Art

Making the Personal Collective at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Part 2

The Insufficiency of Images
Gert Jan Kochen, “The Insufficiency of Images” (2012)

Hyperallergic previously covered the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in part one of our review.

KOCHI, India — Pepper House is a quaint colonial structure with a lush central courtyard on the Kochi seafront, and serves as a major venue for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale with some extraordinary displays — Alex Mathew’s monumental anchor rising upward in a surreal bid to touch the sky overhead greets you as you walk in. Named after the once-thriving spice port of Kochi (Kerala, India) the Kochi-Muziris Biennale succeeds in part because of the organizing committee’s courageous curatorial strategy to allow artists the rare final say in the installation of their work. Also, despite bringing together an international array of art-makers, the biennale’s focus is unequivocally on the Indian, initiating a restructuring of the paradigm of the “contemporary” in the country’s national art.

Alex Mathew at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (All photos by author)
Alex Mathew at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (All photos by author for Hyperallergic)

“The Insufficiency of Images” (2012), by the late Gert Jan Kochen (Netherlands), is extraordinary. It slices through the cycles of time — delving into the nature of the divine in monotheistic religions, Kochen’s work is a tapestry of photographic documentation, text, and three pieces of sculpture produced specifically for the biennale. Jan Kochen had often commissioned sculptors to produce images of Jesus Christ in accordance with the physiognomic mappings researched and set down by the Swiss philosopher Lavater. What the three local Keralan artisans came up with when commissioned for the biennale, given no prior information on the identity of the subject, are there for the world to see. Juxtaposed against defaced images of Madonna and Christ from 16th century Europe, the emotional impact the rough-hewn busts generate is quite overwhelming. In contrast, K.P. Reji’s acrylic-on-canvas triptych “Thoombinkal Chattan” (2012) has a more insidious effect as it explores the local legend of an incarnation holding up a dam with his body. Constantly at risk of being brushed off as a Rousseau-esque foray into the naive, the work yields moments of uncanny poignancy.

Next door, CAMP’s multi-channel video installation is an incursion into hardcore reality as it clinically records the imports and exports at the Kochi port. Crossing over from the realm of dry visual ledgering into the sublime, “Destuffing Matrix” (2012) is effective through sheer multifariousness.

Ibrahim Quraishi, "Islamic Violins" at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Ibrahim Quraishi, “Islamic Violins” (2012) at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Upstairs, Ibrahim Quraishi’s “Islamic Violins” (2012) is a simultaneous tribute to the Fluxus movement and a comment on contemporary global politics of death — each pristine white violin is delicately defaced (and therefore endowed with history) to form a mesmerizing assembly line of “perfection.” A video loop showing the instrument being blown into smithereens is a reminder of the perfect lives being lost while destroying others worldwide — a very relevant incursion into the issue of suicide bombings.

Further on, Anita Dube’s “Splitting the Subject” (2012) invites the audience to climb up along a ladder of their choice into an attic space, which houses an installation of a massive, lit-up, paper globe and other geometric forms. The artist claims to be evoking “the encounter of the project of modernity and the provincial imagination.” The viewer’s body physically occupies two simultaneous realities while experiencing the confrontation of Euclidian forms, combined with the soundtrack of spices being ground in an obviously pre-modern, rural setting — even as Kochi’s traffic noise rolls on outside, in real time!

Anita Dube, "Splitting the Subject" at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Anita Dube, “Splitting the Subject” at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The unexpected gem at Pepper House is Gitanjali Rao’s lyrical, animated video piece dedicated to her mother and her cat. It vividly captures the trauma of loneliness in old age and the ways in which the self finds respite in imaginary worlds, here sparked off by images on matchboxes from her extensive collection. These are the worlds she bodily moves into in passing the gauntlet of death. The personal is thrown open and morphs into collective memory, free for every viewer to access. I walked out of the space with a sense of a day well spent, looking forward to more of the surprises that Kochi-Muziris Biennale is bound to keep sending my way.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is India’s first biennale and will be running in Kochi, Kerala (India) through March 13, 2013.

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