Flying away from wintry Chicago in early February to be embraced by Kerala’s tropical night air is sensory jailbreak. And the heat gets hotter as soon as the sun rises. Kerala has a long history of foreign arrivals, of cosmopolitan culture. For millennia adventurers have come in in search of spices, riches, and everlasting glory. Wooden ships brought explorers, evangelists, and merchants across the Arabian Sea. Today the Queen Mary, container ships, oil tankers, and earnings of Keralites in oil-rich Gulf countries lubricate the local economy.
Kerala’s ancient port of Muziris and the contemporary one of Kochi are the referents for Kochi Muziris Biennale’s (KMB) double-barreled name. Savvy art world veterans and Kerala-born Bose Krishmachari and Riyas Komu founded the Biennale and curated the first one that opened 12/12/12. This pair along with so many others in KMB’s elastic fold are transforming the landscape of contemporary art in Kerala.
Synchronicity brought me to the 2012 KMB. It coincided with a visit to Kochi for a concert by bass guitarist Jayen Varma, who lives in Tripunithura, a place name whose rhythmic Malayalam intonation I haven’t yet nailed. Seeing the first KMB made me vow to return for the next. During my recent visit for the Biennale, Jayen’s invitation brought me again to Tripunithura where L. Shankar’s playing of his ten-string electric double violin launched the audience into outer realms of sonic space.
Journalists and cultural cognoscenti wax and wane about biennales. Knowing a sliver about what it takes to launch and repeat an exhibition on such a scale—and a little more about the idiosyncrasies of getting things done in India—the KMB is an unequivocal triumph and an organic work-in-progress. The KMB’s seriousness and sophistication doesn’t pile on the posturing and snobbery that habitually intrudes in elite globalized art scenes. In fact, KMB’s sensibility makes its harbor-side location, towering palms, and handsome heritage venues even more appealing.
Of necessity biennales have an exclusive element. The job of their curators is to survey, select, and compose. Nonetheless, KMB Foundation creates a welcoming and expansive sensibility for its Biennales and year-round cultural and educational programs. Unlike the ethos of commercial art expositions and assorted biennales, KMB doesn’t promote the cult of art stars or fetishize novelty and youth at the expense of community, substance, and maturity.
Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu planted KMB in Fort Kochi, where roots of cosmopolitan culture run deep. Concern for the vitality of Kerala’s cosmopolitan culture and way of life gives KMB its beating heart. This makes the Biennale’s character and investigations as social, political, and activist as they are artistic and cultural. Or as the founders wrote in their curatorial statement, “Kochi’s cosmopolitanism is one that has been worn by generations in Kerala as a badge of honour even as it has led to a series of struggles, time and again, generating a curiosity about current realities, a complex one.”
KMB 2014 benefitted from the audacities of 2012 and the luxury of lessons learned. It housed one hundred exhibits by nearly as many artists in formerly abandoned spice workshops and warehouses, an armory turned gallery, a neglected colonial bungalow, and Darbar Hall where Kochi royalty once met courtiers and the public. Like the first KMB, this one questioned past events and their historical accounts, looking squarely and sideways at the present to imagine all sorts of futures.
Artist Jitish Kallat served as the artistic director and curator of 2014 KMB. Bad at Sports readers in Chicago may unknowingly know Kallat through Public Notice 3. His luminous installation referenced two points in time and transformed the Grand Staircase and more at the Art Institute of Chicago. Public Notice inaugurated a welcome trend at the Art Institute of exhibitions by contemporary artists from South Asia, including Zarina, Amar Kanwar, Nilima Sheikh, and Dayanita Singh.
Kallat’s curatorial thinking for KMB 2014 takes up two sets of historical events: Kerala’s maritime history during Europe’s “Age of Discovery” and the discoveries of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy. These events spanned the 14th to 17th centuries and linked local lives and livelihoods with those oceans away. And they gave rise to new forms of political and social relations, new ideas and knowledge about technology, geography, and cosmology. Kallat’s brainiac framing allows wide latitude for KMB artists and audiences to make their own surprising discoveries. (The name of the Biennial is somewhat misleading. KMB 2014 took place from December 12, 2014 through March 29, 2015 –Ed.)
KMB artists and their works explore unseen forces such as gravity and momentum and human inventions such as cartography, navigation, and topology, colonial oppression and resistance. Like imaginary lines that draw stars into constellations and mark the tropics and equator, threads of ideas draw KMB artworks into a conceptual and speculative universe. Match-making between artworks and KMB’s cosmopolitan heritage sites create twenty-first century synergies that point beyond the present to imagined reaches of space and time.
The luxury of a dozen days in Kochi and a Bad at Sports deadline means I’ve been steeping in the Biennale since mid-February. I’m tempted to write about each work just to avoid deciding which ones to leave out. Fortunately omissions by me hardly matter since descriptions and photographs for all the works are easily accessed online and KMB’s catalogic tome and Google Culture’s virtual exhibition are forthcoming. Arguments about the relative merits of one or another of the Biennial’s 100 exhibits most certainly can be mounted by critics and viewers alike. My take is on the 2014 KMB as a work in itself: the relationships among individual works, sites, and themes create a syncopated rhythm of the sensual, cerebral, and aesthetic that’s pitch perfect.
KMB’s cosmopolitan and cosmic framing doesn’t stop it from being down to earth. After all it’s the offspring of bohemian India. For example, artists Bijoy Jain and Unnikrishnan C both use the earth itself for brick installations at CSI Bungalow. Other earthen works include Valsan Koorma Koleri’s sculpted landscape of laterite, mud, and baked earth at Cabral Yard, and Iqra Tanveer’s minimalist Paradise of Paradox that’s made of dust particles and light.
The show unites imagination with multi-sensory experience—looking and listening, touching and feeling. The often overlooked sense of smell receives the attention it deserves. Fear is a pungent installation by Sissel Tolaas that’s marked with the scent of male angst. Exquisitely set in adjoining rooms in Pepper House, The Fires of Faith by Benitha Perciyal offers a fragrant tableau that radiates piety’s ancient amber glow.
The Biennale’s largesse in terms of media and materials, ideas, referents, and execution means that there’s something for everyone. Regardless of what they know or don’t know about contemporary art viewers are riveted by Susanta Mandal’s bubble making sculptures, Where Have All the Stories Gone? and his squirming burlap sacks. The wide appeal of virtuoso drawing is demonstrated by the way visitors slow down to scrutinize them. Viewers show amazement and delight while taking in works that include the apparitions of Aji VN’s panoramic landscapes; intricate grayscales in The Fluidity of Horizons, Parvathi Nayar’s installation of large and small drawings and sound; subtle sketches by KM Vasudevan Namboodiri and Sudhir Patwardhan; melodic seascapes in graphite on wood by Muhanned Cader; and the sardonic narratives of Madhusudhanan’s Logic of Disappearance and Sarnath Bannerjee’s Liquid History of Vasco De Gama, self-described “diet comics” that depict Digital Dutta imagining the past.
Water, horizon lines, and the high seas are one of many sets of referents that figure in works across the show and provide other entry points for viewers. Chronicle of the Shores Foretold by Gigi Scaria is an enormous metal bell studded with holes and spouting water like a leaky roof during monsoon. Anish Kapoor’s growling Descension is a vortex of water spinning in a concrete-embedded steel cylinder. The force needed to move the water burned out the first motor in less than a fortnight.
Kapoor’s roar is echoed in Guido van der Werve’s film Nummer Acht: Everything Is Going to Be Alright. The artist walks on a white expanse in front of an ice breaking ship that’s slowly moving towards the viewer. The thudding bass of the ship’s engine and massive hull cleaving a passageway through the frozen sea vibrates the old armory and concrete benches—and rattles the bones of rapt viewers. In Navin Thomas’s long live the new flesh the menacing whish and thud of an arrow flying to land its target emanate back and forth between two larger than life archery-target speakers. The sound thunders through Pepper House and is felt long before the work is seen in the upstairs gallery.
Kallat also selected works are forceful in themselves and are witty retorts to the pounding pistons of machismo. For example, Neha Choksi’s Iceboat video—she’s dressed as an ascetic and rowing a melting boat made of ice—allows viewers to dissolve themselves in it as if gazing upon a mandala. The vagaries of time and the partiality of memory and history manifest in Annie Lai Kuen Wan’s Phenomenon of Times. A video shows her coating each page of a nine-volume history of India. Nearby is the result after the volumes were fired in a kiln: nine fossil-like sculptures flanked by wafer-thin ceramic fragments of burned up pages.
The horizon appears and disappears in the video Touch as artist Janine Antoni walks a tightrope that merges with the line where sea meets sky. Curiously large wooden triangles are suspended by rope on wooden frames in Bhatri Kher’s installation Three Decimal Points. Using stone architectural fragments as counterweights, the installation plays with scale, mass, and geometry while referencing historical efforts to map the skies and colonized lands and the extraordinary skill of Kerala’s master woodworkers. The work dwarfs the viewer, and in turn is dwarfed by the view out the window to gliding ships and swathes of sea and sky.
Kallat’s curatorial framing inspired artists to create works that converse with Kerala’s maritime history and a broad spectrum of approaches to art-making. Lavanya Mani’s Travelers Tales—Blueprints uses a once secret Indian technique of painting textiles along with other methods to cover sail-like canvases with stories of discovery and intrigue. Painting doyens Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Sudhir Patwardhan dove into their own archives of techniques, ideas, and imagery to bring viewers very different but similarly monumental and probing triptychs that create new juxtapositions of time and place.
Pushpamala N implodes assumptions of European historical painting and depictions of foreign explorers encountering local rulers. She inserts herself with a playful left-handed flourish as Vasco da Gama in a staged a tableau of a late nineteenth century Portuguese painting. Daniel Boyd’s ensemble of works in the once royal Darbar Hall includes a larger than life piece based on an engraving of the same 1898 painting that’s the target of Pushpamala N’s riposte.
Unlike Pushapmala’s crisp color inkjet print, Boyd’s work in oil, charcoal, and glue on linen requires the viewer to approach and retreat until the mass of black and white shapes come into focus. When the sweet spot is found, the work reveals da Gama imposing himself upon the ruler and his court. Elsewhere, Xu Bing affixes leaves and debris on a translucent screen and uses light to create shadows that take the shape on the screen’s other side of a Ming Dynasty painting. And there’s more—the Ming Dynasty was a period when Chinese explorers sailed far and wide, including Zheng He who made seven voyages to Kerala and died there in 1433.
Kallat’s curatorial breadcrumbs also took artists on cosmic explorations. For example, with olefin sheets, ink, light, and shadow, Sachin George Sebastian’s installation invites visitors to imagine a stroll in celestial space. Either standing back to take in its expanse or walking alongside to take in its details, NS Harsha’s painting Again Birth, Again Death evokes the wonder of looking at the night sky and sensing vastness beyond our imagination.
Thanks to its dispersal throughout Fort Kochi, it’s possible to turn a corner and discover a KMB outpost. The first morning after a midnight arrival from Chicago I headed out to in search of the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel’s swimming pool. You see, despite staying close to a beach where fishermen walk into the sea every day, human activity makes Kochi’s warm blue waters so filthy that swimming in them is taboo. Around the corner from where I started my mission, I discovered an oasis from midmorning’s white hot light and fell into a pool of blue created by Raqs Media Collective.
Kallat invited Raqs to KMB and the threesome of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Suddhabrata Sengupta sutured together an old house that was divided by a courtyard wall and very likely a family dispute. A large screen and video greeted visitors in the bright street front room. Blue acrylic sheets on the courtyard windows and door in the back rooms created dimmer aqueous light. A spherical helmet from an ancient diving suit rested with a ladder on the floor of a sealed-off blue lit room as if sunk to the bottom of the sea.
An open-ended rectangular prism of clear acrylic burrowed through the walls to connect two adjacent rooms—and created a dazzling thoroughfare for sound and light. And I happened upon all this just steps after setting out on my first day!
The way each artwork animates the historic space it inhabits and vice versa intensifies the KMB experience. But it’s the people flowing through these spaces and interacting with each other, the art, and setting that gives KMB its energy and vitality. Like the nearby bazaars and beachfront promenade the Biennale hosts a lively mélange of people. Visitors come with it as their destination or discover it after arriving in Fort Kochi. School and family groups from across Kerala arrive by bus, car, and ferry. Local college kids say they like hanging out at the Biennale. Artists, art students, and art lovers from all corners of India and overseas make the pilgrimage. A recent art school graduate from northeastern Assam said she travelled alone by train for three days to get here.
KMB disseminates itself well beyond its principal venues. Its distinctly designed placards, posters, and postcards and digital media are in Malayalam as well as English. They stretch into space like a banyan’s aerial roots. KMB partner and collateral exhibits popped up in crowded bazaars and along quiet streets. Chicago again made an appearance with Rooting India, a collateral exhibit curated by Tricia Van Eck and outgrowth of the Rootings collaborative formed by artists Deborah Boardman and Akshay Singh Rathore and sustainable agricultural activists.
A full calendar of performances, symposia, workshops, and a film each night of the biennale also attracts audiences to KMB venues. The KMB Foundation that mounts the Biennale also hosts a year round residency and other arts and cultural programs that go out to schools, colleges, and hospitals to bring experiences of Kerala’s traditional forms of performance, visual arts, and music as well as contemporary and experimental forms.
New generations of artists, curators, critical and creative thinkers, local and cosmopolitan art audiences are emerging through the efforts of KMB. The talented KMB cadre knows how to balance planning and improvisation. Skill and back-breaking muscle power too are in evidence across KMB with its renovated buildings and heavyweight art objects masterfully built and installed. Thanks to the acclaim for the first Biennale, more funders came forward for 2014 KMB, and hopefully this trend will continue. Yet it would be misguided to consider KMB a nouveaux riches undertaking. In fact, KMB’s accomplishments are all the more astonishing given its taut budget. KMB’s invaluable asset are the people whose ingenuity, good humor, professionalism, and all-out efforts make the Biennale possible.
In addition to its core staff, KMB wouldn’t be what it is without the participation of eager college students and recent graduates, who monitor galleries, talk with visitors, and provide all kinds of able-bodied support. These young people see KMB as their own voyage of discovery. For example, a student of modern Arabic language and literature at Maharaja College across the harbor in Ernaculum said that he didn’t know about art and was shy to speak English, but working at a KMB collateral site brought him to “art’s river of ideas and people.”
Children in Kerala are growing up in the bodhi shade of the Biennale. Whether they come on a school trip with their teachers or drop by with friends on Sunday mornings to make clay figures under the tall trees in Cabral Yard, they are the future of contemporary art. Mithu Sen writes about I have only one language and it’s not mine, the poetic and potent video installation she created with girls in a Kerala orphanage, “I believe language imposes a strange logic that tells us not to smell the poetry, hear the shadows or taste the light.”
The Biennale brings international artists and their work to India. It also brings well and lesser known Indian artists to new audiences in India and other lands. Art like wine is a matter of time, terroir, and taste. To my reckoning KMB is an ideal terroir for infusing contemporary art with spicy notes of cosmic cosmopolitanism. Start planning for 2016 and imbibe for yourself.
Kerala is renowned for its generous hospitality and I’m a grateful recipient. Thank-you to Abe Tharakan, Cora Bernard at Bernard Bungalow, Jayen and Kala Varma, John Struthers, Riyas Babu, and the welcoming folks of KMB.