The flag of the third edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale has been brought down just yesterday. Wrapped sculptural pieces at various sites and empty roads amplify the lull after a vibrant 108 days of the continuous traffic of the nearly five hundred thousand people that poured into the sleepy town of Fort Kochi for the Biennale. Fort Kochi seems almost deserted again as we wander through the Mattancherry area and to the Aspin Wall where a sad tone rings in the voices of the auto rickshaw drivers who take us around to the sites and the Spice markets. As it all comes to an end, given the elevation of tourism economy and businesses that have made a comeback and flourished since it began in Kochi, ‘Biennale’ is now officially a part of the everyday vocabulary of the local people.
As the curator of the third edition of the KMB, the well-known artist Sudarshan Shetty conceptualized the Biennale as truly reflective of his own search and concerns as a contemporary artist. Shetty is deeply immersed in the richness of poetry, music and philosophy and their bearings on life. His vision endorses parallel forms of artistic and artisanal engagement, urban and vernacular practices, street and conceptual performances. To him, imagery that gains potency from the dematerializing technology of today, and the metaphysical modes of the past, was a primary consideration in the conceptual planning and the selection process for this edition. Deviating largely from privileging just the object, the curator hoped to open up other realms of experience, resting the onus on the visitor and her readiness to participate and unravel the curatorial intent.
As Sudarshan points out, the title Forming in the pupil of an eye suggests the impossibility of a fixed image of the world around us. It refers to the small abyss-like darkness in the centre of the eye that is constantly absorbing and forming imagery, where illusion and reality, fact and fiction collide and come into play.
In the larger context, it is truly commendable what artist-founders and organisers Riyas Komu and Krishnamachari Bose have created as KMB, and how it continues to be sustained by their independent and artistic spirit, maintaining an unparalleled atmosphere of creative exploration. Their frenetic organisational activity working against all odds in its last three editions, has ensured that each edition has been different in character, spreading to many more sites, especially small shops, homes and warehouses. Its presence is further marked by the inclusion of a Students’ biennale and several collateral events scattered all around the city. The elaborate closing ceremony and its slow unfolding through endless speeches led to an anxious wait, but put to rest one of the jarring absences in previous KMB editions - the consideration of a woman artist-curator. With Anita Dube taking over the baton from Sudarshan for the next KMB in 2018, the myth of a male-artist driven biennale has been dispelled.
Shetty’s admirable and unique approach to KMB evoked mixed reactions from the art viewing public, artists and collectors- with several unfamiliar names and lesser known practices, many found it somewhat inaccessible. Highly nuanced and understated, it did unsettle established etiquettes associated with the blockbuster format of the biennale that more often than not are monumental visual spectacles in excess-- flashy and often noisy. This one defied instant gratification, with several works unfolding rather gradually, having less to offer to a hurried visitor or a trip advisor.
Personally, I was truly moved by the inward character of this biennale, which actually offered visitors spaces of silence, facilitated moments of meditation and self-reflection. Less focused on art objects, it invoked the extra sensorial, eliciting responses to sound, feel and touch. Inside the Aspin Wall compound, some of the works as new architectural or built structures appeared integrated with the existing landscape, leading viewers into spaces of introversion, be it in the central pyramidal form or under a floating roof canopy of the starry cosmic system, or then, walking across the enclosed space filled with dark waters. Each time, one was lead into the immersiveness of spaces that invoked deeper mysteries and the experience of intangible realms. The sense of being between worlds came through various metaphysical connotations of space and time that ruptured linear, quantifiable encounters. One became aware of the references to ancient Rig-Vedic philosophy that elaborates upon human existence and its compositional five elements -- air, water, fire/light, earth and space (ether/void), the integration of which infuses life in things and its disintegration, death, and a return to the formless.
Death and catastrophe do seem to have been an overpowering force in this biennale, reiterating the threat to humanity and to the world we live in, alluding to poets, philosophers and artists, inducing their words of wisdom, beauty and psychological import. For instance, Ales Steger’s The Pyramid of Exiled Poets is a mythic archaeological site, that takes you into its hidden interior spaces, far from everything visible, making us attentive to the vocal remains of poets. Feeling alone in the discomforting darkness, one became conscious of mortality, of our fragile breath, and of immaterial presences.
Another work by Camille Normet titled Rapture offered the viewer nothing visually more than the given site, the view of the infinite sea, its endless rhythm and the vastness of the sky. The intervention here is in the form of artist-designed wooden benches, looped in with chanting sounds that echoed the primal, visceral and universal. As viewers sat to pause and rest, and engage the panoramic view,they felt the vibrations underneath and were absorbed by the sound.
Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, took us through an immersive installation where visitors were encouraged to take off their shoes and slip into a shallow pool of sea water to walk across in order to read the writing on the walls. “Don’t you feel me?” alluding to Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose posthumous photograph circled the world. A work alluding to the refugee crisis, it is lightly soundtracked by the rustling water beneath the visitors’ feet.
While we journey through works that present traces, shadows, veils and apparitions, we also discover spaces created for collective pausing and for leisurely reflection, such as Eva Schlegel & Carl Pruscha’s canopy titled Floating into the Night. Indian artist Sharmista Mohanty’s text I make new the song born of old, was written specifically for the architecture of Aspinwall House, where the caption read, “think about how you sink into the room and breathe in the atmosphere, the words become space.” Throughout the biennale, spaces were hardly treated as readied containers whereartworksare to be placed or shelved for viewing. Instead the conceptually chosen and assigned spaces embraced the work or got “moulded” for a metaphysical experience.
The transference of external wall spaces through the continuous writing of poetic texts was experienced in streets, nooks and corners of the entire town. In many religious and mystical practices, ‘recitation’ and ‘writing’ are considered cathartic forms that emphasize intense engagement and become modes of transference, of losing the sense of the immediate to enter into the subliminal. The sustained act of writing or reciting, its repetitive and concentrated effort, produces what Sufis call ‘healing energies’.
While encountering objects, we see forms of visual deception at work. For instance, GR Iranna’s garbha held the mystery of its being (a giant egg-form in a small room that seemed to have appeared on its own). The elemental form is both the sight of genesis but the substance holy ash with which it is covered is associated with after-life/ death. The dialectics of form and nothingness gets extended in other ways in Istvan Csakany’s Ghost Keeping, Alex Seton’s Refuge, Himmat Shah’s abstract head-forms and Gauri Gill’s Traces.
Recurrently, viewers were made aware of the multiplicity of time and space and its infinite stretch. Gary Hill’s striking intermedia work drew us to experience the ephemerality of moving/seen images, creating mirages that interrupt our perceptions and understanding of reality. Tatiana’s Inverso Mundus, a three- channel video installation takes you through experiencing the world upside down, in an absurd hyper-real atmosphere. Alternately, Dai Xiang’s The New along the River during the QingMing Festival breaks the notion of scientific opticality, digitally sewing multiple views with characters inhabiting a simulated geography. Dia Mehta Bhupal’s imagery of sanitized urban interiors misleads the viewer’s eye into deceptive perspectival views, where depth is an illusion.
And while there were many more works that one can recall for their affective quality, one that seems particularly relevant to the texture of this Biennale is Symphony of a Missing Room-an Imaginary Museum by Lundahl and Seitl. The work was both a collective and personal journey through the Biennale, via wireless headphones, a voice taking visitors led by performers to an itinerary, traversing layers of physical and imaginary architecture of the museum. Multi sensory illusions steered the visitor away from the visible/tangible world, from art and its consumption and exhaustion, opening up new ways for dialogue and for visitors to exist amongst the exhibited works. Symphony asks audiences to actively create the work through their participation as they configure the biennale as a whole.
That was indeed one of the significant take away experiences from my visit to the Kochi Muziris Biennale.