3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale by Sabrina DeTurk

3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Sabrina DeTurk

With exhibitions spanning twelve venues and showing work by over one hundred regional and international artists, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is deservedly recognized as “the largest platform for visual arts engagement in Southeast Asia.” Artist Sudarshan Shetty curated the Biennale (his first curatorial project) and has sensitively and adroitly selected and positioned a compelling array of contemporary work across a wide variety of media, including painting, sculpture, video art, sound art, and performance art. According to Shetty, the Biennale—subtitled “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye—“is an assembly and layering of multiple realities” that offers the possibility for connections between the spaces of “immediate experience” and “multiple other consciousnesses.” This approach seems appropriate for the first and only biennial held in India, a country long associated with spiritual and meditative practices intended to facilitate such bridging of reality with higher consciousness.

Aspinwall House, a sprawling seafront compound that was originally the headquarters of a nineteenth-century English trading company, is the venue for the majority of the works in the Biennale and the location where most visitors will begin their experience of the event. A number of the artis ts represented at Aspinwall House have created works that respond to the site’s historical associations and its orientation toward the fishing and shipping harbors of Kochi. The placement of Camille Norment’s haptic sound installation Prime (2016) offers a particularly compelling example of this synergy. This deceptively simple piece consists of five wooden benches placed in a large, empty warehouse space with a view onto a pier jutting into the harbor. As visitors enter the room they are enveloped by a low, almost rumbling, chorus of voices—not singing, per se, but chanting and moaning, creating a sound that ebbs and flows like the water outside. When one sits on a bench, the experience of the work is completed as the voices’ vibrations are transmitted through one’s body, engaging the viewer physically with the hypnotic tones. The work becomes meditative, the viewer at one with the sound, the water, and the sensation.

Another work that engages the seafront location of Aspinwall House and its historical association with trade routes through both placement and content is Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s Aphelion (2016). This mixed-media installation is also placed in a room facing the harbor; yet rather than offering an immediate view of the water, as viewers enter and take their seats an attendant draws the curtains across the windows and turns out the lights, plunging the room into complete blackness. Slowly, a circular image is projected that morphs into sun and moon and appears and disappears in lapping waves. The soundtrack for the work speaks, in a low, rhythmic voice, of ships and water and sea. The voice intones, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes poetically (“salt waters, silt waters, mud waters”), and sometimes with references to warships and other vessels linked to both history and myth. Toward the end of the presentation, a roll of paper extending toward the audience begins to ripple and move. At the same time, the narrative compares the water to a snake, describing a connection between the waves of the sea and the wavelike movement of a snake, which is visually echoed b y the rippling paper. As the presentation ends, the doors are flung open and light fills the room.

Other installations at Aspinwall House are less connected to the particular location and history of the venue, but nonetheless reference mythology and landscape in ways that reflect the Biennale theme of connecting lived experience with other realities. Chittrovanu Mazumdar’s largescale sculpture and video ins tallation, River of Ideas (2016), draws on the river of Hades as well as the Ganges to reflect on the role of rivers as spaces of journey, of immersion, and of transition, to create an environment that encourages the viewer to move beyond physical experience and to connect that experience to abstract thoughts and reflections. Mazumdar’s work sprawls across a large gallery and features a raised, metal pathway that viewers take to progress through a corridor punctuated by groups of bright lights; the viewers’ path is in places dark and impenetrable, then suddenly brightens, much in the way a journey toward higher consciousness might be experienced.

At Pepper House, a short walk down the road from Aspinwall, Leighton Pierce presents Threshold of Affinity (2016), a video and sound installation that, like Mazumdar’s work, takes the viewer on a journey that is physical, visual, and aural. The work is installed in a long, narrow gallery and includes fourteen video monitors as well as twelve channels of audio. The videos project abstract images, sometimes geometric, sometimes biomorphic, that pull the viewer along the gallery space as one’s eye first catches one movement and then is captured by the next. Yet the inexorable pull of the images is punctuated by specific sounds produced through the use of hyperdirectional speakers that direct the soundtrack for certain videos at close range, so that they are audible only when standing next to that particular screen. Thus, the work alternates between ambient tone and focused audio, in some ways controlling the viewer’s physical path through and experience of the piece. The artist describes the pulse of these various elements as an “underlying temporal texture” that will “amplify or attenuate [a] sense of bodily time in the viewer as they move through the space guided by sound and image.” Thus, the relationship between this texture and the viewer’s movement through the space provokes reflection on ways in which temporality is manifested physically.

Although geographically removed from the main venues of the Biennale, Durbar Hall, located in the newer section of Kochi, rather than in Old Fort Kochi, offers an important installation by media art pioneer Gary Hill. Hill has installed thirty-two spy cameras in the gallery that capture and reflect images of viewers. However, these are not the clear, identifiable images desired by surveillance professionals but are refracted and contorted representations in which viewers struggle to recognize themselves. In this way, Hill encourages reflection on the ubiquity of surveillance equipment as well as the distortions of reality that can be afforded by its use. By positioning a Native American dream catcher in the center of the gallery, Hill may also be referencing the distortion of image and reality that so often accompanies a dream state, pulling his work firmly in line with the overarching Biennale investigation of modes of consciousness.

One of the important features of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is it s inclusion of a Students’ Biennale parallel to the main venues of the event. This component is not an afterthought but a clearly significant component of the overall Biennale program; young curators have assembled work from fifty-five art schools throughout India and created impressive installations in venues interspersed with the Biennale sites. A number of these students are producing media installations, perhaps a sign of future directions in India’s contemporary art scene. Roopa Kangovi, a student at the College of Fine Arts in Bangalore, presents Street Vendors (2016), an installation that combines documentary video with pen-and-ink sketches to trace the lives of some of India’s ubiquitous street vendors. The work offers a combination of black-and white close-up video of the vendors’ lined faces along with sketches whose fine pen work equally highlights the traces of time that mark these men. Old and new technologies complement and blend with one another to create a moving picture of the physical and inner geographies of the vendors’ lives. Nearby in the same gallery the visitor encounters Nostalgia (2016) by Avinash Maski, a student at the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts in Mysore. The installation is composed of spotlit rocking horses, empty but slowly rocking, and a video projection that both reflects the movement of the horses and shows a child playing with a ball. The child’s voice and laughter carry throughout the installation, evoking memories of childhood games with toys that have since been
replaced by technological gadgets.

In addition to the Students’ Biennale, the Kochi Biennale Foundation supports several additional outreach and education projects in conjunction with the Biennale exhibitions, and these will clearly become significant events in their own right and contribute to the development of a vibrant and sophisticated contemporary art culture in India. Thus the importance of the ongoing development and support of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale by local, regional, and international bodies lies not only in the production of a strong program of exhibitions by established artists, but also in the commitment to mentoring and educating future artists, curators, and audiences. In its third edition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale appears to be well on its way to achieving these goals, and the outlook for future editions is strong.

SABRINA DETURK, PHD, is an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Creative Enterprises at Zayed University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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