A sudden morning shower, overcast skies and clammy weather greeted the first day (13 December) of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. Such conditions seemed to resonate with the flavour of the programming, as much of the art on display in this edition of the biennale is dystopian and cerebral, demanding reserves of attention and a quality of immersion that public art projects in India seldom do of viewers.
Curated by artist Sudarshan Shetty, the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016 focuses on multiplicity. In an earlier interview with HuffPost India, he had outlined his vision for in similar terms. "There are so many practices in India — music, theatre, dance — which are all eminently contemporary in their resonances. How does one bring all these into the world of art?" A host of similar concerns were echoed at the inauguration on 12 December, as an ambitious programme for the next three months were unfolded to the public.
In a concept note on a wall in the courtyard of the grand Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, the largest among the several venues where the biennale is in progress, Shetty articulates the focus of this edition through a tale of a sage and a traveller who seeks knowledge. "Forming in the pupil of an eye is an assembly and layering of multiple realities," he writes about the driving spirit of the venture.
All the participants from across the world and within India strive to achieve this goal, their work leaving a range of impressions on the viewer. From the viscerally tactile experience of having to wade through ankle-deep water to being exposed to what one artist calls the "primordial groan", which vibrates through one's body seated on a bench, the art at this biennale engages several senses other than that of sight.
Given the profusion of video installations -- with an average running time of at least 20 minutes -- most of which require intense emotional commitment to process, the biennale is to be ideally experienced over at least a week. Each of the five blocks in which Aspinwall House is divided should require several hours of careful inspection to take in everything there is to absorb from the space.
The two other venues -- David Hall and Pepper House -- may be less elaborate, though each is strikingly beautiful, and exhibit work that is no less complex than those at Aspinwall House. Then there are collateral shows in other galleries spread across the city, including a particularly arresting set of photographs called Terraoptics by artist Vivan Sundaram.
There's a fair amount of post-modern kitsch that can be briskly glossed over -- rubbles lying on the floor masquerading as profundity or a bathroom constructed with paper from glossy magazines that reeks of an Andy Warhol hangover. And then, there are other artworks of towering or minuscule scale that appear too cryptic at a glance, or even after repeated looking, but are still able to draw one in.
Given the profusion of video installations -- with an average running time of at least 20 minutes -- most of which require intense emotional commitment to process, the biennale is to be ideally experienced over at least a week.
The last is true especially of some of the video installations, which needed repeated viewing for one to get anywhere close to their intent. As Shetty had promised, live performances (theatre, music, poetry, dance) are key to this biennale and are meant to push the boundaries of the visual arts as well as notions of its transience and permanence.
The one major takeaway from even the most hectic tour of the biennale ought to be the power art has over memory -- the way an image can stick to the eye, keep churning in the mind or recall a certain feeling in the body when one is far away from it.
G Iranna's giant egg-like installation called Garbh made of vibhuti, or holy ash, a meditation on materiality and abstraction, stayed with me for its primal appeal. It also has affiliations with modernist sculptures of Brancusi, while also looking like an object of extra-terrestrial origins. Praneet Soi's oversized figures made of coir, twist in agony or ecstasy and are suspended midair on the grounds of Pepper House.
Raul Zurita's disturbing installation demands a rare physical intimacy with the substance of his art. Visitors are expected to take off their footwear and wade through a passage filled with shallow water, the point of the exercise being to allude to the horrific deaths of two Syrian refugee brothers as they were fleeing in a boat. You may be left uncomfortable by the politics of turning a real-life tragedy into fodder for art, but you cannot deny being slightly shaken by the experience.
Here are five special works that caught our eye -- not in any hierarchy of merit but randomly picked out of a multitude of richly complex examples.
1. Camille Norment, Prime 2016
You have to be seated on one of the benches in a chamber facing an open door overlooking the water. From time to time, a deep "primordial groan" is emitted in the space, which echoes through and sends vibrations along the benches and up the spine of those sitting on them. The occasional hooting of ships from the yard, the resonant sonic sound and the gentle but firm vibrations are intensely soothing and transporting.
2. Sharmistha Mohanty
Poet Sharmistha Mohanty's text-and-light based installation flows down the walls on to the floors of a room, with her voice slowly speaking aloud the words. The script, "I make new the song of old," is an elegy for the passage of time congealing into space and passing through our consciousness.
British artist Jonathan Owen's installation with found sculptures and photographs at Pepper House stands serene with its understated visual poetics.
Japanese artist Yuko Mohri's intricate installation with found objects, strewn over a long laboratory-like room, emits music that's synchronised by the movements of the tide.
Orijit Sen's spectacular miniature city makes a profound point about urban geography, especially about the changing cityscape of Hyderabad. But that's not all. It's also a fun interactive work, where the viewer is invited to play with stray pieces of a visual jigsaw puzzle, fit them into a totality or attach bits of the images with magnet on to a panoramic image pasted along the wall.
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