Home, Exile And Two Mind-Bending Works Of Art

The spectator and the work of art: lessons from Kochi Biennale.

A painting from Abir Karmakar's 'Home 2016'

After hearing and reading about the Kochi Biennale for the past six years, the third edition, which concluded recently, proved to be my first. I went to Kochi as an appendage to my art historian father, who was one of the speakers at the "Future of Indian Art" conference. So post-lunch when I slipped away from the conference to explore the exhibits my mind was processing debates and discussions about "new" and "traditional" mediums, curatorial interventions, and the purpose of such exercises.

Although there were many fascinating works of art, two have stayed on with me. The first one was a pyramid in the middle of Aspinwall House, encrusted with cow-dung cakes.

'The Pyramid of Exiled Poets'

You walk into the pyramid. And in a couple of steps into the pyramid the ground beneath disappears, the tunnel narrows down, or so it feels, as darkness engulfs you. While outside the March sun blazes down, just as it would have on Egyptian pyramids thousands of years ago, inside this pyramid in Kochi, an impenetrable darkness prevails.

As you wrestle with the darkness, you realise all of a sudden, voices have started speaking. But the voices don't speak to you. They are preoccupied with their own worries...

The buzzing life of the coastal town, the crowds that had flocked in, is cut off. It is silent, it is dark and unnerving. With reluctance you start walking within the womb, where your sense of security does not feel as solid as it did just moments ago. You have escaped nightmares before. You have screamed, jumped off the bed and switched on the light. But within this pyramid, you feel trapped. You cannot wake up for the vision remains the same whether you open or shut your eyes. In the 21st century, within this empty tomb, you meet the antediluvian hopelessness that preceded the promises of Enlightenment. The cosmic darkness that veils the vision also strips you of aeons of progress that you took for granted. Certainty and the confidence that you derive of the control you wield over your environment through technological means and civilisational progress hang here, suspended mid-air.

As you make your way through the abyss, deliberately clutching onto an air of equanimity, you notice timid lights here and there. But the lights do not illuminate, they do not offer guidance. Their presence is but a cautionary note, reminding you again and again of the meandering darkness that you tail, and the one that pursues. The maze thus retains its mystery; you do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.

To tackle the blindness your human instincts take over. As you stumble ahead feeling the uniform surface of the walls, the ears reorient to the new situation in an attempt to avert.

As you wrestle with the darkness, you realise all of a sudden, voices have started speaking. But the voices don't speak to you. They are preoccupied with their own worries, and they are talking to each other in languages you don't understand. The voices you hear are in Korean, in Iranian or perhaps in some European tongue. But you are not part of these conversations; each dialogue makes a vague argument, and as you struggle ahead it fades away leading you to the next one—an equally enigmatic exchange between invisible people. As the prospect of counsel is lost amidst this incomprehensible medley of voices, reassurance is denied yet again. Unless you are a polyglot, you will not recognise what countries you crossed and left behind, and what centuries slipped away, unnoticed between your steps.

As a spectator, it was through floundering that I found in the pyramid what human vulnerability felt like; it taught me...about being grateful for the privileges we take for granted...

You are stuck thus in an unfathomable space, whose boundaries can't be either drawn with eyes or mapped with aiding ears. Deliverance from the trap is thus to persist, to move ahead, till you finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Alongside such universal experience, is also the individual's own experiences that determine the nature of the spectator's interaction with the work of art. For instance, the darkness and the flashes of unintelligible voices inside the pyramid teleported me to the previous night. I was back to the Arabian restaurant, where dad and I sat across one another and had our dinner. The man behind the desk, presumably the owner, looked onto the road through half-slid glasses that rested on the tip of his nose. He smiled and greeted his customers in Malayalam. A bunch of young boys waited outside for their parcel to arrive. They burst into laughter from time to time pulling each other's legs in Hindi. In between, the waiter came to take our order. He didn't understand Malayalam, so we placed our order in Hindi. But when he conveyed the order to the cooks across the glass screen, his pronunciation gave away his Bengali identity. And in a moment it was clear that he was not a Bengali but a Bangladeshi. Meanwhile, from some unknown room upstairs a group of Europeans descended, chatting in their mother tongue. This multilingual experience of being in Kochi—probably mirroring the myriad reality of present day Kerala—strikes a chord with the pyramid.

Later when I researched on the installation I realised that it was called The Pyramid of Exiled Poets, and was an installation-performance by Slovenian author turned artist Aleš Šteger. There are many reports published online and in print of the "performance" by Šteger. One such report describes Šteger's introduction to the work in the following words:

This is an archaeological site that references the Khufu pyramid in Giza, Egypt. This pyramid is a tomb for poets who have been exiled from republics and nations for centuries. This is their final residence. So, repeat after me: "Fire walk with me, far from home, I'm going to set you free'," he says, as you follow him into a dark labyrinth.

The same report elaborates, "Mr. Šteger slips into your hand a pamphlet containing verses of various exiled poets and asks you to crush it on entry to the pyramid." Once Šteger completed the "guided tour" through the "vocal remains and testimonies" of Ovid, Dante Alighieri, Bertolt Brecht, Czesław Miło, Ivan Blatný and César Vallejo among others, apparently each member of the group were made to utter words that came to their mind and crumple "a flyer with a poet's name" on it in order to "release his/her spirit" in a campfire.

Rituals came into existence when people belonging to a particular socio-cultural space were convinced of the correlation between a set of rituals and their "corresponding" realities. But creating a random ritual in an ambiguous space does not assert or alter any reality. With an empty ritual, what it manages to do, however, is to blur the fine distinction between "introduction" and "instruction".

When there is so much art can offer, the artist should step back, and the curator should observe from a distance.

As a spectator, it was through floundering that I found in the pyramid what human vulnerability felt like; it taught me a lesson or two about being grateful for the privileges we take for granted; it also cut across centuries and interlaced the global with the local. I believe, the element of "performance" I missed, like the many I have witnessed, narrows down the endless possible responses that I, as a spectator, might have. While The Pyramid of Exiled Poets is one of my favourite works of art at the biennale, I doubt whether I would have enjoyed it half as much as I did had I taken the "guided tour".

One understands while on the one hand, the "accessibility" to an artwork facilitated by the artist-curator's commentary increases its "acceptability", on the other hand, the spectator is deprived of the sheer excitement that such explorations promise. Thereby the spectator might return home with a sense of having "understood" the act, but he will be missing the satisfaction of a stimulating struggle, which strives to make sense of one's experience marked equally with patches of clarity and confusion.

When there is so much art can offer, the artist should step back, and the curator should observe from a distance.

'Home 2016'

Abir Karmakar seems to have achieved this ultimate feat in his series of paintings titled Home 2016. Karmakar, who is known for his naked self-portraits that demand voyeuristic involvement, does this by successfully erasing himself—the artist—from the centre of affairs and in the process making the encounter more intriguing for the spectator.

If the pyramid had forced you to question your conviction and confiscated all that you thought were inalienable, Abir Karmakar's paintings initially not only restores your faith but rewards it with an unquestionable authority. The lights in these paintings remain forever-lit regardless of the approaching dusk outside. You walk from a room to the next with the air akin to a tax inspector during a tax raid.

But it is a facade. An illusion. You cannot sneak into the kitchen and steal snacks from the containers. You cannot comb through the drawers or open the cupboard. The books on the shelf are beyond you. The flowers on the table smell of turpentine. The fundamental difference between two-dimensional and three-dimensional entities—between illusion and reality—become tangled. Caught in this entanglement is also the spectator. While exploring the paintings, and investigating the windows they opened to middle-class life, the unsuspecting spectator is trapped again. As concrete walls run into canvas walls and the artifice multiplies, the spectator's authority wanes. Like Truman Burbank of The Truman Show, the spectator moving through a world of simulated reality grows anxious about the veracity of his own existence, and the familiar setting assumes a sinister look.

As concrete walls run into canvas walls and the artifice multiplies, the spectator's authority wanes.

The spectator begins to suspect the presence of the sort of surveillance and scrutiny that is too real and invisible to be made sense of. This is a point when the spectator realises that lost in layers of intimacy, the spectator has entered the artist's world and become his subject. Those familiar with Karmakar's overtly sexual and disturbingly naked bodies might feel an additional jolt in discovering that they have fallen prey to a psychological stripping by unwarily swapping places with the naked figure that customarily inhabits his paintings. While Karmakar or his naked representative is conspicuously absent from these paintings, the spectator might still bear the brunt of his omnipresent gaze.

At the end of the day, it was clear to me that it mattered little whether the artist used "new" media or worked with "traditional" ones so long as the work of art could stand its ground independent of the artist, and evoke emotions, and connect with the spectators experientially in a language that transcends anthropological documentations or textual explanations, which are frequently employed but rarely succeed in stimulating our sensibilities or contributing to the overall experience. It is important to recognise that regardless of the newness of the medium used, a work of art can appeal to the spectator's most ancient of instincts. Šteger's pyramid is a case in point. However, it is imperative today to question without qualms the prejudice held against a traditional medium like oil-on-canvas, which as Karmakar's paintings bespeak, can address contemporary experiences with matched efficacy.