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Kochi-Muziris Biennale: finding a new centre

The current edition has had its hiccups. But the projects section and Students’ Biennale have kept up engagement

‘Sleep’ by Tarun Bhartiya, part of  the exhibition ‘Communities Of Choice’. Photo: courtesy Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation
‘Sleep’ by Tarun Bhartiya, part of the exhibition ‘Communities Of Choice’. Photo: courtesy Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation

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In retrospect, In The Making, the title of this year’s Students’ Biennale, seemed a much more befitting title for the 2022 Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) than In Our Veins Flow Ink And Fire. The postponement of the fifth edition of the much awaited biennale at the eleventh hour, owing to “organizational challenges”, caused much heartburn among the art fraternity, which had flocked to the port city from all corners of the globe.

The biennale finally opened to the public on 23 December, 11 days later than scheduled. Shows and events that were part of its Invitations And Foundations programmes have ensured visitors are kept busy. Many of these will continue to run over the next four months across Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam.

The TKM Warehouse, Kochi, is the site of several well-mounted shows. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is presenting two parallel exhibitions: Tangled Hierarchy 2, curated by artist Jitish Kallat, who is also showing his seminal immersive installation, Covering Letter.

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The first iteration of Tangled Hierarchy, which opened on 2 June 2022 at the John Hansard Gallery in the UK, marked exactly 75 years since the meeting between Lord Louis Mountbatten and Mahatma Gandhi to discuss the partition of the subcontinent. Since the meeting took place on a Monday, Gandhi’s avowed day of silence, he employed the backs of used envelopes to communicate with the viceroy. Enshrined in the centre of the show are copies of these five envelopes, with Kallat using them as a springboard to explore a variety of themes around Partition, displacement and trauma.

The show includes Zarina’s map drawings, Atlas Of My World, Mona Hatoum’s neon globe, Hot Spot (Stand), trunks donated to the Partition Museum by a refugee, Kader Attia’s thought-provoking film, Reflecting Memory, and a reproduction of neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran’s Mirror Box, used to treat post-amputation patients who suffered from the phantom limb syndrome.

A still from William Kentridge's short film, 'Oh, To Believe In A Better World'. Photo: courtesy The Kochi-Muziris Biennale
A still from William Kentridge's short film, 'Oh, To Believe In A Better World'. Photo: courtesy The Kochi-Muziris Biennale

In a neighbouring hall, visitors can watch South African artist William Kentridge’s short film Oh, To Believe In A Better World. Created in response to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, a piece of music composed in anticipation of Joseph Stalin’s death, it showcases Kentridge’s continued preoccupation with life and culture in the erstwhile Soviet Union and is rendered in the artist’s signature satirical style.

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In Communities Of Choice, the Chennai Photo Biennale and Ffotogallery (Wales) are showcasing lens-based works by 10 multidisciplinary Indian and Welsh artists on issues of identity, inclusion and sustainable communities. Dipanwita Saha’s poignant project Trail Of Blood examines the growing religious polarisation in Indian society through the prism of the Hindu-Muslim riots in Kolkata in 1946, using archival material and photographs of afflicted families. Palani Kumar’s Out Of Breath, on the theme of manual scavenging and the discrimination faced by families engaged in it, is reminiscent of Sudharak Olwe’s seminal photographs on the topic. Paribartana Mohanty’s A Fate’s Brief Memoir shines a light on Odisha’s Nolia fisher community and its enforced migration owing to climate change.

In a lighter vein, Gareth Wyn Owen’s Make Me Up series asks collaborators across the world to reimagine him on the platform Fiverr as “handsome, young and cool”. The photographic portraits of Owen on display reflect a diversity of interpretations, highlighting how notions of youth and beauty are culturally determined.

Other projects open to the public at the TMK Warehouse include How To Reappear: Through The Quivering Leaves Of Independent Publishing III, presented by Kayfa ta (Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun) and Bhumi, a community art project by the Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts, supported by the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation. While the former presents a bouquet of artists’ books, publications and videos, the latter brings together craftspersons from four villages in north-western Bangladesh to create an arresting installation. Fashioned in collaboration with the artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin, it comprises figures, made from local materials, arranged in circles and serves as a splendid showcase of traditional craft traditions.

The Kashi Hallegua House in Kochi’s historic Jew Town is hosting Sea A Boiling Vessel, a project by Aazhi Archives. The former home of a Jewish family that has migrated to Israel, Hallegua House serves as a fitting locale to ponder issues of migration, displacement and Mattancherry’s syncretic culture.

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Using the sea as the connective tissue, the show brings together eclectic exhibits, ranging from M.R. Rameshkumar’s extensive philately collection on oceanography to K.R. Sunil’s striking photographs of Chavittu Nadakam artists, whose homes are threatened by rising sea levels. Interspersed within the show are piety visuals of Syrian Christian churches in Kerala, images of the first multi-disciplinary excavations carried out in Kerala at Pattanam, and photographs of Malayali men who migrated to the Gulf countries as ordinary workers.

Over the past decade, the Students’ Biennale has gone from strength to strength. Supported by Tata Trusts and spread over four venues, it comes like a breath of fresh air despite some initial hiccups. This year’s edition is helmed by a team of seven curators: Afrah Shafiq, Amshu Chukki, Anga Art Collective, Arushi Vats, Premjish Achari, Suvani Suri, Saviya Lopes and Yogesh Barve. Among the participating artists, Kamalendu Paul has referenced the pandemic in his series of powerful mixed media on canvas work. Elsewhere, Kiran Mungekar has covered a part of the floor with bubble wrap in his quirky Failed Attempts Of Bubble Wrapping, Lakshya Bhargava has foregrounded gender identity and queer lifestyles in his paintings, Rokesh Patil has used the motif of coral to think about community and Pulak Sarkar has added a dash of colour to the decrepit walls of the site by papering over the cracks in a gesture of repair and care.

Particularly touching is a sculptural installation of bricks, wood and terracotta by A. Livingstan and V. Sivagnanam titled En Vallkai, which is a homage to the former’s mother, who works in a brick kiln and fashions little sculptures out of left-over clay.

A ferry ride away from Fort Kochi, three artists from Kerala have come together to curate IDAM: Where Being Sprouts Into Language… at the Durbar Hall in Ernakulam. The trio of Gigi Scaria, Jalaja P.S. and Radha Gomaty was tasked with the responsibility of exhibiting works by their contemporaries from their home state, Kerala, to showcase the sheer diversity of artistic practices. Memorable among these is the shadow play created by Abdulla P.A., using “found natural” objects pinned on a wall, and Krishnapriya P.R.’s whimsical portraits of women and street dogs.

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The opening week also saw a lively Performance Art Programme, Where Do We Stand Now. Staged at the Dutch Warehouse, it was curated by HH Art Spaces and performance artist Nikhil Chopra. One of the crowd-pullers was Debashish Paul’s compelling live performance using objects fashioned out of paper and set to a haunting musical score. Rajyashri Goody read out 22 “recipes” from Dalit writers while turning over bowls made of different materials to highlight the linkages between food, caste, dignity and power in Turn Your Bowl Into A Stupa.

Quizzed about the unfortunate turn of events at the biennale, Chopra was emphatic in his response: “The show must go on. The art is how to work this crisis out. We have a responsibility in this moment. We can shape-shift. Our infrastructure is our bodies.”

Meera Menezes is a Delhi-based art writer.

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