Kochi (Cochin) Kerala, India
INDIA’S largest contemporary art festival is a feast for the senses and won’t disappoint you if you’re looking for variety, imagination and the politics of resistance – but with a smile and an extended hand of friendship.
Anite Dube is the Kochi Muziris Biennale’s first female curator in its four editions – and visited more than 70 countries in her search for artwork to populate this year’s art extravaganza by the sea in Kerala, on India’s south west coast. (Muziris refers to the area and culture as it was a couple of thousand years ago. Both early Indian and Roman accounts describe a bustling port city, known as Muziris).
There are 94 artists exhibiting from over 30 different countries in this festival, which occurs biannually.
Choosing her theme as the ‘possibilities for a non-alienated life’, Dube, a practising multi-media artist and critic, has focused on art that is both a protest and a celebration of sorts, simultaneously.
In her statement as the artistic director, she says: ‘At the heart of my curatorial adventure lies a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model) where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a “politics of friendship”.
‘Where pleasure and pedagogy could sit together and share a drink, and where we could dance and sing and celebrate a dream together.’
Much of the art on display has a statement to make – and is neither subtle nor soft, but often in its stridency (as with the US’ Guerrilla Girls), there is energy, poise and a distinct effort to reach out and join hands with others involved in different but perhaps, related struggles.
It doesn’t end there – earlier this year, this state was ravaged by floods – the worst it had experienced in a hundred years. It made news around the world and Dube has not only drawn attention to this, but has inspired Kochi Biennale artists to respond.
Of these and most strikingly perhaps is Marzia Farhana, from Bangladesh, who graduated with an MA in Fine Art from Central St Martins, University of the Arts, London and is a prize-winning artist (2014).
One of her installations sees her using materials actually damaged during the floods – ipads, fridges and other large materials – in a form of suspended animation.
Into this category with perhaps yet more startling effect is Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s work here.
A multi-media artist, born in 1968, with both Japanese and Vietnamese heritage, he has vividly brought the sensation of water invading everything to the Biennale.
In this installation, you have to remove your shoes and roll up your trousers or fold up your skirt as there is about a foot of water inside. There is a video and the benches are high enough to watch well about the waterline. (See the lead picture)
It is a powerful reminder of what happened to the state during the devastating floods.
Another self-standing installation imbued with the idea of water being both sacred and saviour – and foe (sometimes, when there is too much of it) is Chinese artist Song Dong’s ‘water temple’ – in this shoes must be removed and the flooring has the appearance of water but isn’t. (See picture)
On the surrounding walls, you are invited to write whatever you want – but it won’t remain permanent as the artist notes explain, “Song explores notions of impermanence and the transience of human endeavour”.
A reality very much realised during the floods here.
These exhibits can be seen in Aspinwall House – an old British colonial trading warehouse, dating back to the 19th century and now turned into art space and loaned to the Biennale by company DLF and the Gujral Foundation.
It is the primary venue of Kochi Muziris Biennale and was busy yesterday as it was free entry (as happens every Monday).
One of Dube’s aims is to make the Biennale accessible to all – and the space has been curated in such a way that invites curiosity and attention – security is light and very few areas are actually closed off in Aspinwall House.
A short distance away in Cabral Yard, where the Kochi Biennale Pavilion has been situated, a new sort of art space and ‘amphitheatre’ has been created.
A circular structure with a bamboo-style roof has been created and there is easy and unobtrusive entry and exit – again it is a welcoming space. It is not a permanent building and will be dismantled after the Biennale.
To one side of this is another space designed to encourage artistic endeavour and creation.
There are materials to work with and anyone can participate – while one side is devoted to children, another is open to all and adults. There were small groups trying their hands there yesterday and it again conforms to Dube’s idea of a festival that encourages active participation as well more traditional passive reflection.
All in all, if you have any interest in art and artistic expression, this is a super environment in which to explore and discover both Indian and (and Kochi-based) artists and international voices.
Kerala is a bit sultry, even in these winter months, but by late afternoon the sun is not so intense and it is possible to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
Finally and some time off, but keeping with the theme of flood relief, next year there will be a live auction of modern and contemporary art to raise funds for the Kerala Chief Minister’s Distress Fund.
Some 40 artists have donated artworks for the initiative known as Art Rises for Kerala (ARK).
Among the contributing artists are Anish Kapoor (who exhibited at the last Kochi Biennale), Dayanita Singh and Subodh Gupta.
The auction will take place in Kochi itself on January 18.
Kochi Muziris Biennale is part of the ten institutions and biennales connected to each other through a New NorthSouth initiative, among the the UK bodies is Manchester Museum, Manchester Art Gallery, The Whitworth (Manchester), The Tetley (Leeds) and international biennales – Colombo Art Biennele Sri Lanka; Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh; Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India; Lahore Biennale 01, Pakistan; and Liverpool Biennial.
The Kochi Muziris Biennale exhibition remains open till the end of March – see the listing details.
Kochi Muziris Biennale until March 29 2019
Various venues but high number of artworks at Aspinwall House, River Road, Fort Nagar, Kochi, Kerala 682001
More venue information: http://www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org/venues/
Artists information: http://www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org/2018_artists/
For previous #NewNorthSouth articles