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Issue 201

Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life: A Report from the Fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Can we come from a place of empathy and sustained conversation, rather than immediately reach for the critique?

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Opinion | 24 DEC 18

‘The internet is overrated, give us back telepathy!’ exclaims a work from Sorry for Real (2015) by video artist Tabita Rezaire. Five large light boxes stand one after the other at Aspinwall House, main venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2018. In one, a smartphone is shot in to the scene by a lightning bolt (and a floating message bubble reads, ‘People will f*** u up, then claim to be ur saviour! LOL’). In another, a diamanté-encrusted fingernail hovers over the phone’s answer button, reluctant to pick up a call from the ‘Western World’ (‘No White Tears! Not Today!’).

Like Rezaire, Anita Dube, curator of this fourth edition of the KMB, is suspicious of the internet. She writes in her curatorial statement, ‘virtual hyper connectivity has paradoxically alienated us from the warm solidarities of community’. She would instead like to envision a space ‘where pleasure and pedagogy could sit together and share a drink’. She draws from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) to phrase her title: ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’. Dube seems to ask us to hold back the paranoid readings: can we come from a place of empathy and sustained conversation, rather than immediately reach for the critique? 

Aryakrishnan, 2018, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

The central protagonist of Dube’s KMB is ‘The Pavilion’, designed by New Delhi-based Anagram Architects, a circular structure made up of polycarbonate and cement board. Transparent walls on one side; a white cube at the other. Dube imagines this to be a space for spontaneous conversation and curation that does not cater to the ‘art-world one percent’ but to those that have been marginalized by institutional art culture. Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn is scheduled to take over the space for the last 30 days of the biennale’s run, with a live workshop/performance titled Energy: Yes! Quality: No!

The Guerilla Girls gave a lecture at The Pavilion two days after the biennale opened, presenting, among other things, how they have previously made work related to specific geographical and cultural contexts for which it is shown. However, although the group made new work for KMB, nearly all of their poster and film output still refers to wage gaps and the lack of diversity in the US museum system, with no gesture towards the disparities closer to home in Kerala, India or South Asia. After their performance, a group of artists, writers and curators from South Asia took the mike to read out a statement that they had collectively written during a spontaneous meeting the night before. The meeting was not held at a biennale venue but in Vasco de Gama Square, a popular space for congregation in Fort Kochi; I myself was a participant. The statement asked for transparency in the KMB’s investigation of co-founder Riyas Komu, who stepped down from his position last month after several allegations of sexual harassment were made public by an anonymous Instagram account and taken up by the press (as I reported for frieze in November). Many in the audience stood up in support of this moment of protest. Dube, in a quick comment at the end of the session, attributed the intervention to the ‘insurrectionist spirit’ of the Guerilla Girls: an instructive indication of the ways in which art spaces, in spite of their best intentions, often fail to escape their own institutionalization.  

Guerrilla Girls lecture, 2018, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

Elsewhere, other works suffered from a lack of attentiveness to local context. Several collages by American artist Martha Rosler – a 2008 edition of ‘House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home’, a series Rosler first began in the 1960s – have been installed along a set of long interlocking corridors at Aspinwall house. Pin-up ready housewives tidy their plush homes as scenes of militarized warfare rage outside their windows. The works sit strangely out-of-date and out-of-place at a time when our definitions of warfare have fundamentally changed, as they primarily refer to the US invasions of Iraq and Vietnam.

The Otolith Group’s film O Horizon(2018), also on show at Aspinwall House, takes us through slow panning shots of Tagore’s West Bengal art school Santiniketan. We see scenes of a twilit pastoralism intermixed with Bihu dancing; a K.G Subramanyan wall mural of flowers, fish, leaves and hybrid animals; and a circle of khadi-clad, indigo-wearing academics in deep conversation about the cosmos. It is difficult, however, to lean into the poetics of the film. It is hard to imagine a countryside scene without speculating on the Air Quality Index of its location (South Asia has some of the most polluted cities in the world). ‘The Alienated Life’ no longer has access to this kind of pastoral aspiration. At MAP project space, a two-channel film work Communitas (2010), by Dutch artist Aernout Mik, shows a fictional meeting in the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. It is unclear what the proceedings are about but, as people gather around a velvet-clad table, the speaker struggles to keep them focused. There is no sound in the work, but you can almost hear the flies buzzing. This feels more like it: resistance as something tinged by bureaucracy. 

Nathan Coley, 2018, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

‘If culture wants to imagine itself at the frontlines of resistance […] it must critique itself to stay relevant,’ Dube noted during a talk entitled ‘Deconstructing the Curatorial Note’ on the second day of the biennale’s opening week. Dube uses the spirit of inclusion to make the critique, and there are far more Dalit artists, Tribal artists and, of course, women artists in this edition of the KMB than ever before. Dube herself is the first queer and first female curator of the KMB. This biennale often operates between two extremes: the tender and the furious. The tender moments hinge on the friendships and relationship between queer people: in a long room at Aspinwall house, Lebanese artist Akram Zataari presents the film Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010), in which a gay couple share small love letters over a typewriter, alongside 48 found photographs from the Photo Studio Scherezade in Saida, Lebanon. Dated from the 1960s and ’70s, portraits of heteronormative couples are interspersed by the chance occurrence of a lesbian couple in a tight embrace or a gay couple posing with camp bravado. In Sweet Maria Monument (2018) Kochi-based artist Aryakrishnan creates a memorial to his friend Maria, a transgender woman who was instrumental to the LGBTQ+ activist scene in Kerala until her brutal murder. Aryakrishnan arranges a small room at Aspinwall House with paintings of Maria and books on gender and sexuality. A particularly furious moment comes from artist Prabhakar Pachpute’s large wall mural at Anand Warehouse, dedicated to the many farmers’s protests that have erupted across India in the past year. Titled Resilient Bodies in an Era of Resistance (2018), Pachpute layers the space with sculpture, charcoal drawings and plywood cutouts. 

Heri Dono, 2018, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

The biennale could do with more of these moments. In a curation that is dense with film and photography work, what is missing in the response to contemporary experiences of alienation is a certain camp or queerness. One of the most striking works in this regard is the street-side display of large wheat-paste portraits by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, which line the exterior walls of Cabral Yard. Muholi’s work is an investigation into the production and performance of dandy aesthetics (she refers to the people she photographs as ‘participants’ alluding to the performative nature of the images), and this lends itself nicely to a critique of Dube’s Debordian sentiment: we are no longer just passive spectators of the society of spectacle, but participants, actively engaged in the production, dissemination and performance of our identities and desires.

Zanele Muholi, 2018, installation view, Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.