Walking past the lanes of Fort Kochi dotted with community reading rooms, I came across a portrait of Guy Debord smoking a cigar; his narrow eyes, clear through his round-rimmed metal spectacles. The portrait is cropped from a popular image he shares with Michele Bernstein and Asger Jorn. Keeping Debord company are portraits of Gandhi, Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. At the beginning of her concept note for the 4th edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, artist-curator Anita Dube references Debord’s idea of a “Society of Spectacle” – one that is endangered by images. While visitors might question the relevance of Debord’s pondering in today’s context, here he was, presiding over a community space in Kerala, looking over the street.
Anita’s intention for the Biennale was for it to be inclusive. She set out to expose voices that were suppressed, erased, compromised and marginalised within the structure of the exhibition. And they were. Her curatorial thread showcased the human body as a site for artistic and conceptual enquiries.
An installation view of works by Priya Ravish Mehra at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018
We begin at the Coir Godown at Aspinwall House, with the delicate textile works of late Priya Ravish Mehra. Sandwiched between glass, fabric worn out by time are works darned with intricate stitches to form beautiful scars. The aesthetic of recovery continues in the Godown with Mexican artist Tania Candini’s String Loom. Candini takes a defunct handloom, a relic of the textile industry of Kerala and repurposes the wooden structure as a string instrument. Inside one of the buildings over in the Admin Block, Nilima Sheikh’s Salaam Chechi looks at the contemporary mass migration of Kerala nurses across the world. Her tempera canvases depict different scenes of care, composed like a miniature painting.
A work by Salaam Chechi and Nilima Sheikh
Anita expands the relationship of humans to the environments they occupy in works like that of ceramic artist Lubna Chowdhary. Her multi-object Metropolis created between 1991 and 2018 is on display at Pepper House. Laid out in a long vitrine, the colourful handmade sculptures mimic buildings and toys amongst other urban objects. Next to Metropolis is Indonesian installation artist Heri Dono’s kinetic sculptural installation Flying Angels. On entering the room, you are greeted by ten wide-eyed angels with an ominous smile, their wings flapping slowly. In his invocation of the angels, Dono contemplates socio-political commentaries of oppression, injustice and violence in the native puppet tradition of wayang kulit to express human vulnerability on one hand but also the spirit of freedom and hope on the other, to rise above.
Heri Dono's Smiling Angels from the Sky (2018)
At the TKM Warehouse, Jitish Kallat’s Untitled (Two minutes to midnight), takes the form of early paleolithic weapons. In thinking through man’s relationship with ecology, the sculptures bear eyes of diverse reptilian and mammalian species, as though they were watching our actions. Opposite Kallat’s work is Srinagar Biennale, curated by Veer Munshi that brings together several artists born before or during the Kashmir conflict, a contested territory between India and Pakistan also affected by militancy and terrorism. Gargi Raina’s large painting A Murder of Crows:(The Crow Funeral) is spread across five frames. The figure of a woman with a carcass stands in the central frame, surrounded by scavenging crows making the isolation and vulnerability of the people affected by this conflict apparent.
Temsuyanger Longkumer's Catch a rainbow II (2018)
Dube’s biennale employs devices like frugality, reproduction, repurposing, rescaling and adjustments. At the center of these dark times she places hope in the possibility of companionship and friendship, thinking of the biennale as a site of coming together and sharing. Such ideas are demonstrated through Naga artist Temsuyanger Longkumer’s installation Catch a rainbow II at Pepper House, where water sprays against sunlight offering the chance to create a rainbow – a rainbow of hope.
The Kochi Muziris Biennale runs until 29 March. kochimuzirisbiennale.org