Whorled Expectations

Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Various Venues, Kochi
12 December 2014 – 29 March 2015

As one of only two biennials in South Asia, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is inevitably discussed in terms of its lack of government funding, although a printed guide — distributed in a timely fashion for the first time — lists its international patrons: Singapore’s National Arts Council, Hong Kong’s Burger Collection, the UAE’s Barjeel Art Foundation, Office for Contemporary Art Norway, and the Kerala government, among others. Given how problematic it is for Indian artists to locate any funding at all, why feature nearly one hundred artists in the first two editions of the Biennale? Why not have a more tightly curated exhibition with just fifty artists and fewer venues? As one participating artist puts it, founders Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu have heart. Instead of taking small steps towards establishing a biennial for local audiences new to contemporary art, they have admirably persisted in putting on events of astounding scale and breadth. As per this year’s curator, Indian artist Jitish Kallat, the strength of the Biennale is its fragility: ‘It’s about creatively befriending uncertainty and doing what we can with what we have’. That the biennale goes up at all, elicits awe. Responses, thus, are by and large sympathetic, while apparently discussions on the quality of artworks on offer take little precedence in an as yet maturing scene. 

The selection of Kallat as curator, reinforced the position of India’s Biennale as an artist-led initiative that emphatically engages with the public outside of static spaces of speculation and transaction. Labelled as ‘Whorled Explorations’, Kallat took his cues from the history of Kochi as a maritime hub since the fifteenth century. However, through invoking an age of discovery, he also raised its unseemly aspects: subjugation, colonialism and exploitation. His thoughtful curatorial brief was meant as a prompt for artists to consider their place in the universe and to investigate collective conflicts. Though artist NS Harsha presents a literal take on the theme with a near eighty foot-long painting of a whorled cosmos, and Bengaluru duo Pors & Rao’s silhouette of a teddy bear, fitted with black fur and LED lights (to mimic stars in the cosmos), disappoints, there are a number of works that surprise. 

Iqra Tanveer’s Paradise of Paradox utilises light and dust as magical visual elements. As we walked into a darkened room, a volunteer sprinkled handfuls of sawdust that glittered in the beam of light strategically framing a doorway. Beyond simply amusing visitors, Tanveer’s installation — fleeting, performative and dramatic — hinged on the spiritual, making a poignant impression on visitors of all ages. Also appealing to the senses was the artwork by Benitha Perciyal. An inexplicable scent hung heavy in Pepper House, the source being Perciyal’s The Fires of Faith. Taking into account the arrival of Christianity in Kochi, as well as history of the religion, Perciyal fused frankincense, cloves, myrrh, lemongrass, cinnamon and a number of other natural elements into busts, limbs and full figures of Christ. In Kochi’s humid climate, these beautiful and delicate sculptures crack and disperse heavy perfume, confounding the crowds of visitors. In the same venue is Prajakta Potnis’s Kitchen Debate, an installation conceptualised around the debate between the then American Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The artist, well known in the dealer-collector-fair circuit, is appreciated for her quiet and sensitive works. 

According to Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, who was in attendance during the opening, Potnis’s is the most important work in this Biennale (as quoted by one Indian journal online). Given the deep cultural insecurity plaguing many Asians who look to the West for affirmations, the Indian media paid close attention to Dercon’s picks. In this critic’s opinion, however, Potnis’s installation is a mediocre work in comparison to Perciyal’s mining of local tradition, craft, iconography and religious syncretism to reference, visually and sensually, the history of trade and hybrid identities taking root in South India over centuries. In my experience, the best artists dexterously employ aesthetic-as-ally to concept, visually drawing audiences in, making them stay with the artwork in order to access the artist’s ideas. 

The much-trumpeted Raqs Media collective also do not understand this. Their site-specific installation Log Book Entry Before Storm, is composed with inaccessible image and textual elements. Similarly, I found myself visually driven out by Mithu Sen’s I have only one language; it is not mine. Her concept — surrendering herself to a community that does not understand her language — had a sweet sentimentality, especially given her utilisation of a local orphanage. In execution however, the film, shot with a shaky hand-held camera, with inverted filter and abrupt edits — made for a difficult viewing experience. Though Sen’s intention was appealing, her artwork was optically repellent. Contrary to my views, many art-worlders I spoke to regarded Sen’s film as a success, but on asking how and why, responses were not so forthcoming. ‘But it’s amazing!’ Possibly, it is in this climate of sympathy — wherein most are aware of firstly, lack of exhibition platforms, and secondly, artists’ struggles to put up works mostly at their own costs — that reactions range from positive to positively glowing. And how else should one react to flaccid artworks by veteran artists KG Subramanyan, Sudhir Patwardhan and Gulammohammed Sheikh? In a bid to support the bonhomie that the biennale spawns and in order to not seem a cynic or worse, unsupportive, perhaps one’s critical faculties need to be momentarily cast aside.

But then there was the odd tent by Francesco Clemente. Hailed as an Indophile by the Indian media, Clemente combined his drawings with other elements onto fabric that was fashioned into an all frills shelter by professional tent makers in Rajasthan. (A version of which was showcased and marketed by his new Indian dealer at the India Art Fair in January 2015). Inexplicably placed indoors, in its tight, dark and airless space, the piece induced claustrophobia and nausea (among other allergy symptoms) in your already conflicted correspondent. And what of Clemente’s artwork? Judging by his weak draughtsmanship, let me iterate what the late critic Robert Hughes stated about the artist in 1985: ‘He draws like a duffer’.

A number of YouTube videos by Michael Stevens/Vsauce (who explains natural phenomena), placed at a number of venues, and Charles and Ray Eames classic film-essay Powers of Ten, gave the Biennale a science-education fair ambience. In this vein, I found the selection of artists relatively safe, featuring predictable dealer-vetted names, while a number of artworks were conceptually dry and visually sedate — a reflection of Kallat’s personal artistic sensibilities. Take for instance, the empty formalism of Manish Nai. Known for shaping burlap into minimalist cubes and rectangles, here he has indigo-dyed fabric crushed into a circular form, his concept being no more ambitious than to evoke ‘associations with nature’. So much of the grit and gumption that artists showed here two years back is now replaced with a number of formal works accompanied by wall-texts, their polished language amply describing artworks that might not be up to par. 

Nevertheless, as I stated earlier, there were some surprises. At Aspinwall House, I would have passed by Susanta Mandal’s sacks without a second look, but for a movement I caught from the corner of my eye. Placed in a dark corner, are a number of seemingly stuffed, rope-tied sacks. Stay long enough with Sacks 2 and you will find slow movements coming from within them, as though there is some entity there, trapped but still breathing! 

Dinh Q Lê’s Erasure — an installation of found photographs, wooden boat fragments and video — in all its formal attributes, is evocative of the artist’s personal history, where his family fled from Vietnam. Extending from the personal, Lê addresses the trauma experienced by many individuals who desperately escape from conflict-ridden zones, launching into uncertain tumultuous journeys, and unfolding consequences. 

Another successful reflection on Kallat’s curatorial brief is Bharti Kher’s response in Three Decimal Points. Kher’s visually stunning, yet conceptually terse, installation sees numerous larger-than-life cartographic instruments hung from the ceiling, their ropes tethered to heavy stone-stumps of pillars on the floor. As the devices signify Western advancements in science and imperial conquests, and the stumps Indian architecture and millennia-old history, Kher articulates the very tensions and contradictions that cleave at our world today. Recognised for her use of bindis, Kher’s transition in medium, and the extension of her critique to globalism, heralds a new direction for the artist. Other significant works are Adrian Paci’s astounding film The Column, Anish Kapoor’s Descension, a dark magnetic water-vortex, Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s earth-sculptures and community space in Cabral Yard, and Bijoy Jain’s Brick Landscape

Such thoughtful artworks make the case for why the survival and fostering of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is extremely relevant. At its best, the biennale is primarily an activator of agency: agency of artists to experiment without giving in to dealer-demands; of writers to grow into responsible critics; of the local community to participate, engage, and question. As the singular inclusive space outside the exclusive market sphere, here Indian artists, emerging and established, can find opportunities to be nurtured. As its founders envisioned, ‘our biennial’ is about art as a catalyst for artists, intellectuals, and audiences to challenge stagnant perspectives and take charge of their own narratives, hopefully offsetting deep cultural insecurities in the process.

Benthia Perciyal, The Fires of Faith, 2014. Installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy of the artist and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Francesco Clemente, Pepper Tent, 2014. Mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Prajakta Potnis, The Kitchen Debate, 2014. Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Benthia Perciyal, The Fires of Faith, 2014. Detail. Installation views, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy of the artist and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.