A walk through Slovenian poet and novelist Ales Steger’s The Pyramid of Exiled Poets is certainly not for the faint-hearted or those who suffer from claustrophobia. But for those who dare to navigate their way through the dark and often disorienting labyrinth, it offers a rich, sensorial experience. With the smell of cow dung plastered on the outer surface of the pyramid assailing the nostrils, the viewers’ pupils slowly adjust to the enveloping gloom. Faint, twinkling foot lights sometimes show the way, while voices reciting poetry in unknown tongues echo through the passageways. In this work, Steger underlines how the banishment of poets such as Ovid, Mahmoud Darwish, Bertolt Brecht and James Joyce, was a recurring occurrence through the ages dating back to Plato, who argued for their exile in his Republic.
The Pyramid of Exiled Poets is one of several poetic and immersive experiences that the third Kochi Biennale offers. Titled Forming in the pupil of an eye it is curated by artist Sudarshan Shetty, who in his curatorial note relates an old tale of the encounter of a young traveller with a meditating sage. On meeting the traveller “the Sage assimilates the entire universe. In that single moment and one vision, she grasps its enormous multiplicity-internal and external-and reflects those multiple images back onto the boy and back into the space between them both” . It was Shetty’s stated intention to gather these multiple positions and understandings of the world and let them unfold through the myriad venues that made up this edition of the Biennale. Gathering together not just artists but poets, theatre professionals and musicians was also a reflection of Shetty’s own eclectic practice. One recalled his recent exhibition Shoonya Ghar at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, which referenced the different artistic streams of Nirgun poetry, film making and classical Indian music.
The Biennale was also an invitation to writers and poets to re-imagine their texts and lend them a three dimensionality by allowing them to unfold in space. One of Shetty’s close associates, Sharmistha Mohanty, had the words of her poem I make new the song born of old projected on the door and floor of a semi-darkened room. Words appeared and faded out, inviting the visitors to make linkages between those that still remained illuminated and arrive at new constructions of meaning. There was also a performative air about Argentinean writer Sergio Chejfec’s novel Baroni: A Journey being written on the walls of not just the Biennale venues but throughout the city of Kochi.
At one end of Aspinwall House a large hall housed Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s poignant immersive installation Sea of Pain. Visitors were invited to take their shoes off and wade through the sea water-filled space. Phrases such as “Don’t you listen. Don’t you look/In the Sea of Pain” “Won’t you come back? Never Again?”, “Never? Never? Never?” were emblazoned on white canvas panels. Only on reaching the far end, did the context become clear. On an illuminated wall there was a dedication to Galip Kurdi, the brother of three-year old Alan Kurdi, whose tragic death in 2015 on the shores of Turkey drew world-wide attention to the Syrian refugee crisis. Zurita’s dedication ended with “I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son.”
Besides text, sound was also accorded a position of primacy in several works. Across the Sea of Pain was Camille Norment’s equally poetic installation, which consisted of a series of wooden benches, on which visitors could sit and contemplate the sea. The benches were however wired for sound and emanated voices murmuring pre-lingual compositions. Their vibrations passed through the visitors’ bodies, offering them a physical experience of sound. Japanese artist Yuko Mohri’s situated her delightful sonic-kinetic installations within a laboratory-like space in Aspinwall House. The title Calls draws on the Japanese belief in the return of the dead to ‘call’ on their descendants during mid-summer and the New Year. Harnessing the natural forces of light, wind, gravity and magnetism and combining them with found objects, she set up a delicate play of sounds. Not all such sound installations within the Biennale were so successful. The sound spill of Taiwanese artist Liu Wei’s fun video disturbed and drowned the rather subtle sounds of Miller Puckette’s series of sound installations.
Immersive experiences could also be found in Ravi Agarwal’s Sangam Dialogue. Besides his video, which documented man’s exploitative relationship with nature, it also offered a chamber of contemplation. Here one could peacefully sit on a chair and watch the sea through a porthole, enveloped by the soothing sound of sangam poetry recited by Belinder Dhanoa. A subtle statement on mankind’s impact on his environment was also made by Austrian artist Martin Waelde in his installation Multiple Choice. It consisted of a seated figure fashioned out of a block of wax, above which was placed an infrared lamp. The number of visitors and their duration in the space had an impact on the intensity of the lamp and with it on the seated figure.
One of the highlights of the Biennale was undoubtedly Hanna Tuulikki’s Sourcemouth: Liquidbody, an audio-video installation, which explored the relationship between river-systems and the human body. The Biennale presented Tuulikki the opportunity to learn the nadi varnana or “river description” from Kapila Venu, an exponent of kutiyattam, a form Sanskrit theatre practiced in Kerala. Adapting it into a performance-for-camera in a suite of three interlinked films, Tuulikki presented an entrancing interplay of gesture and sound, the aural and the corporeal.
In this Biennale there is a strong emphasis on performances with a series of them lined up in the opening week. Zuleikha Chaudhari’s restrained piece Auditioning the Plaintiff (Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy) Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case contrasted with Anamika Haksar’s rather melodramatic Composition on Water. A fun element was injected by Abhishek Hazra in his series of performances Submergent Topologies, a tongue-in-cheek reading of artworks in the Biennale and Japanese artist Aki Sasamoto’s Memo Random, in which she explored the quirky question of “how elastic are you?”
In the opening week, the third Kochi Biennale gave the impression of a work-in-progress, unfinished and still evolving-perhaps even keeping with its stated claim of “forming in the pupil of an eye.” The absence of a clearly articulated curatorial vision by Shetty, who is more of an artist than a curator, resulted in a patchwork of experiences. While there were certainly multiple positions that staked their claim in the ground, there was no strong and coherent thread to tie them all together.Itdid not help that several works were still to be installed in opening week either because of the holdup at customs in Chennai or as a consequence of the government’s demonetization policy. What did however come to the rescue was the series of programmes in the evening that accompanied the exhibition of art works. Whether the Hindustani classical music performances by Kedar Bodas and accompanists or the session “What Language means to me,” a dialogue between the Biennale poets and writers, they offered visitors the opportunity to comprehend and imagine the world in a multitude of different ways.
 Shetty, Sudarshan; Forming in the Pupil of an eye, Guide A-Z, Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016.