A walk through the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014

The biennale returns for a dynamic second edition rich in breadth and potential.

Entitled “Whorled Explorations”, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi, India, spans 8 venues with works by 94 artists from 30 countries. The biennale opened on 12 December 2014 and will run until 29 March 2015.

Graffiti at Fort Kochi, across from Cabral Yard, 2014. Photo by  Tausif Noor for Art Radar.

Graffiti at Fort Kochi, across from Cabral Yard, 2014. Photo by Tausif Noor for Art Radar.

In Kochi, things begin auspiciously: at precisely 12:12 on 12 December 2014, the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was inaugurated, opening the gates to the the first set of crowds eager to see new and exciting works by international and Indian artists alike.

This year, the Biennale is curated by renowned Indian artist Jitish Kallat, who took advantage of Kochi’s colonial past as a site for trade between Europeans and Indians, but also as a centre for scientific discovery at the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics. These two major events overlap in time, occuring from the fifteenth century onwards, and it is with this intersection between the past and the present – between what Kallat refers to as “sights/citations/sightlines” – that the true magic of the Biennale develops.

India well represented

At Aspinwall House, one of the eight venues of the Biennale where the bulk of the works are exhibited, are new works by some of contemporary India’s biggest names. Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014), a whirling vortex of water protected by a waist-level gate, disrupts the viewer’s notion of “centre”, utilising a whirring fan hidden at the bottom of the work to give the feeling that the viewer too could drop into a void at any moment.

A stone’s throw away, the duo Pors & Rao also works at the intersection of engineering and art. Islander (2013-14) is mesmerising in its repetitiveness, as a disc rolls back and forth across a plane, recalling the movements of the passing sun as seen through the porthole of a ship.

Other installations such as Teddy Universe (2009-11) and Sun Shadow (2009-11) are more subtle in their dynamism, seamlessly constructed out of electronic and mechanical components so as to move almost imperceptibly. These works set a tone for the entire Biennale at large, in fact, in their keen ability to impress without overpowering and, moreover, disguising the ingenuity of their own design.

Anish Kapoor, 'Descension', 2014, metal fence (6 feet, diameter), water, mechanical motor. Photo by Tausif Noor for Art Radar.

Anish Kapoor, ‘Descension’, 2014, metal fence, 6 feet diameter, water, mechanical motor. Photo by Tausif Noor for Art Radar.

Letting boundaries set themselves

The sheer breadth of the Biennale’s scope – alongside the main Biennale exhibition is a Student Biennale featuring work by art students all over India – should merit enough accolades, but it is Kallat’s sharp ability to cull together diverse and engaging works that work well within the vying themes of discovery, exploration and time that truly renders the Biennale a must-see affair.

A multimedia video installation by Theo Etetsu that bursts like a kaleidoscope before viewers’ eyes seems right at home next to Pushpamala N.’s photographic series reinterpreting the narrative of Vasco da Gama. Susanta Mandal’s quivering burlap bags fit right in above Prashant Pandey’s massive diamond constructed out of used blood slides. The key to Kallat’s success might be in his willingness to let boundaries set themselves – much like the explorers who braved uncharted seas to try their luck on the Indian coast.

Locating Kochi

Fort Kochi’s strategic location on India’s waters holds such an attraction because its potential seems boundless, and seeing how the small port town has transformed as a result of the Biennale proves that this might be a fact. As visitors make their way to Aspinwall, they pass by local graffiti mashing traditional Indian figures with pop-culture references.

Kathakali dancers with the face of Batman’s nemesis the Joker are tagged along Dali and Fidel Castro sporting dhotis. Across the street at the Cabral Yard venue, Valsan Kolleri’s How Goes the Enemy (2014) springs forth from the ground with laterite, baked earth and mud forms coalescing to form a towering structure that dictates time similar to a sundial; as the sculpture weathers from rainfall and humidity, it serves as a witness to the passage of time on a natural environment.

A short walk away at Pepper House, one finds locals and foreigners dining amongst sculptures by Benitha Perciyal, Gigi Scaria and N.S. Harsha. Right beside the long standing fishing nets in Vasco Da Gama Square are visitors posing with Gulammohammad Sheikh’s public artwork Balancing Act (2014), a coterie of circus performers constructed of fibreglass and acrylic traipsing across a thin metal wire. At Kochi, art becomes part of the maritime landscape, simultaneously challenging its past and propelling it toward the future.

Pors & Rao, 'Teddy Universe', 2009-2011, fiber optics, faux fur, metal, plastic, electronic components. Photo by Tausif Noor for Art Radar.

Pors & Rao, ‘Teddy Universe’, 2009-2011, fibre optics, faux fur, metal, plastic, electronic components. Photo by Tausif Noor for Art Radar.

Considering the Biennale’s scope and scale, small wonder that its dynamic blends so seamlessly into a unified whole. With a carefully selected and talented group of international artists that work across dozens of media, the Biennale becomes a place of discovery in its own right. While there are traditional works that imitate and reify the Indian Modernist canon – KM Vasudevan Namboodiri’s pen and ink sketches of Kochi scenes (2014) and KG Subramanian’s panels (2014), for instance – there is a wealth of challenging, thoughtful and provocative works that cement the Biennale as a site for a new global contemporary.

Tausif Noor

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Related Topics: Indian artists, biennales, events in India, reviews

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