Posted by: cochinblogger | September 30, 2017

Kochi-Muziris Bienale 2016-2017: A Visit

The Bienale, since the inaugural edition in 2012, has been a cultural hotspot in the city of Cochin. The current edition was about to come to a close, and I was yet to visit it. Reams and reams had been written about it in newspapers and magazines, and the tourists in the boat jetty India Coffee House seemed, from overheard snatches of conversation, to be either headed for the Bienale or returning from it. Finally, two days before the closing day, I put all work aside and headed out to Fort Kochi, the nerve center of the Bienale. Naturally, I took the boat, which is cheaper than the bus, takes just seven minutes versus forty minutes by bus, and is a pleasant joyride, something the bus ride will never be.


At the jetty, the notice at the head of the queue (see above) confused me. Where were males going to Fort Kochi supposed to line up?? Given the god-like arbitrariness with which rules are often framed in my beloved country, males heading for Fort Kochi could well be expected to line up at the counters at the back of the jetty. Indians have a well-developed tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty in their lives; it's a prerequisite for survival here. I asked someone in the queue; yes, the line for males bound for Fort Kochi or Mattancherry was right here. The queue behind me lengthened to serpentine proportions in minutes. A harried looking elderly man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if this was the line for males traveling to Fort Kochi. I said yes, and offered to get his ticket too. He was grateful, having been spared a long wait standing in the queue. We had to stay together on the boat as our tickets were issued on the same slip of paper. At the end of the boat rode, we decided to see the Bienale together.



We entered the main venue, Aspinwall House, which was crawling with visitors like ourselves. The Bienale has been a tremendous success by any yardstick, and I still marvel at the enthusiasm it generates among the largely cynical tribe of Malayalees. The first exhibit was startling. It consisted at first glance of photos of people dressed in stylish clothes, but there was something odd about the people I couldn't put my finger on. Each exhibit had a notice comprising a few explanatory lines put up on the wall, and it was from this that I learned that the people in the photos were dead. Yes, you read that right: dead. The artist is Arzamasova of Russian, her artwork is called Defile, and her motivations are explained in the following photo. I wonder how she got her subjects to volunteer. 🙂


Emerging, somewhat disturbed, from this macabre display of the dead attired in the height of fashion, our gaze wandered around the quadrangle, which was dominated by a giant pyramid in the center of the square. The exhibition space was in the buildings lining the sides of the quadrangle. The pyramid piqued our curiosity, so we went there next. Coming close on the heels of the encounter with the fashionable dead, the pyramid experience was unsettling. It was pitch dark inside, and I had to inch forward tentatively by feeling the walls of the narrow passage. Disembodied voices, muttering something I could not discern, added to the eeriness. The floor, made of earth, was uneven, with projecting ridges. My companion switched on his mobile, and aided by the feeble light from the screen, we stumbled forward. It felt as though we were trapped inside a gigantic, malevolent womb. The unearthly voices continued to mutter like evil spirits at a haunting. Had I provoked a mummy's curse? We were dazed when we finally emerged into daylight. Only then did we learn that the voices were of famous poets like Auden reciting their poetry. In the light of this knowledge, I was tempted to return, but time was limited and there was much to cover.


From this point onward, however, the shadows retreated, and what I as a layman understand to be art asserted itself. From my visit to the first Bienale of 2012 I knew that the concept of art has expanded far beyond framed pictures in galleries viewed at arm's length. Many works of art are now complex enough to be described as installations. Of course, framed pictures have their place.


The Mayor of Cochin, Soumini Jain, was also visiting the Bienale with a small entourage. I took this photograph along with the photographer who accompanied her. Indeed, the whos-whos of Kerala have visited the Bienale, from movie stars to politicians.


The next exhibit was a 12 meter scroll, Ye Tan Tu, by the Chinese artist Yang Hongwei. It had some explicit content. According to the blurb, the scroll "examines the way sexuality and society's problems have been shut out of a historical narrative in China."


In the spirit of art as a full-body sensory experience, Johansons, a Latvian artist, produced THIRST, which is a video recording of a stormy North Atlantic. We sat in a darkened room and gazed at a large screen on which foaming waves drew themselves up high and came down with a ear-splitting crash. If we were adrift on a small boat, alone, in such waters …

For me, the pick of the exhibits was Multiple Choice by the Austrian artist Martin Walde. You enter a dimly lit room, to behold a human figure reclining backward on small chair. A spotlight is trained on him. He doesn't look at ease; in fact, he seems to be in torment, in great pain. The exhibit blurb reveals that the figure is made of a single block of wax and the beam is an infrared ray whose intensity is increased by the movement of the spectators in the room. As the intensity of the beam increases, the heat generated by it also increases, causing the figure to melt. The beam is switched off only when the spectators leave the room. To me, the man slumped in the chair perfectly symbolizes the predicament of the human species today. Anything we do as a species only seems to accelerate our impending extinction on Earth. This creative use of technology to capture our existential dilemma in an interactive work of art will live with me for long.


Orijit Sen's Playces was where we spent the most time, in fact, much, much more time than we had budgeted for. The artwork was bright and sunny, like the panels in the Tintin comics I became addicted to as a schoolboy. The overarching theme was places, specifically, Punjab, Goa, and Hyderabad. We did not get beyond the Goa exhibit, which mesmerized us. At the entrance was an irresistible offer: Answer five questions based on the exhibit, and we could take home an Orijit Sen artwork (that explained the "play" in Playces, a portmanteau word that combined "play" and "places"). I picked up five slips of paper and got to work. Some of the questions could be answered easily, but others were more difficult. There were a handful of us playing this game, and we were rushing to and fro between the two rooms that housed the Goa exhibit. Team spirit was much in evidence, as we helped each other answer our respective questions. It was great fun — and time consuming. By the time I had won my prize — after which my companion insisted that he had to win his prize — there was little time left for the remaining exhibits. But who cared? We had an exhilarating time.






The most moving exhibit was by the Chilean poet, Raul Zurita. To read the poems, one has to walk through knee-high seawater. One reads the poems standing in seawater. The aim of the exhibit is highlight the Syrian refugee crisis, in particular, its most heart-rending frame, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on a beach. The Sea of Pain is dedicated to Alan's brother, Galip Kurdi: "I'm not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son."

I wondered if a similar concept could be applied to help us experience the horror of, for example, a suicide bombing. Imagine the visitor forced to step into a scene with mangled bodies on a devastated street, blood dripping on us from the high ceiling, with audio from real-life bombings playing in the background. That, I imagine, would disrupt our phlegmatic terrorism-as-newspaper-headlines mentality.


After this, it was time to head back home. I took leave of my friend (who told me he had retired from UC College, Aluva; afterward I deduced his identity, but that is neither here nor there), who wanted to visit another Bienale site, and went the delightful bar overlooking the backwaters, Seagull. There, over a beer, Kerala parotta, and Kerala beef roast, I reflected on what I had seen, heard, and touched. The Bienale has to be taken in small doses. It has to be consumed and digested slowly, as a python ingests a deer — else one would be overwhelmed.

For the next edition, I resolved to spread my visits over the duration of the event instead of trying to cram everything in one visit.

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  1. Glad you enjoyed the bienale! We didn’t get to see it when we were in Kochi so I’m glad I saw in through your blog post! I also wondered where men should queue at the ferry line!

    • 😀

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