Xu Bing: Background Story: Endless Xishan Mountain Scenery, 2014, wood, glass, paper, fishing lines, dried flowers, twigs and fibers; in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014.


Kochi, located in the state of Kerala near an area once occupied by the ancient port of Muziris, has a layered history. Before being ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, it was settled by Jews and Syrian Christians, and visited by Moorish and Chinese traders. Consequently, although the place is seductively balmy, it’s a little disconcerting that “Whorled Explorations,” the second edition of India’s premier international art exhibition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, should take a cruise line approach to the past.

Under the direction of artist Jitish Kallat (b. 1974), the event brings together some 90 individual artists and groups, nearly half from India and the rest from 29 other countries. The works, many of them commissioned, are shown in eight venues, primarily in the seaside neighborhood of Fort Kochi. In his curatorial statement, Kallat strives to link the Biennale foundation’s effort to stimulate a more cosmopolitan awareness of art and culture in the region with the histories of trade and conquest during the Age of Discovery and the advances made by the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics between the 14th and 17th centuries. 

Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1534)—who forcibly established sea trade with the subcontinent, became Portugal’s viceroy of India and died in Kochi—is treated less suspiciously in the exhibition than one would expect in a country to which he introduced four and a half centuries of European imperialism. Graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee assembles random tidbits about the explorer in sparsely filled comic book pages. Pushpamala N.’s photographic re-creation of a 19th-century Orientalist painting depicting da Gama holding forth before the Zamorin of Calicut is juxtaposed with a chalkboard stating that Europeans ripped off Arab, Indian and Chinese navigational science. For the first three days of the Biennale, performance artist Nikhil Chopra lounged in a room as a shipwrecked Portuguese sailor, rising occasionally to draw on the walls (first jail bars, then tropical coastal landscape), before changing costume and melodramatically departing the site in a dinghy.

With heavy migration from India’s west coast to Africa and the Middle East, and increasingly hot competition between India and China in the Indian Ocean, economic relations in this region are hardly an antiquarian issue. Sunoj D.’s Zero to the Right (2014) alludes to contemporary commercial tensions. The artist has converted an art-residency budget of $2,000 into dirhams and rupees, and, through big loudspeakers, counts off the sums in English, Arabic and Malayalam. Kwan Sheung Chi’s folded-paper globe, meanwhile, imagines a world comprised of nothing but his native Hong Kong. Resonating with the pro-democracy “umbrella movement” that arose in Hong Kong last fall, it was one of the Biennale’s few indications that colonial legacies in Asia are still alive as a political issue.

Among Keralite artists, who have the advantage of local insight, esteemed illustrator K.M. Vasudevan Namboothiri offers only more images of European explorers and quaint colonial buildings. Aji V.N.’s charcoal drawings of leafy Keralan-like landscapes, among the show’s most beautiful works, do nothing to counter the general atmosphere of facile romanticism. Arun K.S.’s Yayoi Kusama-esque painting of countless little brown heads singing as a Christian choir nicely complements Chennai-based Benitha Perciyal’s aromatic sculptural heads and figures—cast in incense, herbs and spices—portraying characters related to St. Thomas’s first-century A.D. arrival on the Malabar Coast, where he allegedly initiated Christianity in India.

The most discursively compelling piece owes its power to old-school academic cultural studies: Ho Rui An, based in Singapore and New York, gave a creatively illustrated talk about how in Hollywood’s treatment of colonialism in the tropics, the white man’s sweat was relieved by the “air conditioning” of the white woman’s domesticity. In curatorial counterpoint, Norwegian-born, Berlin-based Sissel Tolaas presents her “smell profiles,” a set of ballast stones swabbed with the chemically reproduced sweat of 20 men who experienced fear.

The latest addition to Xu Bing’s “Background Story” series is the only wow work. Its power stems not from the source material (a Ming dynasty landscape painting) but rather its verisimilar re-creation, inside a giant light box, out of silhouetted leaves, branches and paper. It puts to shame Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014), a machine-generated whirlpool, which, installed as it is in a country with little concern for people’s safety, could be bigger and more violent. The grandest Indian work is N.S. Harsha’s Again Birth, Again Death (2014), a 79-foot-long painting of nothing more interesting than swirling stars and planets.

In contrast, consider the first film in the Biennale’s collateral Artists’ Cinema series: the late John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (1986), about the death of a young Naxalite (Indian Communist guerrilla). As a group of men, in search of the deceased’s mother, walk through many of the same streets traversed by Biennale goers, the narrator reflects, “The Portuguese, Dutch, and East India Company gave Fort Cochin a mixed culture. It is deeply rooted here. Their ships sailed away laden with wealth stolen from us. In return, they gave us English education and cemeteries of decay.” What would such an observer think of colonial history being transformed, a quarter century later, into high-end “heritage” by the tourism industry and its new bedfellow, the art world?