The lawn had large vertebrae shaped blocks scattered about. On closer inspection it looked like the skeleton of some giant denizen of the deep, with a large S-shaped neck. Elsewhere, a Giant Bookshelf held multicolored books of all hues. These were some of the many displays of contemporary art at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Art Festival.
I was in Kochi recently and was lucky to be able to attend the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Art Festival. The festival is in its second edition and is held once in two years at Cochin or Kochi. The art festival hosts contemporary art from all over the world and is spread over 108 days, hosting artwork from over 90 artists from 30 countries. It’s a visual feast for anyone who enjoys contemporary art.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale started in 2012 as an initiative of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation and the Government of Kerala. The first edition of the festival was a grand success hosting about 80 artists and drawing almost 400,000 visitors1. The 2014-2015 edition of the festival definitely seemed to be bigger in scale.
For the second edition of the festival, the theme was “Whorled Explorations”. The various artwork on display over 08 venues all incorporated this theme. The theme is best explained in the words of the curator of the festival:
Whorled Explorations is conceived as a temporary observation deck hoisted at Kochi. The exhibition draws upon a wide glossary of signs from this legendary maritime gateway to bring together sensory and conceptual propositions that map our world referencing history, geography, cosmology, time, space, dreams and myths.
– Jitish Kallat, Artistic Director
The festival featured a lot of installations in the open such as Mansoor Ali’s “Carriers of Democracy”, an interpretation of the facets of power politics present in India, created in wood, metal, rubber tyres, rope and jute. Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’s Balancing Act on the other hand was a public sculptural installation inspired by an 18th century Jaipur School miniature painting depicting acrobats on a tightrope performing before a ruler and his court. The acrobats were depicted in various positions and can be thus read as allegories for the precariousness of the political situation. In his sculptural translation of these acrobats the artist modified their facial features to resemble current political figures, thus conflating political intrigues of the present with a similarly turbulent period in the past.
I spent most of my time at the Aspin Wall venue. Aspin Wall was one of the bigger venues hosting a lot of exhibits over its sprawling campus. The exhibits included American Poet Aram Saroyan’s minimalist poems “lighght” which was spread all over the venues of the festival and “m“, which is regarded as the shortest poem ever written. Other exhibits included a wonderful timeline depiction of what we thought our future would look like through the eyes of science fiction and popular cinema. For a science fiction fan like me, it was a fascinating exhibit.
The lawns had a sprawling cinder block installation called “Backbone” by artist Shantamani Muddaiah. This was a sculptural installation in the shape of a large spinal column. The backbone was seen as a metaphor for the centripetal forces that hold civilizations together, from rivers to ideologies. Made of cinder, the combusted remains of coal, the 90-foot-long installation was curled on the ground like a giant sea serpent, prompting questions about its origin. Elsewhere, photos depicted the eerie world of ship breaking, while many exhibits celebrated the maritime traditions of mankind.
A whirlpool of water filled one floor, tying in to the theme of the festival while the exhibit “Zero to the Right” replayed recordings of people counting $2000 in English, 7346 AED in Arabic and 125,427 in Malayalam. $2000 was the production budget of the artist Sunoj D, responsible for the exhibit. Yet another floor hosted Navjot Atlaf’s installation called “Mary Wants to Read a Book”, which was a gigantic shelf of multi-coloured books . The installation recognized the significance of Kerala’s literacy movement and library culture widely considered as key ingredients in the success of the Kerala Model of Development.
Kader Attia’s Independence Disillusionment explored the complex legacy of colonialism in the Middle East and Africa.The exhibit was made of a series of 26 paintings that depict stamps from different African and Middle-East Nations. Released soon after these nations achieved independence, the stamps carry images – of space shuttles, moon landings and heroic scientists – that reflect the utopian dreams of these countries as they lunged towards the promise of modernity. Read alongside the state of conflict and human suffering that we identify with several of these regions in the present, Attia’s paintings become and indictment of the failure of modernity.
On the other hand NS Harsha’s “Punarapi Jananam” , was a detailed painting which depicted a panoramic view of the universe presented as an infinite loop. The 79-foot long abstract painting, literally occupied an entire warehouse !!! The enormity of the painting necessitated a walk along its length to reveal it from multiple perspectives .
In fact there were so many varied exhibits that it was almost impossible to cover all of Aspin Wall in the short time that I has set aside for the festival.
One thing that struck me during my time exploring the festival’s exhibits were the many international artists that had come to display their art. As I was walking down a street in Jew Town, I was suddenly confronted with a giant rainbow over the street. Ok, more like half a rainbow. The artwork was very similar to the art installation “Tęcza” by Polish artist Julita Wójcik which can be found in Plac Zbawiciela in Warsaw. While I was wondering about this, I was attracted to a banner that listed a number of Polish artists. I walked into the building that was hosting the art to take a look at some of the art on display. One of the exhibits there was of a series of photographs depicting the creation of the public art installation called “Oxygenator” by Joanna Rajkowska which was installed in Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw. While looking at the photos, the gentleman who was taking care of the exhibits was curious as to why I would be interested in Polish art. We got talking and when he realized that I had just been to Poland recently, he opened up and gave me a guided tour of the premises. Some of the other art on display played on Poland’s history with it’s neighbours and strife that it went through until recent times. And he also confirmed that the rainbow was another of Julita Wójcik’s creations. It’s a small world after all
Overall the festival was quite a delight to go through. My only regret was that I could not spend more time admiring the art on display.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on till the 29th of March, 2015. The next edition of the festival will be held in 2016-2017.