AN ARGENTINIAN novelist, a Chilean poet and an Indian cartoonist might be the unlikeliest participants at a major-league art exhibition baptised by spectacular high art, but the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s newest edition, which began on Monday and will run till March 29 next year, has put more words on display than the whole of its canvas space put together. After amusing its mammoth audience, numbered nearly half a million on the past two occasions, with jawdropping installations, the biennale audience this year has been given the option of viewing art through other creative forms. Argentinian Sergio Chejfec has amassed an astonishing amount of space, 88 separate spots to be precise, to paint his entire novel. Chilean Raul Zuarita has made an artificial lake in his own exhibition space for a work of poetry. “The audience should excavate and they will find art everywhere,” says Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari.
When it began in 2012, the first Indian biennale shocked gallery-goers and the general public alike, commissioning gigantic site-specific installations almost never seen before in the country. For the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale, artist Subodh Gupta came to Fort Kochi, an idyllic heritage town that has since become the permanent venue, and bought himself a long countryboat, which he filled up with household objects to make his artwork. In the second edition in 2014, the famous sculptor Anish Kapoor dug a huge hole at the seaside venue, installed a motor and filled it with water to create a vortex.
This time, the space where Gupta kept his boat, has been turned into a lake by renowned Chilean poet Zurita, who has scribbled lines of his new poem on its bordering walls. The novelist Chejfec, on the other hand, hasn’t taken over anybody’s space, but has painted the whole town with lines from his novel, Baroni: A Journey, in a scattered work simply called Dissemination of a Novel.
The Indian Express cartoonist EP Unny gets two rooms to display front-page creations of his daily satirical outpourings for the newspaper. “I am not an artist,” confesses Unny. “But where does the realm of art end in such converging times?” he asks. “The language (of art practices) is changing in this new century. The emojis on our cellphones are rudimentary comics. We use that interspersed with text,” he adds, explaining his transformation as a participating artist at the biennale.
Zurita’s poem, The Sea of Pain, draws its essence from the disturbing image of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, that captured the suffering of refugees crossing the sea to reach Europe. The poet, however, focuses his attention on Galip, Kurdi’s five-year-old brother, whose death went unnoticed. “I am not a visual artist,” says Zurita. “Mine is a poem of politics and love, and everything else,” he says about his desire to depict the plight of refugees. “The biennale is looking at other windows,” says artist Sudarshan Shetty, the curator this year.
Colours of art
Reality, like the refugee crisis, has been given different interpretative dimensions by artists this year. French artist Francois Mazabraud’s Hidden Skyline uses two telescopes placed at two separate places to invite viewers to alter reality. One of the telescopes, pointing at the Arabian Sea, reveals London tourism’s Pride of London boat on the Thames, while the other telescope shows a Dutch boat in Amsterdam, both images embedded within the Kochi landscape seen by the viewer. “Both London and Amsterdam, as well as Lisbon (in Portugal), are ports of countries that colonialised India,” says the artist, who inserted fictional images with the help of a software to link Kerala’s history of colonialisation, symbolised by the biennale venue of Fort Kochi.
Ashraf Touloub, a Moroccan-born French artist, has made his drawing installation, showing elements of Indian temple architecture in the biennale’s main venue of Aspinwall House, visibly inspired by the country. “India is the place for understanding,” he says, referring to his idea of adding a “new meaning to today’s connected world”. Touloub’s work, Untitled (Extended Feelings)—drawings on the wall, combined with chained kitchen plates on the floor—uses abstraction to express feeling. “I drew something as a feeling to deal with tradition,” says the Paris-based artist, who participated in a solo exhibition, Buffering Natives, in Mumbai last year. Japanese artist Yoko Mori looks at the exchange of traditions through her works, Calls and Oni-bi (Fen Fire), created in an old laboratory at the Aspinwall House venue and built as kinetic and sonic installations. “I don’t want to put a sculpture here,” says Mori. “I use sound instead.”
Calling the bluff
Cabral Yard, another venue in Fort Kochi, has been dug up by two French artists. Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe create an aluminium architecture to question the ‘spectacular’ in art. Sophie Dejode and fellow French artist Bertrand Lacombe consider their artwork La Venale de Bionise (a word play on the presumed venality of the art world, with the words indicating ‘Venice Biennale’) as “anything like a nuclear device or scientific lab or an industrial object or an alien space ship”. A circular structure viewed by climbing a flight of stairs, it has many colours spinning around a device reflected by mirrors. “You can see the machine as a crazy spinning system,” says Dejode.
A biennale collateral work on artist BM Anand, Dissent and Discourse: The Art and Politics of BM Anand, echoes Dejode and Lacombe. One of the works in it is titled Whom Does Modern Art Serve and shows a blind-folded artist and a critic dissecting a woman. “The works of Anand, who passed away in 1986, taunt the progressive and modern artists,” says Shruti Issac, who has curated the collateral work, supported by the BM Anand Foundation.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer