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Posted at: Mar 19, 2017, 12:57 AM; last updated: Mar 19, 2017, 12:57 AM (IST)KOCHI BIENNALE 2017

Visual art beyond seeing

Vandana Shukla

The Kottapuram river, 45 km south of Kochi, Kerala, flows in its surreal majesty oblivious to a 124-metre-long scroll fluttering on its shores. The epic figure painting Walking out of Bayan Har by Chinese artist Li Bo’an chronicles the life of Tibetans, in the fluidity of everyday life and in the stillness of suffering. The theatre of their lives was initially enacted in the mountain region of China where the Yellow river originates. On the Indian soil at Muziris Heritage site, this work of art is a pause in the monumental web of time, rivers, shores, human journeys and their histories. It engages you in its reflective recess.

The act of viewing a work of art can contain its own share of blindness; for each viewer is not able to open and interpret all layers, few remain closed. By placing works of art at unusual locations the experience is enhanced, liberating it from the limitation of ‘seeing’.

Not all works at the third chapter of Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) offer you the privilege of reflective engagement; ardent expressions of people’s displacements, forced exiles, tales of human indifference and geographical arrogance pull you in by its sheer force. This art is not for comfort — to be discussed within compromised frames of artistic liberty over wine and cheese in air conditioned galleries. Most of these works are bold political statements.

Fear, tears and empathy

Wading through the seawater, which creates its own resistance, I walk through a long hall in Aspinwall House, reading questions inscribed on the walls by Chilean poet Raul Zurita, “Don’t you listen? Don’t you hear me? Don’t you feel me?” At the other end of the installation created by him, I read his dedication to the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, who was washed ashore a beach, while the world remained immune to the Sea of Pain. Or, the dark, blind labyrinth of The Pyramid of Exiled Poets, where the pupil of the eye doesn’t function, you begin to ‘see’ with the ears. Ales Steger, a Yugoslavian artist, creates an architectural homage to the exiled poets of the world. Inside the monument of the histories— kept hidden from humanity— you hear rasping voices of poets exiled from their land — Ovid, Dante Alighieri, Yang Lian, Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Blatny and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote, “I’m a name without a surname.” Stumbling inside the spooky dark labyrinth, fearing the dead-end in this strange isolation, the vocal remains of the world literature open my eyes in a new way to the experience of being exiled. In as connected a global world as we inhabit, no experience is isolated. Artists have expanded their canvas to assimilate the world, and the viewer is not allowed to remain a mere spectator, she has to step in and be a part of it.

Over a dozen venues where the works of art have been installed are found in the labyrinthine lanes of Mattancherry, in abandoned yards, godowns, temple courtyards, clubs, cafes, harbors and ruins. Art is life, it happens in the midst of all that life is about — out of the isolation of museums — in lanes laced with the smell of spice and fish, the staid uninhabited-for-long spaces, amid sounds of the waves and the hooting ships passing. Your perceptions explode with renewed receptivity. At one godown all visitors begin to sneeze and cough, to discover, the store is stacked with sacks of dried red chilies. Then, there are six venues for Student’s Biennale alone and several more for the collateral projects.

Out of the frame

It’s an assembly of multiple realities, of layered truths, as the theme of the biennale ‘Forming in the Pupil of an Eye’, suggests, curated by Sudarshan Shetty. The biennale offers parallel realities of the world — viewed differently in the realm of political, historical, social and philosophical multiplicities. The complexity of religion and spirituality, cause of much distress in the world, is subtly explored using digital language by Lebanese artist Khaled Sabsadi, exploring 70,000 veils of light and darkness separating an individual from the divine, a belief held by Sufi scholars. He uses 100 video channels to interrogate the concept by creating an awe-inspiring 3D experience, based upon quest for divinity in his daily life and surroundings.

Chinese artist Yang Hongwei’s work Ye Yan Tu, of universal relevance is created within a dystopian world to explore the relationships of suppressed sexuality, power and industrialisation, blending narratives from past, present and future. The traditional 12-metre-long scroll, a paper-and-ink work, pushes all boundaries of artistic explorations, it makes one wonder if local artists, conscious of someone looking over their shoulder, are deprived of such excellence. Spanish artist Javier Perez’s video installation features a ballerina’s dance atop a giant piano in an empty theatre; her pointe shoes are fitted with sharp kitchen knives, on which she twirls and balances till she reaches exhaustion — humanity’s ability to cruelty and violence in its pursuit of beauty and perfection is spine-chilling. Breaking the frame of expectation, Ouyang Jianghe puts poetry in a visual space; the play of light on the constantly moving texts throws up fresh contexts. Australian artist Alex Seton works are centred around home and displacement, a strong theme at KMB. His displayed work, Refuge, is a marble sculpture depicting an emergency blanket-like material draped around an absent figure.

Works of Indian artists present diverse views; Kabir Mohanty’s brilliantly researched perceptual video installation Song for an Ancient Land, Himmat Shah’s figurative sculptures that put together diverse forms, schools and materials, giving a new frame to modernity — juxtaposing presence and absence. Or, P K Sadanandan’s ongoing highly ornamental and elaborate mural, not to be missed is Japanese artist Yuko Mohri’s highly sophisticated kinetic-sonic sculptures, made of discarded objects, takes the ‘circuits’ made of space and sound to the next level.

Art for uninvited guests

Over 97 artists and 108 works of art from 31 countries scattered over a radius of 80-km periphery represent art practices from different continents of the world as well as from diverse regions of India, encompassing poetry, music, video, canvas, sculpture and other art forms using diverse materials in their distinct interconnectedness. What makes KMB more relevant for the contemporary times — caught between the either or of the globalisation versus deglobalisation debate — is its ability to offer an experience that defies the confines of national/ regional/ideological/ geographical/ racial or political frames.

At a time when liberal thought is being tested on the grounds of tradition, KMB thumbs the nose at regressive forces.

A labour of love, the catalogue is worth preserving. Art is no more meant for the privileged minority, my mind hums Adrienne Rich’s lines as I leave, “You are taking parts of us into places never planned / you are going far away with pieces of our lives.”


Facts about KMB

The third chapter of KMB, inaugurated on December 6, 2016, will be open till March 29, 2017. An initiative of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, founded by two Mumbai-based artists from Kerala, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu in 2012, the biennale is supported by the Government of Kerala. It has changed the art education and art practices in the state, the number of national and international visitors, too, has grown steadily, benefiting tourism and subsidiary industries in the state.

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