February 28, 2017


By Anoop Kamath

The third edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2016 is mammoth and spreads across a dozen venues across Kochi and the collateral exhibitions in another two dozens venues. Visiting this edition of the biennale and getting under the skin of the artworks displayed requires time, energy and concentration. The works exhibited in these venues are phenomenal. There are 97 artists representing 37 countries across the globe who are creating a buzz in Kochi. Primary venue of the biennale is the Aspinwall House, which houses a large number of exhibits including installations, murals, paintings, drawings, video and sound art projections and performance art.

Sudarshan Shetty, curator for KMB 2016, focuses on multiplicity. In his concept note ‘Forming in the pupil of an eye’, the curatorsays, “Imagination turns the gap between the seen and the unseen into a space of possibility. The gap between the real and the mythic, the seen and the felt, the hidden and the experienced offers the seductive possibility of truth as filler. Is it possible for objects as multiple occurrences to occupy this space as an inclusive experience?”

With only 29 days left for the biennale to end, MOA recommends five works, which one should not miss in this edition.

Sea of Pain by Raúl Zurita
As Raúl Zurita wades barefoot through the knee-deep stretch of seawater that covers his installation space at Aspinwall House, it is only his steps that are uncertain. Not his intent. That much is plain from his ‘Sea of Pain’.

“I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son,” reads Zurita’s poignant eulogy to the five-year-old brother of Alan Kurdi, the toddler whose prone body found set against the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015 remains the definitive image of the Syrian refugee crisis.

For Zurita, Galip is the victim the world overlooked – “There are no photographs of Galip Kurdi, he can’t hear, he can’t see, he can’t feel” – and representative of the other faceless forgotten in other crises and conflicts around the world. His tribute – a haunting poem composed of a series of disjointed queries that line the walls of the enclosure – is as much for them as for Galip.   

“Every person made to disappear, tortured, or killed represents the failure of all mankind. We don’t have great democratic values. You can’t be a democracy if you don’t care for the young, the vulnerable, minorities, the marginalised,” said the 66-year-old Chilean firebrand poet, who nevertheless doesn’t “believe that it is the responsibility of poets or artists to change this”.

“The realm of art is the realm of freedom and you can’t dictate what that realm should or should not be. For me, art is part of the world, but you can’t impose it on other people,” he said.

That would be akin to “fascism”: something Zurita – the first artist selected to participate in the ongoing third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale – is all too familiar with. When Chile’s democratically elected government was ousted in a military coup in September 1973, Zurita was arrested, tortured and imprisoned along with nearly 1,000 people in the hold of a ship.

Compounding the traumatic experience for the then 22-year-old was the loss of his works in progress – which he would later recollect and publish as Purgatorio, the first in a seminal trilogy of poetry collections – after the military officer who confiscated the writings as suspected coded messages had them declared subversive and thrown into the Chilean Sea.

Reconciling the two September events – separated by over four decades – is the ‘Sea’ as Zurita sees it: a gulf between peoples, a site of suffering, death and disappearance. Through verse and water, he asks visitors to become both audience and witness to this body of pain.

Sea of Pain is in keeping with Zurita’s history of art interventions. In 1982, the completion of the second part of his trilogy, Anteparaiso, saw 15 verses of the poem written in the New York sky. In 1993, his poem Ni pena ni misdo was printed in the sands of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

“There is nothing special about artists, but the entire gamut of humanity is captured in the act of making art. The only thing that matters is the agency behind it. Art expresses the artist’s self. For me, this is poetry. It is beautiful and painful, but the act itself is exultation,” Zurita said.

riff off OI#16238by Bob Gramsma
Bob Gramsma’s impressive installation is one of the exhibits  you get you see when you enter Aspinwall House.Gramsma’s installation riff off OI#16238 comes from music, where the term means: to improvise on a recognisable, established piece.

What the Swiss artist went through to put up his work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was nothing if not operatic.

The first act, of excavating earth from the site at Aspinwall House – likened to “borrowing both the soil and the compressed culture”, was always going to be difficult. Drawing line markers let him see what and how big it could be, but Gramsma said, “Once you start digging, you lose control and the picture of the sculpture because you go into the hollowness of the form.”

 “That's a tricky thing because it's not something that you can see happening,” he added. When peeling away layers of dirt and the histories imprinted therein – a metre of soil takes centuries to form naturally, “visualising the space” becomes especially important. The history Gramsma was particularly interested in digging up and building over with his “hyper-local” work was the lost port town of Muziris, to which Kochi shares an umbilical connection.

Into the vacuum of absent earth, he intended to put in a steel-reinforced concrete cast. About 110 tonnes of wet concrete was mixed and rolled, wooden planks had been lined up against the cavity to prevent slippage and the palm trees at the site were pulled apart to bring in the mixer.

 “Everything was settled and the hole was finished and everybody was prepared. The moment we started pouring in the concrete, the sky opened up and water started falling into the hole. But by that point, we could not afford to stop even though the machine pouring in the concrete was blocked-up several times. The plans did not account for this,” Gramsma said.

The incessant evening storm threatened to flood his sculpture, like Muziris. Then, “something happened” as a small army worked all night under the cover of a stretched tarpaulin – to protect both themselves and the concrete from the pelting rain – and saw the job through.

 “It continued to rain and work continued to go on. We could not speak each other’s languages but we all made contact step by step, communicated and understood what we had to do. That night, different cultures speaking different languages came together to work very hard and in the end we succeeded together,” Gramsma said.

The third act involved using the concrete slab’s own weight to lift it up from the cavity and positioning it at a roughly 170-180 degree angle to the site as a sculptural mirror image of its previous resting place in the void below. The intent was to make the installation a commentary on the various forces and state of flux inherent to all spaces over time.

 “We brought in a crane – not to lift up the slab, but to lend its weight and use its jacks to secure the sculpture. Then we returned the dug-up earth to the other end of the sculpture to help it rise up under the weight. After hours of work and worry, we saw a little gap,” Gramsma said.

It was slow going, but the team realised “it wasn't going to work until it did”. As the gap grew bigger, one of the four wires attached to support the slab snapped. By then however, a 160-degree inclination had been achieved.

 “It is a few degrees less than we planned for, but I think that in these conditions, we were very lucky,” said Gramsma, who has left the sculpture exposed to be reclaimed by the elements and time. Just at this moment, however, it is one of the most talked-about works at the Biennale. 

The New Along the River during the Qingming Festival 2014  by Dai Xiang
Giving an ancient Chinese painting a contemporary transformation through photographs, Chinese artist Dai Xiang, through his work The new along the river during the Qingming festival 2014, is piquing the interest of art lovers with its detailing and magnification of history through the lens of current times.

The 25metre, panoramic photo installation comprising more than 1,000 photographs strikes a chord with 12th century Chinese painting ‘River Side Scene at Kim Ming Festival’  by Zhang Zeduan. The characters and situations from the original painting of Zeduan are completely altered by Dai Xiang in his work.  Compiling one terra byte data and processing almost 10,000 layers of photos, Dai Xiang’s work  took nearly three years to complete. Xiang as portrayed himself as a character in 90 photos out of the 1,000 characters featuring in his artwork.Breaking national boundaries, Xiang’s photos sketches the current realities in China through a dramatic approach and points a finger at issues bothering China. A 21st century interpretation of a painting from Song dynasity, Xiang’s work was a topic of discussion in the Chinese social media.

The digital panorama on display at Aspinwall House will give an impression of Zeduan’s painting at first, but once you look at the detailing carefully, the crisis and issues of modern China will get clearer to the eyes.

The Chinese officials with ‘chenguan’ title who are shown in conflict with street vendors, real estate entrepreneurs who force native people out of their houses, streets of sex workers, luxury cars, scenes of accidents, amidst all these, unbothered, relaxed tourists walking with cameras in hand; likewise the panorama uses symbols that communicate with new world.

 “The representation of China, a nation which always had a conventional view, undergoing a conflict between westernisation and transformation after liberalisation is being revealed in my panorama,” said Dai Xiang. “I’ve tried to incorporate vivid perspectives to portrait an in-depth narrative,” says the artist. The ‘I’ factor is also included as the artist himself appears as an outsider and also as a part of the project throughout the panorama. “The stories, similarities and paradoxes experienced during the journey towards modern China are included in the photos,” says Dai Xiang. 

Dream Stop by Gary Hill
Dream Stop, a video installation by American artist Gary Hill at Durbar Hall Gallery in Ernakulam, offers visitors a way to view themselves in multiple dimensions.

Hill, considered as a pioneer of multimedia art utilises 31 spy cams, concealed in a large circular aluminium frame suspended from the ceiling, to splinter gallery visitors into 31 overlapping images of themselves.So a visitor can see various angles ranging from multiple strolling images including those projected upside down, right-side up, magnified, miniaturised, melting together and sliding apart – everything but the straight forward shot.

 “I am excited in juxtaposing aesthetics with conceptual art in the video installation. The title is a play on words. This can be interpreted as a station to begin a dream. It can also suggest the end of a dream, the stopping point,” says Hill.

Dream Stop transforms the entire room into an alternate reality of holographic projections.

“This can be interpreted as a comment on the surveillance society we inhabit – be it the self-surveillance that drives social media or the security-camera network that tracks us in an ever-growing number of public venues,” adds the artist.

Hill, who lives and works in Seattle, Washington, is one of the most accomplished artists of his generation and is regarded as a major contributor to new media art from the 1970s and continuing into the present.Viewed as one of the foundational artists in video art, based on the single-channel work and video- and sound-based installations of the 1970s and 1980s, he began working in metal sculpture in the late 1960s.His early forays into the interconnections between language and electronic imaging and the discovery of a principle of “electronic linguistics” opened new territory in art, with implications for language art, consciousness, thinking, and extended possibilities in electronic composition.

One also gets to see Hill’s other works – Aloidia Piorm, Sine Wave (The curve of the world) and Klein Bottle with the Image of its Own Making (After Robert Morris). 

12 stories (of the 12 Progeny) by P.K. Sadanandan
P.K. Sadanandan ‘s mural titled 12 stories (of the 12 Progeny) is a work in progress at Aspinwall House and one gets see the artist along with his three assistants working on the 15 metre long and three metre wide wall painting. The mural, which is painted using traditional technique with only natural colours, is done on 5 panels fixed on the walls.

Both the production and its preparation are a study in meticulousness.It began with the methodical creation of his colours. He sourced his black from the soot that accumulates in a clay pot that had been placed over a burning oil lamp for a week. For his red and yellow, he manually ground down saffron and yellow arsenic stones respectively – adding water to the powders to create paste. Laterite stones were ground for his yellow ochre, a slight hue variant of yellow.

“Since I don’t use chemically-derived dyes, it takes a lot of research work to identify the natural materials to derive the exact shades and colours I require. The identified materials are then treated at different levels before they are used on the wall. It takes two-three weeks to get the colours ready to use,” Sadanandan says.

Known for his elaborate works and dedication to reviving the traditional art of mural painting, the city-based artist has evolved a practice that combines local teachings in Kerala with styles from across India, taking cues from the ancient cave paintings in Ajanta and Ellora.

“Though mural painting is a traditional art practice, I blend it with more contemporary forms,” he said. The predominant blue in his works is one notable difference from the traditional Kerala mural style where red is the principal colour.

In keeping with his oeuvre, however, Sadanandan’s mural at the Biennale features icons and narratives inspired by mythology, encased within natural elements and organic world. 

“My subject has great significance when considering the present scenario on caste hegemony and issues pertaining in contemporary Indian society. This art work will evolve during the period of the Biennale,” he says.