Display Areas: A Guide To The Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016
It would take about five rigorous days or a leisurely ten days to see all the art on display at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, which began on December 12, 2016 and will close on Wednesday, March 29. The event, curated this time by Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty, is spread over 12 main venues, 20 ‘collateral’ sites and 14 other spots across Kochi. The amount of art to be digested is enough to stun the system, along with the Kochi’s overwhelming heat and humidity. Yet it’s an enormously rewarding exercise as there are some truly memorable works to be seen housed in picturesque and unusual exhibition areas such as spice warehouses and attractively shabby century-old bungalows.
Most of the places are clustered in the Fort Kochi area and Mattancherry, which is a short rickshaw ride away. The main venue is Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, a sprawling edifice within a compound of smaller bungalows and warehouses facing the sea. It used to be the office of a British company that traded coffee, tea and spices among other things produced along the Malabar coast. Aspinwall House is an endless warren, the rooms, corridors and grounds of which are packed with art. Covering it thoroughly would itself take a day and a half. We did the rounds of as many venues as we could during our visit to the biennale and put together this brief list of works that made an impression.
Bazaar Road, Mattancherry.
Visitors break into coughing fits upon entering one of the vast halls of this warehouse. The reason becomes clear when you spot labourers filling gunny sacks with red chillies. The other rooms in this spice warehouse are filled with photos of Kashmir by Bharat Sikka; Dia Mehta Bhupal’s photographs of handmade sets such as the interiors of a plane and a supermarket; and ‘I Am Micro’, a video by Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia. ‘Inverso Mundus’, a video by Russian artist collective AES + F, comprising Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes, stands out from the rest of the works at the venue for its sheer oddness. The video conjures an apocalyptic vision of the world with actors with blank, waxy faces in a variety of tableaus, some of which recall court paintings, and strange flying creatures (a pug with the tentacles of an octopus; a cat with the torso of a pig).
River Road, Fort Kochi.
Hyderabad-based artist Dia Mehta Bhupal’s ‘Bathroom Set‘ is an impressive set of a bathroom made using paper from magazines and newspapers. The idea is to create spaces that “appear both strange and familiar” and play with the idea that pop culture images construct our view of the world.
‘Defile’ is a series of seven photographs of corpses dressed in designer clothes by the Russian artist collective AES + F. Like their other work at the biennale (see above), it’s a meditation on the evanescence of beauty and stands out less for being thought-provoking than for its sensational visuals.
A fun, interactive artwork by Goa-residing artist Orijit Sen, ‘Go Playces’ is split into three rooms, each with prints of scenes from Goa, Punjab and Hyderabad mounted on the walls. The prints function as puzzles with missing pieces. These are scattered on tables in the rooms. Viewers are meant to match the pieces to the corresponding bits in the prints.
Pondicherry-residing artist Desmond Lazaro’s show The In-Coming Passengers, which was exhibited in Mumbai last year (and was our pick for the best art show of 2016), is a nostalgic reflection on his family’s connection with Burma. It also gives a sense of the strange and disruptive experience of being an immigrant.
A haunting installation by Austrian artist Martin Walde, ‘Multiple Choice’ has a wax sculpture of a man with his hands covering his face as if he’s warding off something. That something is an infra red light triggered by motion detectors that are activated depending on where you stand in the darkened room. The longer you stand in one spot, the hotter the light gets endangering the sculpture. It powerfully captures the idea that human beings destroy each other.
‘Prime’ is both a terrifically cheeky and charming sensory experience by Camille Norment, an American artist living in Oslo. Some might even find it mystical. It’s a sound installation in which deep voices and music played on the glass harmonica are piped through benches scattered in a hall. The shamanic hum, described in the curatorial note as “a kind of exalting orgasm, a painful groan or a comforting meditation”, causes the benches to vibrate. The seats face a wide verandah overlooking the sea. Essentially when you sit on the benches, you’re being pleasantly tickled while gazing at a gorgeous vista.
Italian artist Daniele Galliano paints over existing paintings by unknown artists that he has gathered. As a result, his figures in this series of paintings look like spectres haunting a landscape or depictions of bad dreams.
BEYOND MALABAR GALLERY
Napier Street, Fort Kochi.
Kolkata artist Meenakshi Sengupta’s work ‘Spicy III’ in black pepper is part of a series of drawings of women made with various spices. The series is part of Country Matters, a show curated by Girish Shahane on ideas of sexuality that includes the works of T. Venkanna and Mithu Sen. Sengupta’s outlines of women in suggestive poses seems to be an ironic comment on the male gaze and a nod to Kochi’s history of trade in spices.
Opposite Parade Ground, Fort Kochi.
Avinash Veeraraghavan’s embroidered piece on silk organza ‘After the End 1’ is one of two incredibly detailed works depicting abandoned playgrounds. There’s an eerie quality to the rusty merry-go-round being encroached by bare-branched trees.
‘Love is My Law, Love is My Faith’ is a set of eight embroidered panels by Saudi Arabian artist Dana Awartani inspired by the verses of twelfth-century Andalusian poet Ibn Arabi about his experience of Mecca. The lovely panels are arranged as a vortex suggesting a spiritual journey towards the sublime.
Ridsdale Road, opposite Parade Ground, Fort Kochi.
The photographs of Abhishek Dasgupta and oil paintings and charcoal drawings of Sohini Dasgupta, both of whom live in Bangalore, make up Sweet Smell of Cosm, a show that takes up all of Esmeralda, a stripped down, hollowed out bungalow that’s over 100 years old. Abhishek Dasgupta’s images of a traditional wrestling pit in Mysore, titled ‘Residue’, are particularly striking. The wrestlers are shown in a blur of motion, giving the photos an abstract quality.
KASHI ART GALLERY
Napier Street, Fort Kochi.
Baroda-based artist Abir Karmakar’s impressive skill is on show in ‘Home’, a series of photorealistic paintings of scenes from an ordinary home.
Jew Town, Mattancherry.
Delhi-based artist Victor Hazra has created a playful tableau of cardboard boxes modelled on shipping containers as a nod, perhaps, to Kochi’s maritime trade.
Kochi-based artist Jigesh Kumar has made striking sculptures from bronze, fibreglass and sand such as this one of a fossilised fish.
Bazaar Road, Mattancherry.
Among the many fine works on display at OED is this series of four oval paintings by American artist Melissa Furness that has real moss obscuring paintings, only fragments of which are visible. The fragments are parts of historic paintings such as Odalisque (1861) by Maria Fortuny and Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David. Even after the passage of centuries from the time the paintings were created, notions of sexuality remain the same, Furness seems to say.
The Kochi Muziris Biennale will run until Wednesday, March 29. Entry to some of the main venues is ticketed. These are Aspinwall House, Cabral Yard, Pepper House, MAP Project Space, Anand Warehouse, TKM Warehouse, Kashi Art Cafe, Cochin Club, David Hall, Kashi Art Gallery, Durbar Hall and Kottapuram Fort. Tickets priced at Rs100 per day are sold at Aspinwall House. Entry to other venues is free. For more information, visit KochiMuzirisBiennale.org.