The quaint, and very dare-I-say European, lanes and bylanes slowly shake off their slumber and a mellow but distinct horn of a ship almost weaves itself into the crumpled fabric of a slightly lackadaisical and heavy morning in Fort Kochi. It is in the city of Cochin and especially centred at Fort Kochi that the famed Kochi-Muziris Biennale takes place. It is here that a layperson i.e. I, with little to no knowledge about the Visual Arts in general, went for a visit. With the smell of slightly rotting and mostly fresh fish lingering in the air and the scorching sun (yes, even at 10 AM!) overhead, it was time to get the tickets. The tickets, obtainable at Aspinwall, opened the doors to a wide gamut of art experiences. The journey began with a sonic work, titled Sonic Droplets by Haegue Yang reminiscent of the jingling of bells in various Eastern cultures, including Indian—a cleansing, almost ritualistic spiritual experience. The jingling of bells, especially in the Indian culture, often signifies the beginning of something spiritual.
The experience that followed, was nothing short of the same. Interspersed with paintings, sculptures and art installations were short films and documentaries pertaining to the times we live in. The audience is almost unprepared for what follows next. A short documentary Ealat by Elle Marja Eira made during the Covid lockdown in Norway on her family’s reindeer husbandry amidst uncertain times serves as a shocking reminder of global climate change and its effect on innocent animals, i.e. starvation and the resultant crisis. The documentary seems to prepare one for the range of works and their messages/import that one would witness at the Biennale.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale 22-23, curated by Shubigi Rao, was themed ‘In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire’. The curator’s all-encompassing theme brought together artworks from various artists, and a wide range of artworks. Coming close on the heels of a pandemic that wreaked havoc worldwide, the Biennale this year sought to focus on the resilience, the hope, and artistic flourishing that help one tide over times of crisis. In the words of Ms. Rao:
The only enemy is apathy. That has no name or face and it lies entwined with its bedfellow— self-censorship.
This edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale therefore embodies the joy of experiencing practices of divergent sensibilities, under conditions both joyful and grim. There is optimism even in the darkest absurdity, and this is what leavens the direness of our time. It is in robustness of humour that we can imagine the possibility of sustained kinship, and remember that we are not isolated in this fight. And that perhaps all that is required for an impossible ideal to exist is for enough people to live, think, and work as if it already does.
As is hence evident, the Biennale strung together a number of artworks in a varying range of exhibitions. Even attempting to cover everything witnessed within the span of 3 days seems futile. Thus, within the scope of this essay, I hope to touch upon some of the artworks that made a lasting impression on me and offer my two cents’ worth of why and how.
One of the most memorable pieces from the entire Biennale was, for me, FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! by Finnish artist Martta Tuomaala. The hour-long video talks about topical, social and ecological themes connected with Finland in the form of an indoor-cycling class, accompanied by uplifting training rap songs. The ironic and slightly absurd video caricatures the former Finnish government’s short-sighted decisions—
Welcome to this 45-minute indoor cycling class, my name is Martta. This is a steady-state cardio class, so no breaks, but no high-intensity spurts either. You should be able to talk, or even sing along, without feeling out of breath. Just copy what I’m doing and you should work up a sweat. This programme is called FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! I’m not a sports person, so I have no idea whether we’ll be burning fat or just giving ourselves stiff muscles.
A sharp satirical piece, FinnCycling, can be juxtaposed against the fact that Finland has been touted as the happiest country in the world for the 6th time in a row.
In this context as well, the video installation raises a series of questions in the minds of the audiences viz. how can such a country be ranked the highest on the happiness index? Is it the happiness of people from all socio-economic levels that are taken into account? Do the happiness of the working class people even factor in? This piece indeed makes one’s brain work up a sweat while dealing with the multitude of questions that seem to rise unendingly.
The streak of strongly political artworks continues with Australian Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s political outcry. Bell’s works feature slogans such as “Don’t Eat Cake. Eat the Rich” that take up almost the entirety of the canvas against bold and dark colours of the background. The stark, almost ominous contrast of the words against their background makes them leap out. One can almost hear the slogan being screamed at oneself. The artworks shock, startle, threaten and inspire in equal measure.
A streak of gold in an artwork never fails to attract and that is the first thing that Devi Seetharam’s Brothers, Fathers and Uncles does. Once the gold linings at the edges of the painted mundus grab one’s attention, they lead one’s gaze to follow the forms, movements and tucking of the mundus— reinforcing a sense of masculine and patriarchal power which the subjects of the artworks seem to exude. One is forced to look up to these men, or rather up their lower halves, as if their upper halves are too holy to behold. Women, mere mortals, are excluded from this world which is viewed as a reflection of Kerala’s close-knit men-dominated public spaces where women fail to find a space. According to a note on the artwork,
Seasons come and go, but men are still occupying public spaces non-inclusively, rehearsing the learned choreographies of masculinity entwined in the warp and weft of the mundu, and reinforcing them unquestioningly with motions that flick, twist and tuck in the ends of the garment.
At once nostalgic and ominous, the large-scale paintings evoke a plethora of emotions and disturbing questions, especially as women-viewers.
‘IDAM: Where Being Sprouts into Language’, curated by PS Jalaja, Gigi Scaria and Radha Gomathy at Durbar Hall, Ernakulam, featuring 34 Malayali artists’ works didn’t fail to capture the audience’s attention. Sufficiently busy even on a stuffy weekday, the artworks are a testament to the massive pull of the exhibition. From Mibin Bhaskar’s fantastical world with each minuscule detail telling a story that challenges the flow and logic of the real world to Abdulla PA’s immersive artwork of unique but found everyday objects, the exhibition piqued interest and drew one in. Hima Hariharan’s visually-pleasing world of nature with detailed but delicate portraits of plants, flowers and insects on embellished paper mark a slight deviation and leads to introspection through close communion with nature.
One of the most memorable works for me was Amjum Rizve’s sculpture of a monkey atop a rock, studded with beads. The unmistakable gash on the monkey’s chest, the expression of hurt and vengeance inevitably make the grenade in its hand make a strong statement against the brutalities on nature. While the sculpture can be considered to be a statement on nature striking back after having borne atrocities for ages, the glitz and glamour of the sculpture itself seem to be inspiring deeper political observations with a subject matter that far surpasses the bling that seems to coat, but not sugarcoat, it. The usage of the sparkle and glamour themselves incite dialogues.
Meandering through Fort Kochi eventually leads one to an older part of the town with curious curio shops where the air hangs heavy with the aroma of spices and perfume oils. It is in one of the warehouses of this exhibition where an artwork by Shikha Soni— a part of the Students’ Biennale, manages to latch onto one’s attention and linger. Titled Family, the works are renditions of family photographs and the stories they may hide underneath the seemingly jubilant and vibrant veneer. The stories are communicated effectively and almost resonate with the viewers.
The coastal town of Fort Kochi serves as the perfect canvas against which the Biennale is laid out. The lull in the air that hums with a sense of history, of the important and busy times past, becomes the ideal backdrop for a celebration of the arts of this stature. The way in which the entire town is activated by KMB is commendable. From Kashi Art Cafe hosting a part of the exhibition Spectres and the Sea to Mocha Art Cafe in the picturesque Jew Town with its two satellite exhibitions of Emami Art— a shortened version of the show of Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam, Singed But Not Burnt, curated by Ina Puri and Anatomy of Vegetable – Ruminations of Fragile Ecosystem by artist Prasanta Sahu, the Biennale is an all-encompassing festival.
The lines that have become so synonymous with the KMB itself make the art festival’s presence known even in nondescript places and invite onlookers and tourists to step in. MAP’s project, a satellite exhibition— Jim Lambie’s Zobop was similarly tucked away in the Dutch Warehouse. A calm and serene place with a view of the backwaters packed the biggest punch. Concentric lines of bright colours and silver lines seemed to take one on a psychedelic trip. Reminiscent of vintage cartoons where coloured concentric circles would appear on screen with the character undergoing a moment of confusion or hypnotisation, Lambie’s Zobop opens up a world of imagination— allowing each observer to discover and trace their own inspired experience of going down the rabbit hole. The sweltering heat adds to the dizzying effect, almost spiritual frenzy, making one feel like they have melted and merged into the flowing colours. This sums up the experience of the Biennale itself— a conglomeration of artworks, music and a town steeped in history.
*‘Zobop’ Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru; Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow
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Avery Banerjee (she/her) works as an Assistant Editor at Kolkata Centre for Creativity. A postgraduate in English Literature from Jadavpur University with NET-LS, she has a Diploma in Integrated Marketing Communication from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata (her alma mater) and Certificate in Editing and Publishing also from JU. Avery has penned a book of poems, ‘Musings of a Candied Soul’, published by Ukiyoto in 2021. She is interested in travelling, culinary and visual arts, debate, and public speaking. She has also been invited as a speaker at webinars and advocates for women's empowerment, gender equality and mental health.