Forming in the Pupil of an Eye

A report from Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 

BY Emilia Terracciano in Critic's Guides | 27 JAN 17

The first two editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale – in 2012 and 2014 – used art to initiate a dynamic dialogue between the Indian port town of Kochi and the ancient trading city of Muziris, which have been settled over the centuries by Arab, Chinese, Jewish, Portuguese, Dutch, English and migratory South Indian working-class communities. Under the curatorial leadership of Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty the third biennale, titled ‘forming in the pupil of an eye’, has brought together 97 artists from 35 countries, whose work is shown across 12 venues. Inspired by ancient theories around sight and perception penned by Middle Eastern physicians and South Asian philosophers, ‘forming in the pupil of an eye’ is plotted in ways that are not immediately apparent across overgrown yards, grand derelict mansions, warehouses and abandoned piers in Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and beyond, to the more urban district of Ernakulam in mainland Kochi. Though it could take some time before the biennale is well funded, this year’s edition has been able to overcome many of the frustrating infrastructural and funding challenges of previous years. Chief Minister Pinarayi (leader of the Left Democratic Front and Secretary of the Indian Communist Party in the state) officially endorsed the event during the opening week, promising increased funding and support to create a permanent venue for the next edition.

But despite the impressive array of corporate sponsors secured by the organizing committee, which ranged from BMW to the Indian Leading Real Estate Company DLF, navigating the biennale is a tricky affair for visitors in a country gripped by the dramatic ‘demonetization’ scheme launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the beginning of November. The fallout of the decision of the government to demonetize currency of higher denominations (500 and 1,000 rupee notes) affected Indians who are part of the so-called ‘unorganized’ workforce for which cash-based dealings is the lifeblood: farmers, traders, small and medium industrial and textile labourers, casual workers and rickshaw drivers. Modi’s vision of a ‘cashless world’, designed to make 86% of the tender in circulation worthless, offers no alternative whatsoever to replace the ‘old’ rupee. Relatively unaffected is the elite in India which has ample money in bank accounts and access to debit cards to purchase goods, but what about the rest? At Kochi the impact of Modi’s policy triggered a labour union strike protesting a lack of wages so that many artists – particularly students – had to fend for themselves, rather than relying on the support of the local workforce during the opening week. The arrangement for electronic transactions and the instalment of a cash machine inside Aspinwall – the main site of the Biennale – facilitated visitor access (figures were up from the previous editions) but also raised issues as to whom this platform had been created for in the first place.

Yardena Kurulkar, The Dance of Death, 2016, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2016. Courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The economic slowdown put into stark relief the Biennale’s default mode of production at the Students’ Biennale, perhaps the most politically promising contribution this year. Snaking across Mattancherry, the once bustling centre of Kerala’s spice trade, the Students’ Biennale comprises artists from 55 government-run art institutions. Departing from neutral platforms that celebrate an overview of ‘shining young art from India’, students offer provocative reflections on the country’s current state of affairs, often working together to set up large-scale installations and video works. Improvisation and works-in-process (one stoic handwritten sign read: ‘No lights, no cameras, but action’), are created from makeshift materials and technologies. Some of the key issues tackled are the function of the contemporary artist, the changing contours of art practice, the threat of censorship, state brutality and the grim fate of the rural poor.

The past year has seen much turmoil in the life of some of the largest Indian universities. Mounting student dissent against the ultra-nationalist stance of the government has manifested itself in strikes and widespread demonstrations on campuses including the Hyderabad Central University, the Film and Technology Institute of India, Pune and Jawaharlal Nehru Unversity, Delhi. Many believe that students have emerged as the only credible oppositional force to the government, posing uncomfortable questions regarding the ‘saffronization of education’ (a neologism coined to refer to right-wing Hindu nationalists policies seeking to glorify the ancient Hindu past), censorship and openly challenging the police’s indiscriminate use of draconian laws.

Ales Stegar, Pyramid of Exiled Poets, 2016, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2016. Courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Suggestive of such repeated cycles of aggression is Pallav Saika’s sardonic installation Great Nation (2016) at Mattancherry. A looped video projection of a burning piece of white cloth is flanked by an animated sequence of marching, armed soldiers. With the collaborative and perhaps more lyrical installation Rice (2016) students pay tribute to the vanishing rural life customs of farmers and the slow violence inflicted upon them. Visitors are invited to unwrap rice bundles of gamcha – small handloom towels used by farmers to carry food but also to protect themselves against the harsh sunlight – pour the grain onto the floor and keep the fabric. Based on a traditional gola, the structure of the installation is a memorial to the outdoor grain stores made with locally sourced reeds that can be found in West Bengali rural villages. Tied to seasonal patterns of harvest, environmental stability and socio-economic equality, the epic gola stimulates reflections on current socio-environmental conflicts in India, caused as much by the rapacious demands imposed by free market policies, land degradation and the minimization of state welfare. The disquieting replica of a bombed art studio in The Artist as Bomber (2016) by Sahil Naik prompts difficult questions around the (mis)-use of evidence such as CCTV grabs and the manufacturing of consent to criminalize suspected terrorists.

Raúl Zurita, Sea of Pain, 2016, installation vew, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2016. Courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

At Aspinwall monumental commissions include Chilean poet’s Raúl Zurita’s oddly serene, acquatic installation Sea of Pain (2016) – inspired by the death of refugee five-year-old Syrian boy Galip Kurdi in Turkey in 2015 – and the imposing cow-dung Pyramid of Exiled Poets (2016) a temporary, acoustic shelter for dissenting poets, by Slovenian artist Ales Stegar. Aspinwall is also hosting a documentary film made by the artist and environmental activist Ravi Aggarwal, the result of a long-term engagement with a small fishing community off the coast of Puducherry, whose livelihood is dependent on the sea but who are constantly threatened by motorized trawlers. Alongside these slow-paced and beautifully raw images of a single fisherman cresting the waves at dawn to get the best catch, Agarwal plays recorded readings of texts from the classical Tamil Sangam literature, dating from 300 BCE to 300 CE to ponder questions of ecology, society, preservation and the rising levels of toxicity (the highest in the world) in India. The hubbub of large container ships docking at the nearby international container terminal of Vallarpadam punctuate the delivery of the poem; a polluting reminder of the incoming and outgoing flow of commercial and military goods at Kochi.

Vivan Sundaram, Burnt Mould from the series ‘Terraoptics’, 2016, digital print, 91 x 64 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Abstraction permeates many of the collateral events in and around Fort Kochi. ‘Abstract Chronicles’ hosted by Gallery OED and curated by Girish Shahane, presents a ruminative selection of non-figurative works that challenge the excesses of everyday imagery. Manish Nai offers a circuitous reflection on the relationship between the painterly and the photographic through torn billboards in the interval between one advertisement and another going up. Running algorythms through a series of downloaded images of Indian couples kissing in public until the figures became unrecognizable, Fabien Charuau protested against moral policing. Toying with and probing the possibilities afforded by photographic abstraction, Vivan Sundaram’s Terraoptics (2016) at Artry Gallery showcases a series of slow exposure close-ups made in a dark room. Based on large, site-specific installations of discarded potsherds from Pattanam, Kerala, threaded with minuscule incandescent fibre optic strands, Sundaram produced stills recording the effects of electrical discharges on photographic paper. Bereft of human presence, the tableaux seem to radiate sparks – the stuff of magic. If these works drift somewhat from the political subjects explored by students in Mattancherry, the harsh everyday realities engendered by civil war form the centre of T. Shanaathanan’s installation Cabinet of Resistance no. 2 (2016) at Anand Warehouse. Visitors can pick out a handful of loose cabinet cards from each drawer (‘D’ for Doctor, ‘T’ for Tobacco, ‘S’ for Sand bags, ‘P’ for Photo Studio and so on) and read first-person testimonies of civilians during Sri Lanka’s interminable Civil War. Lives, professions, objects and tools all were repurposed, lost or re-discovered during the conflict. Shanaathanan’s small charcoal sketches, a shovel, a roll of film, add a candid visual iconography of salvage. Reclaiming the anonymity effected by the totalizing logic of the colonial archive, Cabinet of Resistance is a compelling resistance to forgetting.

Surendran Nair, Madhu, 1984, etching & aquatint on paper. Courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi

Also unmissable is the collateral show ‘Pond Near the Field’ curated by Roobina Karode from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art Collection in the city of Ernakulam. The archives of the Kerala Radical Painters’ and Sculptors’ Association, composed of five renegade artists – including K.M Madhusudhanan, N.N. Rimzon and Surendran Nair and Krishnakumar from the College of Fine Arts, Trivandrum – were collected and shown to the public for the first time in Ernakulam. Lack of financial support and the absence of studios bound this short-lived group in an intense solidarity and terrific camaraderie (the group dissolved following the suicide of Krishnakumar in 1989). Diary pages, sketches made on tissue paper, discarded cigarette packets and newspaper clippings revealed the group’s rebelliousness and utter contempt for posterity. Informed by Marxism and inspired by literature, cinema, dada and surrealism, each artist depended on the other’s ability to see, understand and articulate visual idioms and abstract theory.

Praneet-Soi, 'Cut-Out Archive', 2016, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2016. Courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The quirky series of etchings by Nair, ‘The Labyrinth of Eternal Delight’ (1996), include wild figurative juxtapositions drawn from the domains of the exotic, erotic and the unconscious as in his Monument for a Perpetual Pessimist (1996). The cut-and-paste newspaper collages by Rajan made from the series ‘Mild Terrors’ (1992-96), offers a humorous respite from the gloomy brush and ink landscapes of Krishnakumar. Reflecting on the uneven pace of development occurring in the first decade of economic liberalization in India, Rajan’s collages highlights the often stark and comical contradictions he has witnessed: the rising gap between rich and poor, the plight of peasants as they are squeezed out from their farmlands, ruthless inflation, the pervasive threat of terrorism and ongoing communal strife. So deeply attuned to the realities of the time, Rajan’s incisive passion and expressive poverty resonated with the committed vitality in evidence at the Students’ Biennale – perhaps the most important and refreshing direction that this biennale has taken this year.

Main image: AES+F, Inverso Mundus, 2015, c-type print on fine barite paper, 32 x 57 cm. Courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016

Emilia Terracciano is lecturer in modern art history, University of Manchester, UK, and editor of Nasreen Mohamedi: from the Glenbarra Art Museum (2022)