Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for the Kochi Biennale

This post is part of the A to Z Challenge

The first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was held from December 2012 to March 2013. I visited it in February and wrote half of this post back then. I've now dusted off the draft and brought it back to life for the A to Z Challenge.

I openly call myself a philistine. The little I know about the arts is limited to the field of literature, and even that knowledge is quite superficial. Poems go over my head. I don't understand paintings. I can't tell a good sculpture from a bad one.

But still, I couldn't NOT go to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Something that big happening in my own backyard wasn't to be missed.

An early train got us to Ernakulam one Saturday morning in mid-February. The plan was to spend Saturday and Sunday in Kochi, and then go on to Trivandrum by train on Sunday afternoon.

The best way to get from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi, we were told, was to take the ferry. A two-rupee ticket for a scenic tour of the Kochi Port? Just the 'ticket'. The ferry was large and noisy, with benches all in a row like in a church. The passengers seemed to be daily commuters, with a few tourists like us thrown in.

The water was truly astounding. I may be from the sea-side city of Trivandrum, but I haven't seen too many ships in my lifetime. I stared up open-mouthed at the sheer size of the damn things. Colourful and rusted, old and new, Indian and foreign, small and big - they were jaw-dropping. I really wasn't done staring by the time the ferry arrived at Fort Kochi.

We exited the boat jetty, and saw the first signs of the biennale. A large yellow and white map told us that we were at Moidu's Gallery. We looked around to try and buy tickets, only to be told that tickets were available only at Aspinwall House, "just a five minute walk that way." This was the first uneven note of the day. Shouldn't the organizers have realized that many visitors would choose to take the ferry, and set up a second ticket counter at the site closest to the jetty?

Still, we had no choice but to walk on in the heat. As promised, Aspinwall House turned up five minutes later.

This was the image that I had seen over and over again while researching the Biennale. So I'd imagined Aspinwall House to be a dilapidated old building, into which the organizers had tucked in mysterious pieces of art, for art-treasure hunters like us to find.

Not so. The grounds were large and well-maintained. The buildings needed a coat of paint, but otherwise seemed fine.

The 'art' part didn't start off very well, though.

The first installation was inside a dark room that had mysterious sounds echoing off the walls. Once we got our bearings, we realized that the installation consisted of a couple of projectors, with concave black screens opposite each screen. Both screens showed a man's face. The face on one side was mostly expressionless. The other one kept yawning, blowing air at the camera, acting terrified. The sounds we had heard when we entered were the sounds this face was making. Needless to say, the exhibition didn't make much sense to us and we exited feeling slightly stupid.

Thankfully, the rest of the installations were slightly better. Here are some of my favourite ones.

This installation on farmer suicides and land-grab by mining companies was hard-hitting. The installation had multiple components. There were two videos running in curtained off sections at either end. The large hall in the middle had a wall lined with tiny boxes containing forty varieties of seeds. It also had three-four books with accounts of how the farmers had been hounded by  police.

The Rice Grains

Another installation that I liked had an entire city constructed from pottery shards found at the Muziris excavation site.

A City Made of Pottery Shards

The installation that was easiest to make fun of was a room with forty grinding stones. But it was the one I found most poignant, because of the story behind the collection. All these grinding stones used to be part of large mansions. When the mansions were demolished, the stones were cast out into the road. The artists collected as many of them as they could.

The Grind-stones

I liked this one too - a large boat filled with bric-brac of all kinds. It's about displacement, how the things you grab when you're faced with disaster needn't be the most useful. You're so traumatized that you grab the first things to hand.
The Language Series by Rashid Rana was brilliant. The sheer amount of work that must have gone into these made them stand out. The artist is trying to show that we are allowed to see by the Powers That Be isn't usually the same as what's happened. It's either distorted by words, or censored altogether. It makes even more sense because the artist is Pakistani.

Inspired perhaps by the buildings and the water, many of the installations focused on history. My favourite installation of all was a yellow room with walls lined with notes from tourists who had visited Kochi. Notes in a dozen different languages, from people all over the world. Some were simple greetings, others were sheer poetry. All gave the reader a sense of the history of the city, all those races coming here and intermingling across the millenia.

Of course, there were many more that we found as un-engaging as the first one - such as this one, which just seemed like a Flickr album full of photos of the artists' friends, except offline.

Aspinwall House was just one of the Biennale sites. Pepper House and Moidu's Gallery were the others we visited. I believe there was also a site called Burma House, with installations related to the fight for democracy in Burma. But again, I can't find a link to it on the site, so it may have been called something else.

Most of these sites were on the waterfront. So each time we looked up from the art pieces, the water of Vembanad Lake made us revisit them in an entirely new way. Standing and watching the scenery was addictive - the colourful boats and ships, the gentle lapping of the water, the sense of time and history.

The best part of the Biennale for me was the opportunity to visit these old colonial buildings - high-ceilinged, white-washed, large-windowed. That combination of white walls, dark wood and red clay tiles is magical.

Inside Pepper House

The biennale was more than just the installations, of course. There was graffiti on the streets, random scrawls and colourful pictures that pop out suddenly at you from an otherwise dirty wall. 

The effect of this graffiti, at least for me, was that it made me see 'normal' graffiti in an entirely different way.  I was walking around wondering - is that graffiti on the wall part of the biennale? What about those scrawls? And then it struck me - it doesn't matter! That's the whole point of the binnale - the point is to make us look for art in everything we see. 

I started off as a cynic - "Art is not for me, what do I know about art?" And then I sort of, maybe, slightly, became a believer. I've realized that art is whatever WE think is art. The artist who prepared the installations with the projectors and the yawning man felt that he was making art. It doesn't matter that we disagreed with him, as long as others find meaning and value in it.
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