(Above image: One of the the venues at Fort Kochi, the Durbar Hall)
To be a spectator at the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, you must be aware of two things. One, that everything on the wall, floor and ceiling has a history that connects you to the past. Two, that everything is already a part of something else.
Sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri stands next to a coconut palm, a hammer in his right hand and a cell phone in his left. Behind him, a whistling ship drags itself away from the port. A few yards ahead is a 24-foot laterite structure he has been chiselling for sunny weeks at a stretch. On an acre of land, an extension of the Aspinwall house that was once the summer palace of the Maharaja of Travancore, Kolleri has set up his workshop. “For me, this season of the biennale is no different from the previous one. It is again an art war. Here, art lovers are also artists. They practise seeing art and that’s the contemporary way of perceiving life,” says Kolleri, as he watches shadows perform a scene across his creation Time is our Enemy.
He is the only artist from the first edition to be repeated in the second. If the first edition was about Kochi, this time, light is being torched in every direction, cutting across centuries to answer existential questions. What was here before you? Who inhabited this land? What did they pass on to you?
The central exhibition titled Whorled Explorations will feature 95 artists from across 30 countries. “This edition is conceived as an observation deck hoisted in Kochi. The ideas are catalysed by this historic site and, hence, it is site-responsive. I would not use the word ‘site-specific’. Kochi is not the vista but the viewing device,” says Jitish Kallat, curator and artistic director of the festival. Each of the 95 artists will weave a thread to create a cobweb of the city’s past. Two unconnected historical episodes have been merged to serve as a starting point for the artists. “I began with a small, core group of artists whose work for me became the nucleus of the project. Thereafter, the process of inviting artists has been primarily one of responding to the biology of the project, which is a shifting field. and every invitation greatly alters this constellation of signs,” he adds.
Kallat’s invitation reached Mumbai-based Sudhir Patwardhan while he was flipping through a copy of Ruth Padel’s The Mara Crossing. “This book is a poetic reflection on animal migration. And, the theme of this year’s biennale coincides with it. Kochi has a history of people coming in — Dutch, Portuguese and so on. On one hand, they wanted to insulate, on the other, they wanted to grow. I am trying to explore the role of language amid all of this,” says Patwardhan from his apartment in Thane, after he has just shipped his triptych paintings to Kochi,
accompanied by a series of lithographs.
Patwardhan is also one of the 108 artists who will talk at the series of ongoing seminars called History Now. Sir Anish Kapoor will talk about the significance of the element of scale in a sculpture, Bharti Kher will delve into the magical transformation of material through art and Julian Charriere will address his efforts at representing time physically, via archaeology, geology and cartography, among others. “The 14th to 17th centuries were a time when the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics was making some transformative propositions for locating human existence within the wider cosmos,” says Kallat. “It was also the moment when the shores of Kochi were closely linked to the maritime chapter of the Age of Discovery. The maps changed rapidly in the 1500s, with the arrival of navigators at the Malabar coast, seeking spices and riches. Within this revised geography were sharp turns in history; heralding an age of conquest, coercive trading and colonialism, animating the early processes of globalisation. The seemingly unrelated directions of these suggestions were deliberate. One was a gaze directed in time, the other in space.”
In a one-of-its-kind task to make the event accessible to the young, art thinkers Vidya Shivdas and Suresh Jayaram have mentored 15 young curators to understand and select art from various government-funded art institutions. Who knows? Despite the presence of India’s biggest stalwarts, this year’s surprise may just come from small classrooms.