Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016: Epiphany by the Sea

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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The meditative powers of seeing at the third Kochi-Muziris Biennale

STILL UNSURE IF I had wrongly mistaken his uncertain steps as symptomatic of an inherent blindness, I attempt to retrace my memory. I first saw him, the anonymous stranger, standing at the threshold of an experience. His feet were pulled back to relieve his toes of loosely attached slippers. He placed his hands forward. A volunteer clutched at his fingertips in the manner of a ballroom dancer, with a grip slight enough to allow sufficient room for the body’s manoeuvring. He surrendered to the lull of her softly instructive voice and climbed down the two stairs that would lead to the water’s edge. She was already ankle deep in its volume. He allowed himself to be led by her. Around him were others who had led themselves in sans guidance, trousers rolled up toward their knees as they waded through the Chilean poet, Raul Zurita’s Sea of Pain. Their pace was meditative, their eyes wandered through the expansive hall in Aspinwall House upon whose walls were inscribed incriminating lines of poetic text: ‘Don’t you listen?; Don’t you look?; Don’t you hear me?; Don’t you see me?; Don’t you feel me?’ Interwoven after each castigating question is the penitential response, ‘In the sea of pain.’

He seemed an anomaly; his attention focused squarely on navigating his way through the flood of seawater. Unlike the others, he didn’t look up to read the writing on the wall. He was more concerned with crossing over to the other side. The volunteer was now walking alongside him, holding one hand like a dancer about to direct her partner’s twirl. Satisfied by his progress, I read the wall text and learned of the work’s dedication to a particular casualty of the Syrian refugee crisis—Galip Kurdi, the brother of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old body whose body washed ashore a beach on the second of September 2015, whose image became synonymous with the unprecedented humanitarian crisis. I am disarmed by the unexpected simplicity of Zurita’s text. Its ingenuity, I realise, is contingent on its consistent repetition of the rhetorical negative. But this specific context to which I bore witness, of a possibly blind visitor wading through the water in search of promised land, rendered the immersive installation all the more piquant. Here I was gazing at someone who I suspected couldn’t ostensibly see. And yet, I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t I who was really blind or had been blinded by circumstance. I thought of a remark made by one of Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s characters in his dystopian novel, Blindness: “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

IN HIS CURATORIAL brief for Forming in the Pupil of an Eye, the theme for the third edition of the Kochi- Muziris Biennale, artistic director Sudarshan Shetty tells the story of a young traveller who journeyed long and far to meet a sage. When he finally arrives, he finds himself in a dark room, with the meditating sage. He struggles to acclimatise to the surrounding darkness. ‘Then, gathering the world into the pupil of her eye, the Sage looks up at the boy who notices her eyes glowing through the darkness of the room,’ writes Shetty. ‘Not only perceiving what is immediately around her—the room and all in shadows—the Sage assimilates the entire universe. In that one moment and one vision, she grasps its enormous multiplicity—internal and external— and reflects those multiple images back onto the boy and back into the space between them both. Through the generation and layering of visions, the Sage creates multiple understandings of the world, speaking those to the young traveller in front of her.’ This parable forms the backdrop for Shetty’s curatorial endeavour that engenders the act of seeing, bearing witness, of forming perception and its retinal afterlife. “The eye is the only reflecting surface in the body,” he explains after walking us through Zurita’s installation, which, when I returned, had heightened in meaning and significance, given the seemingly visually impaired nature of the visitor being guided through, who left behind no walking stick. Was his blindness a physiological condition or a voluntary state of being, an enactment of a desire he felt to experience the artwork alternatively?

Two steps in, I find myself compelled to proceed further through the discombobulating labyrinth of darkness that encompassed Slovenian artist Aleš Šteger’s Pyramid for Exiled Poets, a vast mud structure modelled after the pyramid in Khufu in Giza, Egypt. Pinpricks of light offered occasional respite. Within the maze-like womb I could hear indistinguishable recitals of poems written by poets from the distant and recent past. Later I would learn their names: Publius Ovidius Naso, Dante Alighieri, Bertolt Brecht, Czeslaw Milosz, Mahmoud Darwish, Yan Lian, Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Blatn and César Vallejo, all of whom shared in common a state of exile. At one point, I felt like I had arrived at the edge of a cliff and that there was no threshold to cross over. I sought refuge in technology, fished for my cell phone, turned on the flashlight and voyaged on until I could feel the reassuring warmth of daylight at the other end. The flashlight function had already come to my rescue earlier that day, as I was about to view Oriya artist Subrat Kumar Behera’s phantasmagorical 60-panel lithograph series, Mythological Paradigm Prophesied (2016), when, suddenly, the lights in just that section went off, plunging us into darkness. The adjoining installation by Desmond Lazaro, Family Portraits (2016) was still sufficiently illuminated, the embroidered hung cloth spelling ‘Rangoon’ and paintings of family portraits that traced a lineage spanning Burma (Myanmar) and London easily visible. My phone’s torch lit up portions of Behera’s trippy, graphic panels, temporarily highlighting the adrenaline- charged mise-en-scene composed of a clash of mythological characters from diverse time zones set against an eerily imagined post-sci- fi landscape whose contours were rigidly confined to visual illustrations minus any textual supplementation.

Darkness was more consciously central to Pedro Gomez-Egana’s Aphelion. I arrived in time for the ‘performance’ slotted every 15 minutes and was guided to a seat before a cloth stage that seemed like the front for a puppet show. We listened to the ensuing soundtrack that spoke of eddying waters and static ships, a reference to the swell of the river just beyond the door. The stage was soon transformed into a kinetic sculpture, with the cloth scrolling downwards over two spheres of orange-hued light, metaphors for ships that neither advanced nor approached, remaining always in the same still distance, the moving fabric standing in for both waves and a shifting sky. Aphelion symbolises the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid or comet when it is furthest from the sun. The poetic use of a repetitive soundtrack coupled by the staged motion induced the texture of a maritime atmosphere; the persistent optical illusion framing a narrative of conquest, adventure, and uncertain seas.

FOR ALL ITS focus on the idea of what is forming within the pupil of an eye, few works achieve the effect of the obviously spectacular. Unlike its predecessors, the third edition of the Biennale, at Shetty’s behest, seems to privilege the speculative instead; the quietly meditative, the subtly connotative, the process-oriented, without being dryly conceptual. It boldly embraces and propagates a more democratic comprehension of who is an artist, bringing into the fold poets like Zurita and Sharmistha Mohanty, a line from whose poem was appropriated as the edition’s title; as well as thespian Anamika Haksar who created for the Biennale a piece of improvisational theatre and installation titled Composition on Water that draws principally from Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal’s poem, Water; the acclaimed Kerala- based muralist, PK Sadanandan who has produced an epic painting depicting the story of Parayi Petta Panthirukulam, the twelve families born to the Parayi; and EP Unny, the famed political cartoonist whose strip Business as Usual enjoys a prominent display at Aspinwall House, embedded within the larger newsprint of the front pages of The Indian Express.

Within the realm of the not obviously spectacular, a few works stand out for their alluring sensual interplay of space and time. Chinese artists Dai Xiang and Yang Hongwei’s immense scrolls are particularly exceptional, especially considering how they are evocatively placed opposite each other, enticing viewers to move along their expanse to glimpse the immaculate detailing they incorporate. Dai Xiang’s 25-metre-long panoramic, digitally sewn photographic image The New Along the River During the Quing-ming Festival is simultaneously an ode to Zhang Zeduan’s 12th century Song Dynasty work bearing the same title and a visual depiction of the conflict between local Chinese traditions and the import of Western culture since the country’s opening up in the late 1970s and 80s. Yang Hongwei’s 12-metre scroll produced with traditional Chinese paper and ink, titled Ye Tan Tu, loosely translating to ‘night feast chart’ visualises the country’s bizarre sexual appetites that exist outside of the framework of its historical narrative. Despite their scale, both works zealously maintain perspective while pushing the boundaries of the medium and its narrative possibilities.

Elusively speculative, Swiss artist Bob Gramsma’s site-specific sculpture borrowed from unearthed layers of excavated earth. Tilted riff off, O1#16238, a large chunk of concrete reinforced by steel was created to replace the ground underneath that had been wrenched out by Gramsma, who, in doing so, played the role of an archaeologist digging through the site as if investigating its history, fully aware of the hundreds of years necessary for a metre of earth to naturally form. The concrete cast was created from the vacuum of absent earth, which he deposited at an angle so it doesn’t neatly return to the cavity. This imaginative intervention into Kochi’s past harks back to its formation after the 1341 flood that destroyed Muziris, while proposing a continuum between past and present.

GR Iranna’s Garbh similarly works with found material to create an impressive monolith, an ovoid sculpture composed entirely of holy ash; a cross- cultural symbol of both life and resurrection. The structure overwhelms the smaller-sized room in which it has been nestled, so the viewer has to circumambulate its voluminous expanse to gauge its contours. As the found ash that is its prime constituent inadvertently chips off onto the floor, it creates an aura around its circumference. Subtitled Ash to Ash, the sculpture evokes notions of life and death even as it transcends its materiality through its acceptance of its own mortality. At the end of the Biennale, it will have to be destroyed, compelling its return to ash, a substance that is a metaphor for the temporality of our lives, echoing even a very Christian idea of man’s creation from dust or ash, and the inevitable return to that substance.

If the note by Bose Krishnamachari, the Biennale’s co-founder, is to be taken at face value, the choice of Sudarshan Shetty as curator for the third edition was motivated by his own ‘risk-taking’ practice, one that has increasingly incorporated a plethora of media and material. Has his vision successfully translated itself across the breadth of the biennale? In its deliberate ambiguity, it certainly has, since, contextually, Forming in the Pupil of an Eye eagerly anticipated a plurality of perspectives, multiple ways of imagining our contemporary realities. Shetty’s most notable achievement has been in establishing a shift away from the possible threat of dogmatically reinforcing the historicity of Fort Kochi, the Biennale’s venue, thus falling into the cliché of ships and spices and Portuguese- inflected colonial vices. Instead, Shetty has managed to reframe the lens through which we understand the artistic practice. Where in previous editions most rooms were filled with work that had been resolved and was ‘finished’, Shetty has allowed his artists (like Praneet Soi and Nicola Durvasula) the luxury of creating and exhibiting works as they progress, as they are breathed into life, as they assume form and definition and thereby evolve. He seems to remind us of the meditative quality inherent in artmaking itself, that the artist could in fact be the Sage in his story, and the viewer the young man who voyages in the hope of either an encounter or an epiphany.