Biennale in Progress…

Kochi Biennale 2012
Multiple venues, Kochi, India
12 December 2012 – 13 March 2013

Having seen, in 2011, Biennale Jogja XI (Indonesia), which was Jogjakarta’s first international biennale, and which included Indonesian and Indian artists, the Kochi Biennale, India’s first, was highly anticipated. The experience of it began right at Kochi airport on the day of the opening. Upon arrival, I saw a man holding up the Biennale insignia awaiting official delegates, so I thought I’d be clever and hustle a free ride into the city. Trying (and failing) to convince him that as a critic, I was indeed ‘a guest of the Biennale’, I stood waiting for the actual delegates to gather. Within minutes of being introduced to an author, a prominent Kerelan philosopher and a Tibetan artist, I found myself in conversation on displacement, notions of the ‘promised land’ and identity politics. Dubbing ourselves the ‘Convergence of the Lazies’, as each of us professed faux-pretence at being either a writer, an artist, a journalist or a philosopher, as we drove on the conversation traversed the Exodus, negation of tokenism in contemporary Tibetan art, the history of Muziris, Bob Marley, Subodh Gupta and WWII. 

None of us were aware of any formal Biennale itinerary or agenda for the opening and the next few days, but no matter. I met Bangladeshi artist Dr. Shahidul Alam at the hotel lobby, who good-humouredly pointed out that he was as yet not aware of which venue his work would be installed in. But the full extent of the disarray would soon make itself evident in the lack of artist list, maps, wall texts, labels, catalogues and program scheduling. However, after casting aside this mild irritation, the Biennale then became one of discovery, happy accidents in identifying ‘art’ from ‘non-art’ and free flowing conversations with artists and attendees about the ideology of a Biennale—and mosquito repellent!

Aspinwall House, a colonial sea facing property established by the British trader John H. Aspinwall, who traded in coconut oil, turmeric, pepper and other spices, stood as the main Biennale venue. Its offices, bungalow, and outer structures were made available to the artists to utilise as intervention spaces and, while most rose to the challenge, a few neglected the opportunity to delve into a rich history to create distinctive art.

Nalini Malani was the only artist whose digital projection was up and running on time. Her In Search of Vanished Blood (2012) included projection, sound and hand drawn animation, and was installed in the Aspinwall conference room. The video was projected onto an old world map which, unusually, had America at its centre. In light of the recent economic fluxus which began with America and had a domino effect on Greece, Malani invokes the myth of the doomed prophetess Cassandra from Greek myth, alongside other references. Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s esoteric installation Not Death, utilised rows of shelves to archive natural elements such as leaves, twigs, clay and saw dust, arranged in organic patterns. A ladder invited audiences to climb to the top and discover what lay hidden on upper shelves (mini-pyramids arranged from colour pigments). Amar Kanwar’s political multi-media installation, The Sovereign Forest, does not address its space but brings to question changing economic and agricultural practices which have put scores of farmers into a cycle of debt, resulting in mass suicides. In such a case of a crime still in progress, Kanwar suggests evidence in the form of two hundred and sixty-six varieties of indigenous organic rice seeds, eight photographs, poetry and visual projections unravelling on handmade books.

Balancing on the poetic was a sculptural and performative intervention by Joseph Semah (Iraq) titled, 72 Privileges […]. Semah had stumbled upon a forgotten local myth about a King of Kochi who granted seventy-two privileges, inscribed on copper plate, to the new Jewish settlers. Semah’s space, aesthetically arranged with copper plates and tangled rope, was overpowered by a familiar scent, the source of which was discovered to be an installation directly below. Mumbai based Anant Joshi affixed hundreds of dimly glowing electric mosquito repellents around four walls in a darkened room, not unlike some sacred temple. Young artist T. Venkanna’s Pancha Mahabhuta was an intriguing site specific installation of five large canvases, representing the five elements while citing references to Duchamp, Gauguin and Botticelli’s Venus, who stood effaced. 

In a neighbouring site, the monumental and the miniature met at a former ship building yard with works by Subodh Gupta and Vivan Sundaram. A large Kerelan boat hung precariously from one end; in it lay lo-brow codifiers of the common man: a tattered old chair, kettles, quilts, an antiquated TV set and other humble objects. Dangerously tipping as though on the verge of a high wave about to crash, Gupta’s Untitled (2012) inspires awe and anxiety for its fate. Perhaps a reference to early Jewish settlers who fled from persecution and sought sanctuary at the southern tip of India, or a contemporary reminder of the 12th century flooding of the ancient port town Muziris, which Sundaram recreated nearby. In his Black Gold (2012)—an allusion to pepper—Sundaram sourced pot-shards from the excavation site at Pattanam, the archeological location of Muziris, and reimagined the city with detailed terracotta arches, arenas and pathways which he then flooded with water and pepper. Addressing recent floods, climate change and resulting displaced communities, Ranbir Kaleka’s three channel video, House of Opaque Water, finally up and running on day four, charts the notion of ‘home’ through the journey of Sheikh Lal Mohan, who describes his long submerged village within the Sundarbans, home to the world’s largest mangrove forest, which are being swallowed by the ever rising sea-level.

Meanwhile, Atul Dodiya’s disappointing installation, Celebration in the Laboratory (2012), consisted of casual, blurry or flash-lit photographs (from his personal album) of his prominent friends from the Indian art scene, in a space which was previously a laboratory. But how does it function as a work of art? Dodiya insisted it was a celebration of how the Biennale has come together. Shreyas Karle’s The Fountain, a banal malfunctioning fountain, barely registered as an artwork, and Giuseppe Stampone’s (France) Uttam Duniya/The Perfect World (2012), an auto-rickshaw with loud-speakers atop, blaring ‘Bye Bye Baby’ on a loop, had to be the most irritating artwork of the Biennale. The text which went up on day three mentioned some jargon about India’s enduring mode of transport and globalisation.

A stone’s throw away in Cabral Yard, lay Sudarshan Shetty’s excavation site, I know nothing of the end, a number of dug out zones in which exquisitely carved wood temple arches were placed. The artist’s intention may have been to mimic an excavation yielding these beautiful finds, but the overall effect looked too staged. And sure enough, on a second visit to the site, one beheld Shetty’s craftsmen chipping away at the carving—the work was still in progress.

Pepper House, another of the waterfront heritage warehouses with Dutch-style clay roofs, included artists who used the space inventively. Similar in spirit to Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s participatory intervention, for her installation Splitting the subject (2012), Anita Dube set up seven ladders ascending into the ceiling to offer different view-points into a hidden space. The audience on the floor looking up, saw a playful visual of a headless body on each ladder, while the viewer on the ladder perceived disembodied heads as part of the installation. For his Leave Your Shoes Here (2012), Australian Iranian artist Hossein Valamanesh chose a dark space lit only by a few spotlights, channelled through slim cylindrical cloth, to fall on oriental patterns of Persian carpets which lined the floor, leaving the viewer to contemplate its stunning aesthetic and political implications.

Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, yet another warehouse venue, held in its musty attic the Biennale’s most memorable work. Climbing onto rickety termite-ridden stairs, one could smell the unmistakable scent of spices even before viewing Ernesto Neto’s (Brazil) installation, Life is a River (2012). Local cotton fabrics covered the ceiling with three stockings drooping heavily in the centre with the weight of turmeric, cloves and cinnamon. Still in Moidu, of Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s four-channel video Citizens Band (2012), only one was up by day three; a film showing Geraldine Zongo, from Cameroon, practicing the traditional African water drumming technique in a swimming pool in Paris. 

The Biennale included eighty artists from twenty three countries, with as few as eight women artists, which somehow seems endemic of most biennales (and some artists’ works were stuck at customs or not yet installed). However the local Gallery OED made up for the difference with an exhibition featuring twelve international women artists. 

As I write this, reports of vandalism to two artworks have come in, and Dutch artist Jonas Staal’s politically volatile installation of flags and a scheduled conference of different terrorist organisations has come under police enquiry. Here is a Biennale that has come together against all odds, as critic Ranjit Hoskote recollected in tracing the genealogy of Kochi-Muziris through a number of unsuccessful attempts since the ’60s. We must bear in mind that this Biennale is as much about social conscious as it is about reaching out to the local and regional public through grassroots art and education programs. Artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu spent three years bringing this initiative to fruition and have proved the Biennale’s relevance to policy makers and sponsors who initially supported, then withdrew funding and sponsorship. They now ask the art community to nurture a seed they have firmly planted.


Subodh Gupta, Untitled, 2012. Courtesy Kochi Biennale.

Nalini Malani, In search of vanished blood, 2012. Courtesy Kochi Biennale.

Anita Dube, Splitting the subject, 2012. Courtesy Kochi Biennale.

Sudarshan Shetty, I know nothing of the End, 2012. Courtesy Kochi Biennale.