For the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger has created The Pyramid of Exiled Poets. Plastered on the outside with dried cow dung, the structure contains a dark labyrinth. As you make your way through it, doubting whether the ground will be there to meet your next step, you hear a cacophony of women chanting in different languages. Like the pyramids of Giza, Šteger’s monument is also a tomb, but instead of commemorating a political or divine authority, its walls enclose the words of poets who were exiled—Dante, Brecht, Brodsky, and others. The multilingual soundtrack makes it difficult to know what is being recited, but the desperation in the women’s voices makes it sound as if the chants are cries for help.
The biennale showcases works by ninety-seven artists from thirty-one countries. The curatorial theme, “Forming in the pupil of the eye,” is about using the sense of sight to experience and assimilate the multiplicities of the world. Several of the key works grapple with pressing political concerns of exile and refuge. Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s installation The Sea of Pain (2016), for instance, is dedicated to Galip Kurdi, the brother of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who came to represent the tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis after a photo of his body washed ashore on a Turkish beach was widely circulated. Galip, Alan, and their mother, Rehan, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015 while trying to escape Syria. For The Sea of Pain, Zurita has filled a large hall in Aspinwall House, the biennale’s main location, with not-quite knee-deep seawater. The viewer has to walk through it to be able to read the poet’s questions written on the wall. He asks, DON’T YOU HEAR ME? IN THE SEA OF PAIN. DON’T YOU SEE ME? IN THE SEA OF PAIN. There were no photographs of Galip’s body in the newspapers, and for Zurita, Galip’s disappearance is an especially heavy, painful silence. As you cross the poetic sea, for brief moments the work imposes on you the helplessness that water, with its might and lack of concern, can make you feel. When you reach the other side, you are confronted with a final statement by Zurita, I’M NOT HIS FATHER, BUT GALIP KURDI IS MY SON. This simple declaration transforms Zurita, and us. We are no longer onlookers; we are being called to mourn.
Language plays an important role in this biennale. In addition to Zurita and Šteger, other writers were invited to make site-specific works. Among them is Argentine Sergio Chejfec, who has printed chapters of his novel Baroni: A Journey (2007) on walls around Kochi, converting the town into a story you can walk through. While the curatorial theme is broad enough to encompass all the works, it is the uniqueness of the venues—which range from warehouses to cafés—and the simplicity of the installation that turn the biennale from just another global art event to a distinctive organic experience.
One of the most exciting locations is the Anand Warehouse, an active spice warehouse situated on the bustling Bazaar Road. At the ground level of the warehouse, workers go about their business of storing and transporting spices. Pungent smells hit your nose as you climb to the upper level, where works are installed in little, dimly lit rooms with decrepit walls. These works include Bharat Sikka’s photographic installation Where the Flowers Still Grew (2015–16), which features images of mundane life in Kashmir: beautiful mountain landscapes, shots of lounging horses and posing men. In the photographs there is no hint of the violence that threatens life in the politically contested territory, but in glass vitrines placed in the rooms you come across objects, like a rusty gun, that act as reminders. However, the actual space, with its visible scars, changes Sikka’s static images into visions of life elsewhere that we the viewers have stumbled into.
The recurring feeling of stumbling into a story is partly due to the nature of the biennale’s spaces and partly due to the immersive quality of most of the exhibited works, which require the viewer to slow down and engage with them. Only a handful of pieces are spectacle-oriented. The Russian collective AES+F’s “Défilé” (2000–07), for instance, is a series of life-size photographs of dead bodies dressed in high-end fashion. Portraying decaying bodies in an almost otherworldly manner and raising questions concerning the ethics involved in making such work, these photographs challenge the viewer in a manner that most of the political works fail to do.
One exception is London-based artist Mikhail Karikis’s provocative video Children of Unquiet (2013–14). The work shows a group of colorfully dressed children taking over an abandoned geothermal power plant in Larderello, Italy. They run on the plant’s large pipes and play soccer on debris. As they prance around, the viewer realizes that, for reasons unknown to the children, they have inherited desolation. As if sensing what is at stake, they begin to read to each other from philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Commonwealth (2009). They read about a new economic system based on love—a productive, contradictory force. When considered in political terms, love is a revolutionary force that overthrows norms and institutions but also a stabilizing force that creates new norms and institutions. In short, as the children shout, “Love is an institution of revolution.” In the communist town of Kochi, the enigma is not lost.
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?