KOCHI, India — I finally made the trip to Kerala, on India’s southern tip, not because tourism websites insist upon it as God’s own country, but because the first ever biennale hosted in India is taking place there at Kochi (or Cochin), a city that was once a thriving spice port. Bringing together an exciting range of artists from around the world in thirteen amazing venues, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has also boldly turned the searchlight on Indian contemporary art with a strong accent on the Keralam.
One of the first pieces to greet the visitor at the Aspinwall House, a major biennale venue by the sea, is a version of Wangechi Mutu’s mixed-media installation “Dutty Water,” which explores the tensions between pure and dirty through repetitive visual juxtapositions. Aspinwall’s crumbling colonial structure adds a unique poignancy to the work, which is known for its multilayered excursions into racial and gender identity as well as contemporary socio-politics.
In contrast, Amar Kanwar’s epic tapestry of text, film, news clippings, ledger records, photographs, books, and samples of 266 varieties of rice-paddy grains demand a sterilized, darkened gallery space recreated specifically for this exhibition. Kanwar’s “The Sovereign Forest” is an attempt to “reopen discussion and initiate a creative response to our understanding of crime, politics, human rights and ecology,” the exhibition text reads, and though overtly a battle-cry against erasure — of landscapes, livelihoods and subsequently, lives — by industry, the piece succeeds in connecting “intimate personal histories with the wider politics of power” in an overarching sense.
Amar Kanwar’s “The Sovereign Forest” at Documenta 13
The two looping videos, “A Love Story” and “The Gatekeeper,” are bracketing visual poems on loss whose ideological lexicon have been provided by Kanwar’s seed book, with its record of paddy seeds and cultivation cycles. The photo albums and wall pieces visually record the protests and mass suicides of short-changed farmers as well as a bewildering array of paddy grain samples. The two “Big Books” that await the viewer’s eager thumbing are massive affairs in handmade paper, bearing video-loops and texts of newly constructed myths that try to codify the unbearable pain of a world dismembered and divested of the human body and reason.
Under assault from the work’s material evidence of overwhelming and omnipresent injustice, the mind seeks respite, which it promptly finds in Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s neon text that simultaneously renders a stanza from Kalidasa’s 5th-century C.E. love poem, Meghaduta (“Cloud Messenger”) in Sanskrit, and, when reflected upon water in a darkened room, English. The installation is a most apt paean to the biennale’s multicultural concerns.
Wandering out, I am called back in time with Subodh Gupta’s “Untitled” (2012). Accosting him later in the week at the India Art Fair in Delhi, I find the artist refers to it as the “boat piece,” whose “title will arrive with time.” The “boat piece,” which was developed as a vision “of the microcosm of the boat as an entity that contains the entire existence of a person, his basic needs…” was so massive that it had to be cut in two to be brought into the exhibition space, and was later stitched together by local craftspeople. And yes, as expected of Gupta, it is monumental — a Noah’s ark of sorts, inclined at an impossible angle towards the viewer, its load of weathered cycles, televisions, aluminium, kettles, pans, chairs, suitcases, and shelves precariously balanced against gravity’s urge to bring it all tumbling down upon you, and into Vivan Sundaram’s mock-archaeological installation “Black Gold” (2012) that lie right at its feet. Sundaram’s 35-by-17-foot brick-enclosed rectangle on the floor holds thousands of pot shards excavated and brought on loan from the nearby archaeological site of Pattanam, to revive the myth of Muziris, an ancient port city after which the biennale is partly named. An accompanying video loop is projected nearby, and disconcertingly, on the floor. It documents the flooding of the mock site and subsequent additions of “black gold” or peppercorn, the world’s once-favorite spice (and a popular export of Kerala), to open up intuitive visions into unforeseen histories.
Spice returns in Sheela Gowda’s “Grinding Stones” (2012). Spread across two floors, the piece holds true to the artist’s self-professed commitment to speaking through the material. She collected about 170 spice grinding stones found in traditional Indian kitchens, implements which have been abandoned by households for more modern options and lifestyles. Culled from the streets and re-posited by Gowda as gravestones in the cemetery of a dying tradition, the grinding stones spill out onto Kochi’s seafront, whose thriving spice trade has now gone defunct.
Later, as I walk towards the exit, I am tempted to climb up a makeshift staircase of sand-filled gunny bags and strain my head into a bamboo-mesh cocoon hanging high up in the air. Participators are encouraged to release all negativity into the space (“Erase,” 2012) created by Srinivasa Prasad, to be set afire afterwards in one big ritual of “good riddance!”
As I leave the sprawling grounds of Aspinwall, Brahminy kites and seagulls screech overhead while Marilyn Monroe croons “Bye Bye Baby” from a ubiquitous but stationary auto-rickshaw — reinvented again by French artist Giuseppe Stampone as a symbol for the “decadent Western world in crisis,” which he calls “Uttam Duniya (The Perfect World)” (2012).
The sounds collate into a metaphor for the show itself — exciting, fresh. and remarkably grounded notwithstanding the occasional lapse into the jaded and over-explored. I feel thankful that the celebrated artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu (and a dedicated biennale team) put it together to revitalize the region, for they seem to have done the same for the discourse of the contemporary in art while doing so. It is an experience worth flying down south for.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale runs in Kochi, Kerala, India through March 13. Stay tuned for further posts covering the biennale.