Remove your footwear, a diminutive sign warns. “Should have pulled up my pants a little more (expletives),” fumes one-half of an irate couple, visibly uncomfortable in her wet denims. It is a strange scene: Dingy warehouse flooded with a few inches of water, where the visitors are encouraged to wade through the gently lapping waters and the curiously contrapuntal letterings ('Do you feel me?' and 'In the sea of pain') on the warehouse walls.
Welcome to the third edition of Kochi-Muziris art biennale, where the otherwordly and the surrealistic meet the...well...the otherwordly and the surrealistic. The warehouse sets the scene for art installation, 'Sea of Pain', by Chilean poet Raul Zurita. In his own words, the work is a tribute to deceased Galip Kurdi, five-year-old brother of Aylan Kurdi. A photo of the latter, lying dead and face down on a Turkish shore, has come to signify the ravages of the Syrian war and the refugee crisis.
At the other end of the warehouse, across the virtual river Styx and the disembodied moans of the haunting wall inscriptions, a message from the artist/Charonesque ferryman awaits: “There are no photographs of Galip Kurdi. He can't hear, he can't see, he can't feel, and the silence comes down like immense white clothes. I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son.”
Is our wading through the lukewarm water an initiation, a tangible peephole into a world that we know nothing about? Was Kurdi, engulfed by the merciless tides, spurred on by the belief of light at the end of the tunnel—but always too far out to read the writing on the wall. Or is there a hint of black humour in the wall inscriptions? A jibe at the hordes of bustling youth who would invariably pose for selfies in the 'sea of pain', reducing the experience to a mere instagram hashtag?
Two doors down, Camille Norment's installation 'Prime' is set in a room facing the sea. Benches are set up—all of them emanating hums, voices originating from the African-American church of moaning. According to the artist, "The sound is at once gesturing to a kind of exalting orgasm, a painful groan or a comforting meditation. The work speaks indirectly to a connectedness of dissonant sound, voice and body." A piece of advice: Keep your eyes peeled for an occasional passing ship. Notice one? Relax, follow the course of the ship and let the music sink in. Thank me later.
'Go Playces' with graphic artist Orijit Sen, whose interactive installation urges the visitors to take part in an immersive journey through the teeming Mapusa market in Goa, the Old City of Hyderabad and Punjab's Grand Trunk Road—replete with jigsaw puzzles, fun contests and prizes to be won at the end. Peer a little closer. Among the multitude of voices punctuating the illustrated map, the voice—nay the anger—of the common man stands out. They speak of inflation (an elderly man complaining about having to pay Rs 10 for a bundle of plates, which earlier cost four annas); migration and crisis of identity (a mother who laments that her daughter, a recent returnee from Australia, has forgotten about a cake that she used to like. The latter, in turn, complains about the heat, urging the older lady to finish her shopping quickly); demonetisation pains (merchants complaining about lack of customers killing their business and the impact of a cashless economy, a woman slyly attempting to rid herself of a now-useless 500 rupee note).
Slovenian artist Ales Steger, on his part, has fashioned a pyramid out of mud and dung, setting up an abode for the poets in exile. Inside the pyramid, the visitors are cocooned in pitch darkness and the spectral incantations of poems by Darwish, Alighieri, Vallejo, Brecht and so on. A lifesize tribute, sans the opulence that marked it in the era of the pharaohs, to the silenced voices across the world.
These pieces, in a nutshell, are a microcosm of the biennale—the curatorial vision and theme aptly summed up as 'forming in the pupil of an eye'. A journey into the homogeneity within multiplicities—incorporating literary voices, performance arts and other forms that do not conform to the expectation of the biennale's space. As curator Sudarshan Shetty says in his statement, "As rivers flow, overflow and recede, can a biennale accumulate meaning over time and spill into the future?"
Here again, the curator delves into a universal query. Is it possible for the biennale to spill over in time, into conversations that would sustain long after its three and a half months duration? The answer, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, is blowing in the cool, coastal winds. Sen's Mapusa market meets its formidable equal in the bustling streets of Fort Kochi. Gabriel Lester's installation 'Dwelling of the Kappiri spirits', a tribute to the African slaves who were enslaved by the Portuguese and left to die in the late 1600s, finds an eerie extension in a small unadorned shrine barely a few kilometres away from the main biennale venue. Here, the local residents pay homage to the 'Kappiri' spirits still believed to be roaming the area. The angst of migration and the homeland dreams of the uprooted, finds no greater resonance than in Kochi—which once boasted the most populous Jewish settlement in India. Biennale's main themes—multiplicity and inclusiveness—are nowhere better realised than in this small coastal town renowned for its vast maritime history, its long periods of occupation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. A city where a hijab-wearing Muslim woman purchasing vegetables from the local market or a saffron clad Hindu priest on a rickety bicycle is as common a sight as a barechested Caucasian resident flaunting Buddha tattooes while riding a stone-age Vespa motorbike.
In conversation with THE WEEK, Sudarshan Shetty says, "As I see it, the biennale is a natural extension of the vast multicultural history that Kochi boasts. It is not something that is foreign to this location. In this edition of biennale, we have tried to look within the art space and generate a kind of conversation that is between various works, between various disciplines and ways of disseminating info on various world views as well.” In these troubled times, is it possible for artists to remain apolitical in their works? "I think the answer is no. There are various ways in which politics can play itself out. It doesn't have to be shrill, headline grabbing performances. Lots of works here have political positions to take, which play themselves out as poetry, dance and cinema. I think it is more important to look at the kind of conversation that could be, whether it is political or not," he says. So step in, look around. Who knows where that orphan moment of personal Nibbana lies in wait?