January 15, 2015


By Georgina Maddox 

The Kochi Biennale is a work in progress, going in the right direction

The nun, dressed in a black-and-white habit, closed her eyes when Black Pearl took off most of his clothes save for his black g-string. But the cleric could not help peeking through her fingers as Black Pearl began to smear black paint upon his hirsute body, much to the curiosity of the growing crowd thronging outside the window of his ‘room’. It was the first day of a 50-hour performance by artist Nikhil Chopra who took on the identity of Black Pearl, an ‘ambiguous colonial character’. Chopra’s performance that was a multifaceted take on colonial trade, monarchy and slavery, was definitely one of the highlights of the latest edition of the Kochi Biennale. 

The much awaited event opened on December 12, 2014, to clinking champagne flutes, heady boat rides, curator’s walks, artist’s talks and vigorous drumming by the Pandi Melam a local mélange of drums, pipes and cymbals. 

Overbooked hotels and guest houses indicated that many people had flown in excited to be at the second Kochi Murziris Biennale. The dark shadow of the 2012 funding scam that had engulfed the festival president and secretary, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, seems to have lifted from the Biennale and despite lesser monies. 

This year the government donated only Rs 2 crore as opposed to the Rs 6 crore of last time. “Money has come from various sources like artist donations and patrons who have helped us garner over Rs 50 lakh. If you have the faith things work out,” said Bose. “It is now truly the people’s Biennale,” added Dayanita Singh who displayed her work Dear Mr Walter, a travelling archive of her photographs that told the poignant story of the death of a friend. On that note the veil lifted on what appeared to be a new and improved version of the Biennale.

Unlike 2012 where many of the works were not mounted or even ready, this year’s Biennale saw almost 90 per cent of the artwork up in time for the gala opening. One is still befuddled as to why a Biennale that poses as the ‘Largest alternative art event in South East Asia,’ cannot have all the artwork up in time for the opening. The glaring sight of the under-construction Pavilion at Aspinwall, the unpacked artwork in crates at the Durbar Hall and the mysteriously empty rooms at Pepper House were a bit disheartening to see on the opening day. 

However many visitors were just thankful that the exhibition was up with informative labels, a bilingual catalogue and a curator’s walk-and-talk, which made it far more comprehensive viewing than last-times creative cacophony. Credit goes to curator Jitish Kallat whose distinctive curated theme (but rather unfortunate exhibition title— Whorled Explorations) contributed to a more cohesive Biennale. Kallat says the exhibition, has many points of reference, especially that of trade and astronomy. “During the 15th century, the shores of Kochi were linked to the maritime chapter of the Age of Discovery—a tale of grit, greed and human ingenuity,” says the artist-curator. The 14th and 16th centuries were also seen as times of astronomy and mathematics and the birth of the Kerala School of Astronomy, which is why the entire left wing of Aspinwall speaks directly to that theme. 

Notable works in this section were Natraj Sharma’s delightful and humorous sculptural installation titled Alternative Shapes for the Earth, a work that grew playfully while Sharma was explaining the solar eclipse to his daughter. Mona Hatoum’s Undercurrent, an assemblage of blubs and cables, buzzed with beauty and danger for it could warn of a landmine or an erupting volcano. 

One understood the relevance of displaying Charles and Ray Eames work Powers of Ten at the beginning of the exhibition, even though it was made in 1977. The visionary video work almost anticipates the age of Google earth images as it zooms out of a family picnicking in a park in California to out of space, spanning the entire universe. In contrast David Horowitz’s 1013 work, a recording of a sunset and a sun-rise on two cell-phones, seemed simplistic and insulted the intelligence of many. It left one with the question, “Is this really art?” 

The same could be said for Tara Kelton’s Birth of Adam, a Nokia screen saver of two hands meeting that appears when one switches the phone one. It left viewers thinking: Are we dumbing things down too much? Shouldn’t art move beyond the obvious? 

These lazy artworks jarred in contrast to arresting pieces like Mithu Sen’s intriguing video piece I have only one language; it is not my own, which poignantly commented on the hidden hierarchies of language and communication, Neha Choksi’s poetic and existential piece Ice Boat  captures her frantically rowing a melting  ice boat in a vast expanse of sea, Prashant Pandey’s giant diamond made of blood slides was impressive in scale but a little foggy in what it was trying to convey.

 Anish Kapoor’s installation, a swirling whirlpool in a rotating drum, titled Decension had audiences curious and excited, even though it was not up in time for the opening. It spoke of destabilising the notion of solid objects and forming spontaneous forms and designs, a current concern for Kapoor. The artist’s increased presence in India is heartening to say the least. 

Stepping out of Aspinwall, viewers dashed off to the charming sea-facing Pepper House. Here one was pleasantly surprised by the artwork which could be seen as one of the best curated sections. Not only were the works complete, but each piece was compelling and spoke directly to the theme. 

Gigi Scaria’s 20 foot stainless-steel bell spouting like a water-fountain was arresting and thought provoking in its take on time, trade and spirituality. 

A theme that was also reflected in Benitha Perciyal’s mystical and evocative biblical sculptures carved out of scented wood. Coupled with a sealed room full of artifacts and a perfume cabinet, the work was both visually intriguing and headily fragrant. Bharti Kher’s nautical instruments overwhelmed with their sheer size and sculptural quality. “The works are a philosophical meditation on time and geometry”, said the artist. 

On a lighter and more playful note Sumakshi Singh’s interactive installation, In Between the Pages delighted viewers. The 70-foot maze of paper scrolls was a space where hand- animated stories came alive. “The work references illustrations from the Hortus Malabaricus, a 17th century Dutch, East India Company’s compendium of Kerala’s flora. It takes off from the myth around Vasco da Gama’s arrival in Calicut,” says Singh, inviting you to be part of the work as a camera captures the viewer and projects one into the world of painted dancing figures. 

Sitting on the grassy lawns of Pepper House, is N.S. Harsha’s sculpture of a wise monkey pointing to the sky while holding an orb-shaped like the earth, just the right sentiment to round off the satisfying experience of being there.  

Besides the national and international crowd, the Biennale seems to have made a genuine effort this time around to reach out to the local population, especially school children and young art students who made their presence felt. 

There were several interesting murals by a group of Delhi graffiti artists while one angry mural that caricatured Bose and Komu fornicating found its way on the walls. Despite this bit of irritation, the KMB is all set to woo the locals as well.  While many artists confessed to facing infrastructural problems and having a general nightmare putting up works, one can safely say that the Kochi Biennale is a work in progress, going in the right direction. 

(The writer was hosted by BMW)