It is regarded as one of the best and most comprehensive exhibitions of art in South and East Asia – and Asia in general.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the biennial Kochi Biennale 2023 closes next month (April 10). It takes place in the city in Kerala state, on the western coast of India.
Our special correspondent Tatiana Rosenstein looks at individual works and the context and themes of this year’s Kochi Biennale…
By Tatiana Rosenstein
WITH some 80 artists and collectives and with over 45 new commissions, this year’s Kochi Biennale had a powerful international and Indian feel to it.
There was work from China, Korea, Australia, Germany, the UK, and other countries, both far and wide – and were mostly presented in Fort Kochi, which is on the coast and a few kilometres away from Kochi town and a little further away from the mainland mass of India (Kerala).
As well as artist talks, film associated film screenings, there are master talks and other engagement opportunities with artists and curators. (See listing below for website).
Each Kochi Biennale has a different curator and this year it was the turn of Shubigi Rao, a Mumbai-born Singaporean artist and writer.
The main theme, In our Veins flow Ink and Fire, reflects the curator’s idea of “the power of storytelling as a strategy, the transgressive power of ink, and the transformative fire of optimism”.
The curatorial lens seems dark, given our current and most recent challenges – from the global pandemic to war in continental Europe, and the ongoing issues of climate change and a mostly flat global economy.
Most of this year’s Biennale seems to be devoted to the questions posed by issues – and that by more people asking urgent and necessary questions solutions can and will be found, the works suggest.
Overall too – art continues to be seen in some spaces – as separate and in the margins and sometimes simply the preserve of elites – whereas this exhibition reflects a greater democracy at least among practitioners and urges the public to engage for reasons beyond simple aesthetic pleasure – though this isn’t to be discounted or ignored either.
There seems to be a consistent thread, that art can offer something both in the here and now and beyond – and that this impulse and reaction to art can also (and must) sustain hope in a better world – overcoming violence and meeting the challenges of the global Climate Crisis – in which every single one of us will be affected.
Aspinwall House (main location of the Biennale)
The Biennale takes place in old historic buildings that used to be warehouses for storing spices, as well as the palaces of the former nobility, or now the modern designer cafes and art galleries that dot Fort Kochi. The centre of the exposition is Aspinwall House – a large building overlooking the sea.
In the middle of the 19th century, it was used for a company founded by the English businessman John Aspinwall, who traded pepper, ginger, coconut oil, and other valuable raw materials, which are so abundant in south western India. Several colonial buildings are grouped around a spacious courtyard with a few installations.
Improvise by Asim Wagit
This is a bamboo installation, by a Delhi-based artist for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, whose structure creates a refuge from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
This work can be seen as a guide to behaviour, both personal and social, with which we can get out of difficult dilemmas. With the right resources, people can feel encouraged to make creative decisions or work together. Indeed, some of the exhibition visitors not only walk through this wooden labyrinth, but undertake to beat the rhythm of the drum roll with sticks, attracting crowds of listeners.
Brothers, Fathers and Uncles – Devi Seetharam
Among this year’s participants are many young and emerging Indian artists who – judging by the quality of their work – have a great future.
Keralan Devi Seetharam, in her large canvas piece, ‘Brothers, Fathers and Uncles’ (2022), is concerned with the formation of heterosexual male bonds in social spaces and how exuberant masculinity contributes to patriarchy in her home state Kerala. Over the years, she has amassed a photographic archive of men among men, in public places dressed in the traditional mundu. (This is mostly formal wear in Kerala). The seasons come and go, but the men still occupy the public space, rehearsing the learned choreographies of masculinity, weaved in the warp and weft of the mundu, backed up unquestioningly by movements that wave, twist, and tuck the ends of garments.
There is no place for women in this world. The artist’s process, which involves lathering the canvas with layers of paint before peeling them off to reveal the canvas underneath, is almost archaeological. This gestures towards a historical constant in the gendered definition of shared social and political spaces.
Untitled and Day Zero – Pranay Datta
A young artist from New Delhi and Kolkata – creates dystopian black-and-white landscapes. In ‘Day Zero’, ‘Neti’ or ‘Untitled’ (all – 2022); he presents his visions of Earth’s future – devastated and crippled. His acrylic-on-photograph works act as documentation of these sterile worlds. He warns humanity about the consequences of wars and climate change. Involuntarily, the viewer finds himself in the midst of a designed post-apocalyptic hell – superstructures built into dams, stone towers, and rocky valleys. Plumes of mushroom smoke and the absence of humans and animals, imply that this is the after, and that the world continues even after death.
Almanac of a Lost Year – Vasudevan Akkitham
This Vadodara/Baroda-based artist Vasudevan Akkitham dedicated his ‘Almanac of a Lost Year’ (2020-21) to the recent covid-19 pandemic.
A crow sits on a broken branch, and a man repairs a chandelier on the stairs; a candle burns on a table without people. Three hundred and sixty-five small watercolors were created during the lockdown to mark each day.
Like daily entries in a diary, these images provide an opportunity to reflect on the outside world to which we lost access.
Embassy – Richard Bell
Also exhibiting is Aboriginal Australian Richard Bell, who had a whole exhibition hall dedicated to him at Documenta in Kassel, Germany. His recent project is a tent called ‘Embassy’ which refers to discrimination and exploitation faced by the Aboriginal population long after the colonial period. The exterior of the tent exhibits posters with the messages like “Why is democracy being celebrated when life as an aboriginal is forbidden?” (Click on tab 2 to continue)
Kochi Biennale 2022-23 (December 12 2022- April 10 2023):10am-6pm Daily – Aspinwall House, River Road, Fort Nager, Fort Kochi, Kerala 682001 India. See here for more: https://www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org/
All pictures unless indicated: ©Tatiana Rosenstein
See page 2 for (in person) coverage of Biennale 2018-19