The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s inaugural biennale, features the work of ninety-four artists from twenty-three countries in sixty exhibition spaces, spread mainly across Fort Kochi, a quaint suburb of the historic port city of Kochi. Here, large disused spice warehouses, ‘Chinese’ shore-based fishing nets, the church that once housed Vasco da Gama’s remains, Rajah Veera Kerala Varma’s palace and a sixteenth century Jewish synagogue serve as architectural reminders of Kochi’s place in the unfolding of capitalist transmodernity, and of the many communities that have made Kochi home over several centuries. ‘Muziris’ is the name of an ancient urban center, finding mention in texts dating back 2000 years. Destroyed in a flood in the fourteenth century, its exact location today is uncertain. However, several sources indicate that Muziris might have been situated in Pattanam, a few kilometers away from Kochi, where evidence for Mesopotamian, Chinese, Mediterranean and North African maritime trade has been excavated. Against this millennium-long, multilayered history of global connection, curators and artists at the Biennale grapple with the 'cosmopolitics,' as critic Ranjit Hoskote has put it, of the contemporary moment, asking questions of the intersection between historical praxis and art making, mobility and belonging.
Amar Kanwar, Sovereign Forest; photo credit: Kochi Biennale Foundation.
The Biennale hosts big names in Indian and international art as well as lesser known, promising artists whose works reveal themselves as relations, rather than objects, evoking the entanglements and the sometimes awkward engagement, the relationships between and within, the local and the global, the North and South, India, Brazil, Ghana, Afghanistan and China, spices and colonization, artist, curator, worker, you and I. A potent image to un/yoke several works in the Biennale is Alex Matthew’s rusted anchor, held upright by invisible support on the lawn of Pepper House, a heritage dockside warehouse. Matthew’s installation is a beautiful and surreal reminder of the unmoored nature of finance capital. In the main venue, Aspenwall House, a nineteenth-century trading warehouse, Subodh Gupta’s installation of a large fishing boat piled high with stainless steel utensils, chairs, mattresses and other everyday domestic possessions, evokes not just the ephemerality of home and the ethnoscapes of displacement, forced migration and refugeeism, but suggests the many new kinds of ‘boat peoples’ and cultures produced today at the interface of capitalist marginalization and the porous, shifting line between legality and illegality. Mumbai-based CAMP’s twelve-channel video installation frames separate instances of the repetitive labor that supports port economies such as Kochi. Each channel features different workers packing and loading commodities to be shipped in corporate containers. The consistent rhythm of labor-as-gesture, and of the placement of boxes within boxes, blurs the lines between a production aesthetic and consumption aesthetic, drawing focus instead to distribution, transport, risk and loss. Amar Kanwar’s lyrical multimedia installation, weaving together moving and still images, poetry, books, music and 266 varieties of indigenous seeds and taking the form of public trial, film and archive all at once, invites consideration of the neocolonial nature of contemporary dealing in land. The central film in the installation features a large tract of land and its people in Orissa, in Eastern India, just prior to the area’s acquisition by a bauxite-mining corporation. Kanwar stages the precarity of life-worlds under erasure in development plans, together with the tools with which to reconfigure modes of narration at hand.
Robert Montgomery, Fado music in reverse; photo credit: Kochi Muziris Biennale.
If relationality and movement—of ideas, peoples, material and finance—are common motifs, the Biennale also offers a distinct mode of knowing and experiencing these: the olfactory. Like the historic spice trade that moved, linked, enriched and enslaved generations, the rich aroma of cloves, pepper, turmeric and cardamom pervades the Biennale venues, opening up memory. Ernesto Neto’s interactive architectural sculpture in a room of Moidu’s Heritage building consists of a yellow-orange membranous material stretched across the ceiling and filled with aromatic spices that hang down like huge liquid droplets. These droplets seem to take on organic form, inviting the visitor to smell, touch, feel its spice-body. Dylan Martorell’s interactive aural and olfactory ‘spice speaker sound system’ uses sub-bass frequencies to create clouds of spice and Anant Joshi constructs a temple of mosquito-repellent incense. Our sense of smell translates chemical signals into neural ones for the brain to interpret, allowing for a specific means of remembering and, from here, perhaps also a ‘re-membering’ or a linking and (re)arrangement of fragmented bodies—bodies of words; of knowledge; of flesh and blood. Robert Montgomery’s poetry based installation set in neon light on the facade of Aspenwall House, beckoning visitors ashore to the Biennale, nostalgically testifies to just such a lost and then rearticulated connection:
The strange new music of the crying songs of the people we left behind mixing as your boat touches stone here as my new bones touch your bones.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was also the subject of controversy, having to do with funding and delays. During opening week, some of the exhibition spaces were incomplete, with artists still installing their work. And yet, as Hoskote’s keynote address acknowledged on a balmy afternoon in December, this very in-processness lent the event a buoyancy, a precious fragility and an informality, while also allowing it to reveal the many people, apart from the artists themselves, whose support make works of art possible. It is in such naked spaces and moments that critical questions on the ontology of art-making and reception emerge. In addition to several exciting art works and interventions, the Biennale critically offers outreach, educational and cultural spaces to engage such conversation.
(Image on top: Subodh Gupta; Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation)