What’s cooking at Kochi-Muziris biennale?

At the second edition of the contemporary art fest in Kerala, a young Indian artist takes the kitchen route to discuss politics and everyday life

SHE PHOTOGRAPHED the inside of a refrigerator, sat in a public laundry, watching clothes go in a circle, ground a cauliflower into liquid and cast old-fashioned utensils in a laterite brick. If that wasn’t enough, she took printouts of a 1959 debate between American vice-president Richard Nixon and Soviet prime minister Nikita Krushchev and juxtaposed them with pages of a book on how to use electrical home appliances. Add a couple of slide projectors, a milkshake recipe and some drawings, and you arrive at the artwork of Prajakta Potnis at the rickety Pepper House by the lake in Kochi, Kerala.

“When you look at the kitchen, you see traces of the Cold War,” says Potnis, explaining her installation at the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Titled the kitchen debate, the work is the 34-year-old artist’s attempt to brew her own polemic by connecting the kitchen with the rest of the world. The investigation of the kitchen space, which began at a German KfW Foundation residency, took her to home appliances and history. It was the extension of an artistic journey that created works like 6:19 pm and shows termed time lapse, looking at how realities shift within the now-abandoned time difference of one hour, two minutes and nine seconds between Mumbai and Kolkata.

The politics of kitchen
Potnis spent the early months of her nine-month residency in Berlin looking at the cavities of home appliances, wandering through city streets and staring inside public washing machines. “Then I came across references to the debate between Nixon and Krushchev at a US trade fair in Moscow,” says the artist, who lives in Mumbai. The Russian communist leader hadn’t apparently liked the idea of Americans showing off their technology at the fair. “But what was striking was that the exchange between the two leaders on technology took place in a kitchen module showcased at the fair itself,” she adds.

“I started looking at the kitchen as a site of investigation and everyday debate,” explains Potnis, who first mounted the kitchen debate at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien contemporary art gallery in Berlin in October. A month before she set out for Berlin, Potnis’ concept of a work centering on the tensions in the kitchen arising from the tussle between traditional and modern home appliances, had been selected by the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale, themed around observing space from close and far, while also moving back and forth to understand the present. Kerala is the home of the first democratically-elected communist government in the world in 1957 and Potnis quickly found the right connection between Kochi and the kitchen debate, representing the ideological war between capitalism and communism. The current edition’s artistic director, Jitish Kallat’s, idea to use the biennale as an observation desk of the world hoisted in Kochi instantly made Potnis, a self-confessed space and time fan, an inter-galactic warrior in his army of artists. “Given that Kochi was one of the earliest Marxist states, it is interesting to revisit the Nixon-Krushchev debate through the imagery of the kitchen, where an everyday experience of seeing a vegetable such as a cauliflower inside a refrigerator could also create the image of an explosion,” says Kallat.

Art and ideology
The politics of the kitchen is paramount in the work of Potnis, one of the many young artists participating in the second edition. “For me somehow, all this conversation trickles down to the centre of the kitchen. From genetically-modified crops to the rising prices of vegetables, we discuss everything in the kitchen,” she says. The text of the Nixon-Krushchev debate forms part of the installation. During the debate, Nixon boasts American technological advances to Krushchev: “This is our newest model (of a kitchen)…” says Nixon, adding, “In America, we like to make life easier for women.” Krushchev’s response: “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism.”
The pages of the debate are joined by a 1950 book, Electrical Kitchen, the artist found in a flea market in Berlin, showing how to operate a blender’s knob, and a milk shake recipe. There are also three slide projectors showing clothes inside a washing machine (a metaphor for sanitising), a cauliflower inside a refrigerator (a sculptural carving resembling a mushroom cloud) and the blending of a vegetable (symbolising digestion). The work continues in drawings on the wall, as well as laterite (the stone found commonly in Kerala) bricks cast with old kitchen utensils in a show of the artist’s solidarity with old home appliances in their battle with modern gadgets. Says Potnis, “By looking at the battle between two ideologies, I am also looking at two ways of living through the everyday debates and how they affect us.”

Faizal Khan

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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