Whorled Explorations: Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014

Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014) Photo: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014) Photo: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Since 2012, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has turned Fort Kochi, a vibrant town overlooking the Arabian Sea, into a pivotal location for India’s contemporary art scene. The 2014 Whorled Explorations Biennale, curated by artist Jitish Kallat, showcases the work of 94 artists from 30 countries. The eight venues include public spaces; warehouses facing the sea; and colonial heritage properties. Kochi, believed to coincide with the location of Muziris, an ancient port on the Silk Route, was occupied over the centuries as strategic trading site by the Portuguese, British, Dutch and Arab.

The curator aimed to use the town as a debate and observation platform to investigate the “mysterious expedition of planet Earth”. Between the 14th and 17th centuries Kerala’s School of Astronomy and Mathematics’ advanced practices investigated human existence within the infinite universe. In the “Age of Discovery” explorers and merchants, early agents of globalisation, stretched the then-known World’s boundaries, conquering and colonising. The exhibition interweaves “the bygone with the immanent, the terrestrial with the celestial”, combining these fascinating, current themes, starting from their history. The Biennale’s heterogeneous international and local audience is particularly striking: Fort Kochi’s history as a cultural meeting point revived as the town welcomes the contemporary art world.

Charles and Ray Eames’s Power of Ten (1977) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

Charles and Ray Eames’s Power of Ten (1977) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

Kallat’s ambitious conceptual framework is strengthened by the architecture and history of the buildings within which the exhibition unfolds; its themes are interlaced across venues, but also relate specifically to each heritage property’s history. Aspinwall House, a 19th-century warehouse established by an English trading company, hosts the majority of the artworks. The fascinating video work Power of Ten (1977) by Charles and Ray Eames opens the exhibition, addressing the limits of human perception and the vastness of the cosmos. Marie Velardi’s Future Perfect (2006) draws a map in time across the 21st Century, offering viewers a “memory of the future”. These pieces set binary oppositions which will be keys to interpret the whole festival.

Picture 5: Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure (2011) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

Picture 5: Dinh Q. Lê’s Erasure (2011) Photo: Giulia Sartori Conte

The presence of elements recalling the conceptual framework’s celestial and journey-themed references is, at times, redundant. However, Aspinwall House’s display is engaging and permeated by evocative pieces. Effective example of the recurring theme of the whorl, Anish Kapoor’s water-vortex Descension (2014), destabilises viewers, recalling the fear of the unknown. The ship is interestingly used as a metaphor in Kahlil Rabah’s photo rendering Bioproduct (2010), depicting a Gaza Strip-shaped aircraft carrier, and in Dinh Q. Lê’s installation Erasure (2011), which narrates the forced displacement of Vietnamese people. Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations (2014) powerfully documents the lives and memories of former patients of a Taiwanese asylum, an attempt to resist collective amnesia. David Hall, former military accommodation and battlefield, houses conflict-themed impressive works; Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Pan-anthem (2014), an interactive installation, relates national identities and patriotism with military spending’s statistics.

The Biennale succeeds in tying together a diverse selection of thoughtful works. The exhibition encourages reflection on the topical theme of globalisation and its history, with an emphasis on Kochi’s local reality, confirming this Biennale as a spot-to-watch for the global contemporary art scene.

Giulia Sartori Conte is an MA student at the Courtauld.

The Kochi Biennial is open until March, 29th 2015.

Patterns of Dissent: Contemporaneity in South Asian Art–Subodh Gupta & The Routes of Success

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Subodh Gupta speaking at The Courtauld. Photo by Ashitha Nagesh.

Being familiar with Subodh Gupta’s large-scale sculptural installations, it was surprising to hear him speak at The Courtauld on 21 May– for his particularly modest, humble manner of approaching his own artworks and practice was somewhat unexpected in light of his ambitious pieces. One thing the artist and his work clearly have in common, however, is that they are immensely powerful. His latest installation at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row, What does the vessel contain, that the river does not (2012) is a huge Keralan fishing ship, hand-sewn in the traditional way and filled with the everyday Indian domestic objects that Gupta is perhaps best recognised for, steel kitchenware, amongst other pieces of furniture, broken or whole. This miscellany collected within a symbol of travel and trade seems a fitting culmination of the fourteen years of work that Gupta discussed at the seminar, for his oeuvre is inherently tied up in his personal experiences.

It was interesting to hear the anecdotes that accompany some of his most well-known pieces, as they are linked to his life – whether they were events that had taken place, conversations he had had, or simply his own thought processes – as Gupta told us, “My journey is my art.” The importance of his discovery of Duchamp was particularly touching, and one that makes so much sense when considering his sculpture – the way he elevates the quotidian to something aesthetically beautiful is quintessentially Duchampian. For example, speaking about his works Across Seven Seas and Everything is Inside (both 2004) he spoke about how he used to travel to Europe via the Gulf, and on his return journey would see Indians who were working in the Middle East with large, tightly and carefully wrapped bundles. He asked people what they had packed in there, expecting them to contain fragile and precious items; however, they usually only held gifts for the workers’ families back home. He found these bundles, as commonplace as they turned out to be, so beautiful that he created the two sculptures based on them. Aam Aadmi (2009), a collection of incredibly realistic painted bronze mangoes in a wooden crate, is similar treatment of the everyday – and as “aam aadmi” (literally translating from Hindi as “mango people”) is a colloquial term used by politicians to refer to the “common people”, it becomes a celebration not only of everyday objects but of the general masses.

Gupta then went on to talk about his early years, the beginning of his artistic career in art school in Patna, how he initially wanted to become an actor, as well as his experience of working in the Khoj workshop in 1997 – a liberating environment where the artists could work free from gallery influence for the first time. Needless to say, it was fascinating to hear the experiences that preceded such an incredible body of work.