15 May 2015
An exploration through time at ‘Whorled Explorations’, the 2015 Kochi Biennale.
Pattanam was just another mundane town in Kerala until an engineer decided to plant coconut palms in his backyard. He chose a cloudy morning in 1998. Coconut saplings patiently awaited their turn in the veranda while a couple of pickaxes loosened the soil. The soil caved in to reveal a brick wall that was erected in another lifetime. In the decades that followed archaeologists took over and discovered Roman amphora shards, Persian Torpedo jars, Chinese porcelain fragments, amongst other wreckages which also included remains of a 500-ton ship. The rediscovery of Muzuris, the busiest international port in the first century BC was the starting point of Kochi Muziris Biennale. A visit to this biennial is barren without such history lessons. To recall Jorge Luis Borges, “In order truly to see a thing, one must first understand it”. And here, to understand it, one has to rely on the leftovers from the past.
The second edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) that concluded this April – India’s only such event – was scattered across Fort Kochi, another seaport, set 52 kilometres apart from the sleeping site of Muziris. An assortment of colonial architecture would be unveiled across the town: whitewashed Portuguese churches, Dutch cemeteries, Jewish synagogues and Chinese fishing nets embroidered along the shoreline. It was on these streets, decrepit buildings, abandoned warehouses and moss covered walls, that 94 contemporary artists stage their work as a part of a larger theme, ‘Whorled Explorations’. “An observation desk to contemplate our world and a toolbox for self-reflection,” was how curator Jitish Kallat likes to correlate the theme with the venue.
Started in 2012 by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the Biennale’s prime venue was once a storehouse for pepper, coconut, turmeric, coffee and coir. Built in 1867, by an English trader John H Aspinwall, the Aspinwall house, a vast sea facing property is split into 69 sections apportioned to artists from around the globe. The destruction of Cranganore, in 1340 paved the way for Kochi to become the busiest harbour, inviting British, Arab, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese traders. What began as a trade port exporting pepper and other spices, soon evolved into a cultural haven. As the Italian traveller Niccolò de’ Conti wrote in 1440, “China is where you make your money, and Cochin is surely the place to spend it.”
The weather in Kochi is predictable. The sun stretches itself like a second layer on your skin, which could be one reason why the Aspinwall Coir godown resembles a cave. Darkness is a momentary blanket until the wall on the farther end jump starts with projected visuals. There is a wooden stool in the corner for the first journey, an exhibit that feels like a great fall into the cosmos. ‘Powers of Ten’, by Charles and Ray Eames is a 1977 film essay that juxtaposes the atomic world inside you to the galactic vastness of outer space. Beginning at a human scale, the camera zooms out progressively, fitting more and more of the Earth, the Solar System and the Milky Way galaxy, until you find yourself among a smattering of numerous galaxies. After a brief pause, the camera pulls back in and takes you with it until you land back on earth, only to begin a journey under your skin. Here, you pass through the cellular and genetic levels on the way before finally resting at the subatomic scale. By taking you through various powers of ten, the film provides a sobering reflection on the human condition.
On the other end of the godown is the ‘Thought Station’. Michael Steven’s animated voice guides you through the exhibit: “In a billion years, after it collides with our galaxy, the view of sky from earth would be like that of a picturesque sky from a science fiction movie.” On the screen, the Andromeda galaxy is spinning towards the earth, towards you, and the voice reveals that a billion years later humans will never enjoy a lunar eclipse again, because every year the moon moves a centimetre away from the earth. Michael Steven makes sure you feel lucky to be living in this age. He is the answer-man and in his videos he has replies for question like, “What if the earth stopped spinning?”, “Where do deleted files go?” and “Did the past really happen?” A modern day scholar-philosopher, all Steven had to do to reach out to billions of people was to create a Youtube channel, Vsauce, and upload his videos.
Propagating wisdom was certainly not as easy during the times of Madhava, an astronomer and mathematician who lived in Kochi in the 1400s. Around two centuries before Newton and Leibniz formulated calculus, Madhava had discovered power series, expansions of trigonometric sine, and calculated the value of Pi up to several decimal places. His knowledge, however, was restricted to his pupils in Sangamagrama at the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics. Most of Madhava’s work has been wiped out, although some of his texts on astronomy have survived. Some believe that Madhava’s works may have travelled to Europe via traders and Jesuit missionaries who came to Muziris.
Parvathi Nayar, a Chennai-based artist, reflecting on these stories, designed a series of paintings exploring the idea of navigation. ‘The Fluidity of the Horizon’ is netted in sepia tones on wood. It is a struggle to capture the entire length of the artwork in a single glance. Instead, you absorb it bit by bit. First the astrolabe, an instrument used by astronomers to detect time and position of celestial bodies. Then the aerial images from Google Maps, which highlight the littoral attractions. Finally, the painting of an oversized peppercorn threatening to plummet into the Arabian sea the minute you turn away.
A similar sense of drama unfolds in the blueprints of ‘Travellers Tales’. The paintings comprise of letters written by 17th-century travellers explaining how to fashion the authentic kalamkari, a hand-printed and block-printed cotton textile. Telegu artist Lavanya Mani uses natural dye on fabric to conjure a ship. The cloth paintings cascade down from the ceiling to form the sails. The window is let ajar to allow it to flap gently in the wind.
While the Biennale takes you on a voyage into the past, it also questions old facts and legends. Vasco da Gama, often associated with voyages and valour, is mistaken to be the first explorer to set foot in India. But according to a 15th-century manuscript, Journal of the First Voyage of Portuguese to India (1497 to 1499), Vasco da Gama appears to be almost an antihero; a short-tempered distrustful man who preferred to remain holed up in his ship days after its arrival. It was a degradado, a Portugese convict, named Juan Nunes, who first set out to gauge the Calicut shores.
Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novella is also an exercise in correcting the myth of Vasco da Gama. A recurring fictional character in Banerjee’s work, Digital Dutta, a clerk turned amateur historian, is the narrator of this tale titled ‘Liquid History of Vasco da Gama’. A mahogany framework and in the forefront, men with bare legs and clinched fists stare right at you. They share a common look in their eyes, of fearlessness and stubbornness. One of them is Juan Nunes, perhaps the bald one on the right. Interestingly, whereas a host of artists are intrigued by Vasco’s tryst with the Zamorin of Calicut, Banerjee is interested in reconstructing Vasco da Gama’s encounters in the ocean.
A dozen coats, six hats, a bale of sugar, two barrels of butter and one cask of honey is what Vasco pompously offered to the Zamorin. He was laughed at with a sharp retort, “Even the poorest pilgrim from Mecca has more to offer.” Vasco da Gama harboured a bitter relationship with Calicut ever since. This first meeting between him and the king was captured much later in an 1898 painting by Jose Veloso Salgado, ‘The Arrival of Vasco da Gama’. Pushpamala N, a Bangalore-based sculptor and photo-performer has reconstructed the painting 116 years later. Her photographic interpretation theatrically stages the meeting between the explorer and the King, in which she herself dons the role of Vasco da Gama. You try to play the dialogues in your head. Your sight shifting from the bare chested king on his golden throne, his head lopsided, listening in rapt attention to Vasco da Gama who occupies the centre of the courtroom, dressed in riches. Clutching a scroll, his left hand arched, he appears to be speaking about his prosperous homeland. You search for a translator amidst the crouching menfolk, there seem to be none. How then did the king and the explorer comprehend each other? Australian artist Daniel Boyd’s interpretation of the same painting is more faithful and laced with dreamy undertones, which he achieves by placing resin dots over the painting before shading it black.
Most artists in the Biennale echo one other in uncanny ways. Often caught up with the notion of transience, they draw on history for thematic conjunctions. Roleplay and masquerades are a common practice amongst the artists at the Biennale. Nikhil Chopra’s character portrayal in ‘Le Perle Noire: Le Marais’ lasted for 52 hours, in which he plays the role of an African man named Karuthamuthu (translated as Black Pearl), who was once imprisoned in Kochi.
The room that is the exhibit serves as a prison cell for Chopra. His bed lies rumpled on the floor, next to it his tattered chapals, and above, on the window, his clothes flutter in the sea breeze. Prison bars are painted through the entire span of the walls. In between them are charcoal drawings of the sea and ships that slog away in the afternoon sun. His presence fills the room and surrounds you. Your search for him ends when you see a bent charcoal bar on the wall. His escape transformed the desolate custodial cell into loftier art.
The broad theme of exploration and expedition continues with Anish Kapoor’s haunting work ‘Descension’, one of the most celebrated works at Kochi Biennale. His installation demonstrates the formlessness of his work and its propensity to distort or disrupt space. He has erected a water-vortex that aims at destabilising your experience of the solidity of the ground you stand on. It is true and works best if you ponder over your greatest fear. You feel the world slip beneath you, lugging you into the whirlpool until the void replaces you.
While every work around you attempts to pull you down or drag you back in time and space, Swiss artist-archivist Marie Velardi takes you forward in time by connecting the past to the future in ‘Memory of the Future’. Velardi looks back at the collected fictions from the past, reminding us of our predictions of the future. ‘Future Perfect, 21st Century’ is a timeline collated by the likelihoods explored by science fiction films and literature, ranging from Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. The experience is oddly elating, like a hearty comic filler.
Outside, somewhere above you, acrobats are treading their way on a tightrope. ‘Balancing Act’, a set of sculptures by Gulammohammed Sheikh, has a staggering quality to capture movement. Like many exhibits at the Biennale, its success lies in bringing art to the street and compelling you to pause. The more you look at it, the more are the chances of finding something new. Upon more glances, the acrobats soon begin to resemble politicians.
“Here lies the thriving town of Muchiri, where the beautiful large ships of the Yavana come, bringing gold, splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyar and then return, laden with pepper,” reads a line in praise of the first century port of Muziris taken from an anthology of early Tamil poems in the Sangam collection, Ettuttokai. During the Biennale, I ran into a friend who mockingly said, “I am thinking of doing a Biennale on my terrace. I sat for a seminar where grass sprouting out of discarded sacs was art.” But there is life and art amidst hopelessness. Without the subtext each installation would seem replicable, and often, the prerequisite of awe-inspiring art lies in is its complexity. The Kochi Muziris Biennale resonates the dramatic quality of this antiquated port by making the city its irreplaceable protagonist. The Biennale is a victorious rebel and it is here to stay.
~Akshaya Pillai is a freelance journalist based in Kerala. She has written for the OPEN Magazine, Outlook Traveller, Mans World and Literary Review.