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A work in progress

Beyond the noise and chaos of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale lies great art

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Six months ago, artist Vivan Sundaram was taken to the lost city of Muziris that had drowned with the flooding of the Periyar river in the 14th century. Collecting a few hundred thousand of the approximately four million pieces of pottery shards he discovered there, he had the remains shipped to him in New Delhi where he began assembling them into mounds that were then transported back to Kochi, as a site-specific installation for the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale. A shallow pit was dug in which the shards were assembled, and after it had been flooded with water, pepper corns were flung into the water to symbolise the city’s links with the spice trade, all of it filmed as Sundaram’s project for India’s first and the world’s (on one approximation) 150th biennale.

Sundaram could have wound up the pit with its pottery and peppercorns once the filming was done, but chose to leave it as yet another installation at Aspinwall House, fittingly next to a huge boat by Subodh Gupta filled with the detritus of middle-class possessions — tea kettles, bedrolls and trussed up suitcases included — which one art advisor labelled as “fabulous self-referencing”. Outside, the flag of the biennale with its 94 artists from 23 countries exhibited in 60 spaces across 14 sites had just gone up to the sound of drumming and the applause of visitors that included Big City glamouratti and artists and critics from Paris-based Viswanadhan to Sundaram, Geeta Kapur and others. Curator Bose Krishnamachari’s long-awaited biennale had just been born.

Welcome to Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012, a three-month kick-off of contemporary art practice that many believed would be still-born, but which arrived in its own inimitable style, unique because at the inauguration and a few days later, works were still being installed, technology resuscitated, venues prepared or painted — but with none of the teeth-grinding anguish this might have induced in Delhi or Mumbai. Views ranged from “chaotic” and “unbelievable” to “Wow! nice”, clearly precluding a critical overview; artists oscillated between relief at the quality of work, karmic acceptance when systems failed, and peevishness that outstation visitors would be mostly gone in a day or two. Information was scarce — something the media lucked in on with the appropriately-named Michelangelo Bendandi escorting us around, so we could identify artworks, talk to artists, perhaps even visualise what a space, or artwork, might look like when it was finally finished.

Away from the rubble and debris, though, the biennale is India’s most important platform after the India Art Fair, and therefore deserving of all the support it can garner — something that has been scarce so far. So, for once, to dispense with the critical media perspective, may one say: Come any which way you can. Carry water, bring hats — or umbrellas if you will — a camera, and an open mind, to the 1867 Aspinwall House, its restored roofs and resurrected floors and grounds a maze that is home to contemporary art that’ll tease and provoke and anger — the very premise and practice that the biennale set out to achieve beyond the more public news it made in the unfortunate lead-up regarding spends (a skinflint Rs 5 crore), controversies (with rabble-rousing anti-biennale activists questioning corporate support and the absence of local representation), and venues (the resurrected Durbar Hall, now Kochi’s best art space).

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The fact is, there are plenty of Kerala-born or -based artists at the biennale, easily blending with Indian and global artists — L N Tallur with his inverted tile roof bringing alive the globalised history of the state’s terracotta tile industry, Sheela Gowda’s grinding stones leading up to the wharf and a magnificent view over the islands and harbour of Kochi, not unlike Venice, that other centre of medieval trade where the first biennale was held in 1895. Stand there and look back at the warehouse facade, and you cannot but be startled by light artist Robert Montgomery’s emblazoned words: “The strange new music of the crying songs of the people we left behind mixing as your boat touches stone here as my new bones touch your bones.”

Within the labyrinth of rooms, Atul Dodiya has taken over what was once a laboratory to turn it into a photo-memorial of over 350 photographs of artists old and new, gallerists, critics and collectors — “ a get-together”, he explains, “of friends”. “He’s done a damn good job,” says Devi Art Foundation’s Anupam Poddar in passing. Jonas Staal’s flags of banned organisations have come here all the way from the Berlin Biennale, Dylan Martorell’s sound installations connect with the materials he finds, are interactive and have a flood of visitors queuing up to get in, Sri Lankan Maya Arulpragasam’s 3-D photo-installations are giddying and she kicks off the first evening’s cultural programme where she turns into her avatar as the performer MIA at the Parade Grounds and earns her feathers with John Abraham on stage.

Film artist Kanwar Amar’s “Sovereign Forest” ranges between crime and evidence in “storybooks” of images where you can flip pages and read the text while the images examine our reaction to the atrocities of development-led displacement. Anant Joshi’s “temple”, built by temple builders but in the manner of a film set, has a few hundred mosquito repellant flagons plugged to the circumambulatory, recreating the gloom of temples to a heady ambrosia of ittar. The fumes escape upstairs, where, fittingly, Anup Thomas’s photographs of the clerical order in their vestments, posed against churches, look on benevolently. Valsan Kolleri’s found objects transform into an archive, Nalini Malani’s “In Search of Vanished Blood” is a powerful indictment of exploitation, and T Venkanna’s representation of five elements a clarion warning against war.

Across the street, Sudarshan Shetty is struggling to complete two installations set in freshly-dug pits, while close by Afghan artist Amanullah Mojadidi has recreated an archaeological site to connect Kabul with Kochi through the partly-known tale of Afghan merchant Zaman Mujaddid who was born in Kabul in 1777 but lived and died in Cochin in 1857. Down the road, at Pepper House, Anita Dube’s projection has collapsed, in an adjoining room a film installation on vicarious glimpses of the comings and goings at the cargo terminal in Kochi has still to go up, and a freshly painted “two-day old” café serves excellent coffee.

As people gather here, or at that other magnet, the Kashi Art Café, to filter their day’s recollections over freshly-squeezed juice and tuna sandwiches, it is to mostly agree that the biennale is a work in progress, the curatorial selection has been a success, and rather than be distracted by the ongoing pandemonium of dirt and noise, what should be celebrated is the “consistently high quality of art”. About which, at least, there can be no doubt.

The Kochi-Muzris Biennale 2012 is on from 121212 to 13313.

First Published: Sat, December 15 2012. 00:38 IST