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Kochi-Muziris biennale: A visual assault so opaque that it lures you back

Head to the 2018 edition of the Kochi-Muziris art biennale for rigorous mental gymnastics and a delightful visual assault

Anjuli Bhargava 

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018
More Sweetly Play The Dance, 2015 — Artwork by William Kentridge

The world doesn’t make sense so why should I paint pictures that do: Pablo Picasso

The procession of silhouetted black figures moves slowly from one end of the boulevard to the other. The figures carry loads ranging from every day belongings like suitcases and plants to emaciated figures on IV drips and body bags (representative of the Ebola crisis in Africa I later learn) dancing in rhythm to a 15-minute soulful musical tract across eight gigantic screens in a dark room. As the silhouettes exit the last screen, several people in the audience try to stop them. That’s how real it seems to anyone watching.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

Ecocide and The Rise of Free Fall, 2018 by Marzia Farhana

Born in South Africa in 1955 and having witnessed the dissolution of apartheid, artist William Kentridge’s work largely concerns itself with the struggle and the huge human price paid by the people of his country. At the 2018 edition of the Kochi art biennale, his film is a larger than life depiction through a procession that represents the passage of time. Audiences are riveted. I watch it thrice – in an attempt to comprehend what he’s trying to say better but equally because it’s hard to tear oneself away from the strangely mesmerizing spectacle. I observe many young children watching in rapt silence. It’s quite unlike anything you have seen before.

That, in a nutshell, describes this edition of the for me. A medley of unexpected, incomprehensible and alluring images, films and installations that come together to excite and exhaust the viewer. If you thought the last edition of the was esoteric, well…you really need to think many times again. This is an eye opener if ever there was one. Titled “Possibilities For A Non Alienated World”, the themes cover the MeToo# movement, gender neutrality, the ecological destruction of the planet, the LGBT movement and those who face discrimination on this count, religion and its divisiveness…the list goes on. Joining the dots and trying to find a linear theme is neither possible nor desirable. Even if I managed to crawl into the head of Anita Dube, curator for the 2018 edition and stay there for a week or two, I’m not sure a clear picture would emerge. This is as multi-layered and as opaque as art can be.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

Messages From The Atlantic Passage, 2017, by Sue Williamson

Coming at a poignant moment for Kerala, which is still trying to recover from the trauma of the August floods, a number of the works depict the ecological destruction that we are witnessing in the world today. Chitra Ganesh’s five screens juxtaposed to be visible simultaneously only to a dicephalic creature merges thousands of animated images to pull viewers into a surreal trance. She focuses on the Maitreya, a Bodhisattva who will appear on Earth in the future to teach pure dharma and achieve enlightenment. But for the life of me, I couldn’t have figured this out if the inscription did not tell me so. A schizophrenic assault of myriad, inexplicable, colourful images including Marvel superheroes, the dark room is among the most alive spots in the show, holding many small children and adults in thrall.

Marzia Farhana’s four rooms with several objects – including a washing machine - suspended in the air – mid-fall it appears – represent exactly that.

Farhana’s multimedia installation is created from items picked up from the recent floods as she tries to convey the importance of changing our ways: an urgent call to restructure humankind’s relationship with the environment. Viewers walk through the rooms in a daze, several ducking to avoid the objects that are suspended and appear precariously ready to fall on your head, triggered by the slightest tremor including a sneeze. That’s how close to destruction the human race finds itself.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

Das Moti Kanya And Jal Devata, 2018, by Durgabai and Subhash Vyam

Close by, Sue Williamson’s top deck of a ship – a work she has previously shown but that is reassembled in Kochi - is a tribute to 2500 slaves who were forced into slavery and human trafficking between the 16th and 19th century, the details of which she has recovered painstakingly from forgotten archives. Names of the victims or in some cases the date of birth or whatever scanty information was available have been etched into glass bottles and the bottles are lifted up by fishing nets with metal chains. Hannah Joseph, a young vivacious local artist with a degree in architecture has worked several months to etch the details onto each bottle. She’s volunteering at the installation and gives me a cogent and clear explanation of what has been attempted. The work has been produced before at other shows around the world but Williamson believes that nowhere has the venue added as much.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

by Anju Dodiya

Aspinwall’s 150-year legacy lends a flavour and historical significance to the show that is unsurpassed. A break from the relentlessness demands of the show is best savoured at the property’s tiny café, one that overlooks the sea and occasionally thrills the weary art seeker with a sudden peak of the head of a dolphin. Take a short coffee and muffin break here so you don’t give up.

At least four artists at the Biennale are starkly forthright in the visual pull of their work. At the entrance, Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam’s eye-catching Gond that fills every space on the wall in a very large room – “Das Motin Kayan and Jaal Devta” - stops viewers in their tracks. Cameras click with gay abandon as viewers pose for photographs and selfies – as yet blissfully unaware of the demands that rest of the work at Aspinwall will place on them. Anju Dodiya’s work on the first floor with a breath-taking view of the sea gets an unusual share of oohs and ahs for its plain eye-catching appeal.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

by Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas’s deceptively child-like but madly arresting sketches of a range of creepy crawlies hold the attention of many including me. Taking creepy crawlies to another level, Dutch artist Juul Kraijer’s charcoal drawings, photographs and sculptures use actual reptiles that feature on the face or body parts of female models to highlight the similarities between the human body and its natural surroundings. A reptile trainer in the Netherlands and a contortionist in Paris assist and pose for Kraijer’s work that is housed in galleries around the world including the MOMA in New York. All four displays are easier on the mind and the eye, drawing in the audiences with their simple undemanding allure. Here’s something that doesn’t require you to think.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

Artwork by Juul Kraijer

Barring Kentridge, the only other film I manage to do justice to is Bosnian artist Radenko Milak’s 13 minute “From the Far Side Of The Moon” that has no linear pattern, thought or chronology. The film that uses paintings, drawings, watercolours and animation draw me twice despite its rather bleak vision of the world in a nuclear age. There are several other films – many over 60 minutes in length – for viewing at the show but time remains at a premium for most.

The Biennale for the first time also features an installation on wheels – Oorali Express - that will move along the Kerala coastline and end with a final performance at Aspinwall towards the end of March. A second Biennale venue, the Pepper House with a hip café and a trendy store is worth a stop too. Indonesian artist Heri Jono’s “Smiling Angels from the Sky” and “The Trojan Ships” stand apart at this venue as much for the view from the windows as the work on display.

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018

Smiling Angels From The Sky by Heri Jono

No number of words can fully capture what Kochi is offering till the end of March 2019 so I’ll just end here by saying that despite the fact that I can make so little sense of so much I see, I find I come back for more five days in a row. This then can only be real art.

First Published: Sun, December 30 2018. 14:37 IST