A magnificent 90-minute, high-decibel, Kerala-style percussion extravaganza featuring 180 musicians on traditional drums and wind instruments, led by the legendary drummer Peruvanam Kuttan Marar, provided the perfect start to the 4th edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, South Asia’s biggest art festival, on the evening of December 11. Curated by the Delhi-based artist Anita Dube around the politically loaded theme of ‘Possibilities of a non-alienated life’, the show (which runs till March 29) features works by nearly 100 artists from 36 countries, working with a wide variety of media.
Due to the scale of most of the exhibits, the display is spread over ten venues around Fort Kochi and the adjacent towns of Mattancherry and Ernakulam. That all the works are compelling to see would be an understatement. They stand out not just for their uniformly high-quality aesthetics, but also for their innovative constructions, and the thought-provoking statements they seek to convey. As Dr Thomas Girst, a regular at the show as the Munich-based Head of Cultural Engagement at the German car giant BMW (one of the sponsors of the show) says, “The BMW Group has been partner of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) since its first edition in 2012, and it has only got better and more thought-provoking with every edition.”
In the words of the organisers, the Biennale is a “happy conjecture of organised chaos, diverse identities and contrasting perspectives for a unified purpose – art, where unabashed expression leads to the liberation of thought and stimulation of consciousness.” What adds to the grandeur of the event are the several ancillary events and exhibitions that are happening simultaneously across the city. Notable among these are the Students Biennale, the Srinagar Biennale (where one gets a glimpse of the hard, everyday life of an average Kashmiri), and most importantly the specially erected performance space called the Pavilion, designed by Delhi architects Madhav Raman and Vaibhav Dimri.
Located at Cabral Yard, across the road from the Aspinwall House main exhibition complex, the Pavilion is modelled on the traditional Kerala performance pavilion called Koothambalam, and is conceived as an interactive space, where visitors (including children) can try their hand at a variety of art forms including performances in an environment that is non-judgemental and noncompetitive.
A unique show here is a food-related project called Edible Archives. It is organised by a group of food enthusiasts and experts, who have been working towards reviving India’s indigenous strains of rice, lost over the years due to the preponderance of hybrid varieties. The group is represented by four women chefs, who cook and serve dishes made from 15 varieties of indigenous rice, paired with locally sourced vegetables, while discussing the importance of their work.
Considering its size and scale, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018, as with the previous editions, could prove to be overwhelming for any out-of-town visitor. It goes without saying that anyone planning a visit should spend at least three days here, to fully enjoy the spirit of each of the exhibits at leisure. To help navigate the show, here’s our list of the ten installations you should not miss.
Shilpa Gupta, India
For, In your Tongue, I Can Not Fit–100 Jailed Poets
This profoundly moving installation by the Mumbai- based artist features 100 speaking microphones that hang over a 100 metal spikes, which spear poems on paper by 100 poets who were jailed over the years for what they wrote. The microphones recite the poet’s work in a synchronised chorus.
(At Admin Block, First Floor)
William Kentridge, South Africa
More Sweetly Play the Dance
A video installation with eight giant synchronised screens that feature a long cast of refugees in silhouette, walking and dancing across the screen to the music of a brass band, carrying a variety of human belongings. The emaciated ones are on IV drips, while some are being lugged in body bags.
Lubna Chowdhary, UK
A near three-decade labour of love, this installation features a thousand ceramic toy-like sculptures in a wide variety of shapes and designs, laid out in what looks like a giant-sized anthropological display. Every angle provides a fresh, new perspective.
(At Pepper House)
Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, India
Gond Bhitti Chitrakala
This spectacular wall rendition of Gond art, by two masters of the genre, features floor- to- ceiling paintings on marine plywood of everyday forest life. It is a narration of the traditional Gond folklore, Dus Motin Kanya and Jal Devata, a story of five brothers and their sister.
(At Admin Block, Ground Floor)
Song Dong, China
Inspired by childhood memories of his father encouraging him to practice his handwriting without wasting ink and paper, this interactive glass installation invites the viewer to do the same with brush pens. It is a meditation on the impermanence and alienation that we are steeped in.
Santu Mofokeng, South Africa
Winter in Tembisia
Mofokeng is one of South Africa’s great anti-apartheid photographers, and these pictures are from his later-in-life specialisation in landscapes of townships, framed in relation to ownership, power, ecological effects and memory.
(At Coir Godown)
Arunkumar H G, India
Made from packaging wood waste, cement, wood glue etc, the large and hollow anthropomorphic figures in this installation loom in space as ghosts of our wrongdoings. The Con in the name points to the underside of the country’s development model.
(At Coir Godown)
BV Suresh, India
Canes of Wrath
In this multi-media installation that uses a range of materials, including fibre, paper mache sculptures, canes, bamboos, textiles, videos, audio and kinetics, the Bengaluru-based artist seeks to capture the absurd theatre of contemporary Indian politics, where liberal voices are silenced and works of great thinkers are manipulated.
(At Coir Godown)
Priya Ravish Mehra, India
In this installation, Priya Mehra, who died this year, celebrates rafoogars, the traditional darners of north India, and the art of rafoogari and weaving itself as a metaphor for life. She has combined rejected weaves with paper and pulp, reconstituting them into a new material with jagged edges, that is neither fully cloth or entirely paper.
(At Coir Godown)
Vivian Caccuri, Brazil
An ode to the poor mosquito, this multi-media installation features a mosquito net, chimes and speakers that emit the sound of mosquitos mating. The play is on the theme of why mosquito noise causes such distress in tropical countries. The Brazilian artist believes the fear was instilled in us by colonial masters in another era. Before their arrival, the natives and indigenous people were never really bothered by the mosquito or its bite.
(At Pepper House)