’s hanging fabric installation Love Is My Law, Love Is My Faith (2016), inspired by the love poems of the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. Kashi Art Gallery was filled with the photorealistic, life-sized interior paintings of homes by Abir Karmakar. TKM Warehouse, in Mattancherry, housed several spectacular installations, like Alicja Kwade’s four-part play on optical illusions, involving a mirrors, rocks and a branch; the remnants of an Aki Sasamoto performance, Random Memo Random (a cabinet suspended above a deep cylindrical hole with a trampoline and various wall-scribblings from the event) and TV Santosh’s massive wooden sculpture, History Lab (2016), with colonial-era buildings embedded with LED timers, counting down to points in time that meant nothing. Like many of the best works in the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, it merged philosophical ideas—the eternal return, the linear versus looping path of history—with postcolonial concerns: who is counting down to what, and in the name of what? If the universe can be contained in the eye, then in Shetty’s reading, it still matters very much whose pupil is doing the beholding.
HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.