Friday, 17 March 2017

Turning, Returning, Reclaiming: Day 2 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2017

Breakfast in Kochi was a soul indulging experience and a habit that could be hard to break. Each morning, I sat out on a verandah with gleaming red tiles that lead to a handkerchief-sized emerald green lawn, which overlooked the backwaters. Watching the coconut palm bending towards the Vembanad as I nibbled sweet, ripe, golden jackfruit or sipped some tea, beyond a white picket fence, I could also see the Thoppumpudy Bridge that crosses over the backwaters into Ernakalum. More often than not, it was packed bumper to bumper with traffic. But although I wasn’t too far, the water acted as a buffer and I could barely hear the urban cacophony. In the heart of this historic buzzing port of Kerala, I was fortunate to begin my day watching fishermen and birds on the large expanse of water gently rippling along with the tide, its fluid surface shimmering in the subtle light of morning. The empty plastic water bottles and polythene bags that were carried with the tide were disconcerting, but I was told that it is better than it used to be and people are becoming more conscious about such things.

View from Ginger House Restaurant, looking onto a naval base

While today Kochi may be the busiest port, historically it was Calicut, modern day Kozhikode, that dominated in trade.  When Vasco da Gama landed on the shores of Kerala, it was in Kappad in Calicut that he disembarked with his crew, in May 1498. Calicut, then under the rule of the famed Hindu Rajah known as the Zamorin of Calicut, was the archetype of commercial prosperity and hosted merchants and goods from every trading nation in its lively bazars. But the Zamorin and Vasco and his crew didn’t hit it off and the Portuguese eventually sailed out to Cochin to load their ships. It was through the Portuguese that Kochi came into prominence prior to which its history is not well documented. The Rajah of Cochin befriended the Portuguese and with his help many battles were fought against the Zamorin who, with the help of the Dutch, eventually conquered Cochin in 1663. However, after the retreat of the Portuguese, the Dutch assumed the mantle of protecting the Rajah of Cochin and in various other ways by interfering with the prevalent trading practices, undermined the Zamorin’s powers. Although the Dutch had a longer stint in Cochin than the Portuguese, they didn’t stay too long either. Weakened by constant wars against Marthanda Varma of Travancore the Dutch eventually surrendered to British forces that marched from Calicut to Cochin in 1795, as part of the larger Napoleonic Wars between Holland and England in Europe. By the end of the 17th century Calicut’s pre-eminence and glory faded, and Kerala’s great age ended by the turn of the 18th century with the dawn of the colonial era.
 Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi
Fascinating as history can be, and walking through Kochi one cannot help but notice various colonial influences, nature is a powerful magnet. And, as if by design, a big chunk of Day 2 of the Kochi Biennale 2017 experience, was viewing works on nature. ‘Landscapes and Silences’, an Indo-Canadian Project curated by Tanya Abraham and Wayne Baerwaldt presented artists who explored the changing relationships between artists and nature in art, re-looking at the moral and aesthetic values towards nature in a changing rural landscape.

Terry Billings, Adjusted Landscape, 2006, Acrylic on archival digital-print paper

Within this exhibition, Terry Billings, created an aural installation, recorded in Saskatchewan and Kochi, of a 'Dawn chorus' - of birds singing at the start of the day, which was placed at the entrance and stairwell of the Kashi Art Gallery, an old Dutch house in the Fort Kochi area refashioned as a cultural space. This gentle, twittering chorus followed us throughout the gallery, sometimes complimenting, sometimes contrasting and sometimes overpowered by the art works on display. The natural landscape was presented in its many guises.
Regina Horowitz, Starfields and Fields, detail
Through black and white photographs made by a pin-hole camera, Regina Horowitz created images that brought a sense of timeless transience in the natural world through her wispy, grainy images in shades of grey and black. Gabriela Garcia-Luna photographically documented the seen and unseen in natural vistas to index personal memories, presenting them in a circular format as quasi-abstract imagery which drew its impetus from foliage and trees.

Gabriela Garcia-Luna, Regina, Canada, a detail

Gabriela Garcia-Luna, Regina,
 Canada, Set of 3
The unending circumference around the colourful photographic landscape, evocative of a seamless merging of the inner and outer world was a compelling visual metaphor that drew the viewing eye inside the form and then, further within, into the self, to create an intimate viewing experience. Zachari Logan's portraiture of wild plant-life, though reminiscent of botanical drawings of an age gone by, were not necessarily biologically accurate but were created as deliberately provocative, imaginative hybrids, referencing the four seasons.
Zachari Logan, graphite and pencil on paper, 15 in x 15 in
I'm irrepressibly drawn to plant-life and enjoyed these art-works immensely. Walking around Kochi, I've also been mesmerised by the over-arching, larger than life, flowering 'Rain Trees' that line the streets around Fort Kochi. Kerala, is abundantly blessed with natural munificence and the large water bodies around the city bring in many birds. I've seen Seagulls, Heron, Kingfisher, Cormorants, Eagles, Kites an abundance of crows, as well as unique small birds that I can't identify. Here, nature, the mechanical and man-made co-habit with ease. There are no 'green' auto-rickshaws and taxis around, as seen in Delhi but, the debris floating out to the Arabian Sea is a constant reminder of how careless we become when nature sustains us so effortlessly. Walking out of these exhibits expressive of a dwindling natural habitat, I wondered how much impact could the subtle voices of these Canadian artists have on the collective consciousness in Kochi, and, as artists, are we merely speaking among the converted - is that as far we can go?
David Hall, Cafe, Fort Kochi
Nearby, David Hall - also an old Dutch bungalow that has been restored and redesigned as a cultural centre, cafe and gallery for contemporary art, had actually been the first Biennale venue I visited that day. My hitherto languid mid-morning, after breakfast overlooking the Vembanad, had been confronted by Padmini Chettur's multi-channel video, Varnam, 2016, where she sought to redefine gender roles through the depiction of love and longing in classical dance. Intrigued by the rhythmic chant and free-flowing but tightly controlled body gestures of women dressed casually in sarees, evocative of western modern dance with mudras from classical Indian dance, I sat on the wooden bench and watched three simultaneous videos being screened. It's never easy to impress upon your audience, in the matter a few moments, the essence of ideas that have engaged an artist for many years. The language becomes personal and thus codified and needs deeper engagement and more time than such a large-scale Biennale viewer can spare. I can't say I understood what she was saying but I was intrigued enough to watch and listen and carried with me a sense of its power, even if the real meaning eluded my grasp.
Padmini Chettur's multi-channel video, Varnam, 2016

In an adjoining room, this idea of a codified language was also voiced by Dana Awartani, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, a large-scale (200 x 200 x 200 cms), white on white panels of hand embroidery on silk. I was curious about these love poems and who had done the embroidery. I searched on the internet and discovered that I share my alma mater of Central St. Martins with the artist and therefore assume that Dana does the embroidery herself. 
Maggie and Anjalee distracted while viewing Dana Awartani's,
 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, (200 x 200 x 200 cms)
Standing in front of the eight embroidered panels, or walking around, I found myself drawn into their depths, but that I was precluded from entering its inner recesses or sacred space. The white panels placed in the manner of eight receding doorways were hung from the ceiling and raised from the floor level and only a spirit floating inwards could possibly access the inner sanctum, as experienced by the poet. Ibn Arabi was an Andalusian Sunni Scholar of Islam, a Sufi mystic, poet and philosopher, regarded by Sufism as "the greatest master" and a genuine saint who wrote:
"The mystery of that is that in the world of subtle beauty
people are only infatuated with the world of form.
Were they like me in love, they would be satisfied
and they would witness his essence in every form of belief;
for they would be [sharing] in what my vision determines
if they were in love from the world of direct observing.”
[Translation anon]
Dana Awartani, 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016,
(200 x 200 x 200 cms),detail
In concurrence with the aniconism reflected in the poem and the poetry of geometry which the Islamists believe created the universe; as an act of reviving the practice of Islamic geometry and its highly codified mathematically derived forms, Awartani embroidered familiar patterns from the Islamic repertoire. “Using the tradition of Saudi textiles” and creating “genealogies of meaning that act as a form of meditation, praying and search for the inner spirit”, with white thread on white Moire silk, Awartini delicately envisioned the purity of a spiritual encounter”, recalling Ibn Arabi’s experience at the Ka'aba in Mecca. I am a fan of Islamic art and was once a keen student of the concepts of geometry and mathematics that defined it. In Awartini’s “act of revival” of its highly-coded language, I had hoped for some contemporary light on the precepts that formulated this art, especially to decode the mystery of symbols embroidered in her work and their particular relevance with the poems of Ibn Arabi, but I was disappointed.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1, 2016, (150 x 100 cms),
In another gallery within David Hall, walking across the hallway and once again encountering Padmini Chettur's video performance on my way, were large, embroidered tapestries on organza by Avinash Veeraraghavan from Bengalaru. In 'After the End' 1 and 2, 2016, (150 x 100 cms), he used traditional embroidery techniques to evoke notions of what could have been an abandoned childhood - harking back to the past, through the present recording of absence - the absence of human form. Forgotten playgrounds, going to rust, were lushly portrayed with sequins, beads and thread work, seemingly celebrating rather than lamenting the empty and abandoned spaces. His use of padded beadwork to raise and highlight the relatively shining metallic structures of a rusting slide and carousel was most effectively contrasted against the organic and rough texture of the rest of the tapestry. And even though the extravagant use of material in the elaborately sequinned landscape, of fallen autumnal leaves and the sky, raised many questions about the shimmer and shine, there was, nonetheless, a haunted quality to the embroidered tapestries that evoked an emptiness which the gleaming plastic sequins could not disguise.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1, a detail
Although I inferred that the execution had been done by artisans, it wasn't stated whether Veeraraghavan had embroidered the works himself or employed skilled craftspeople to assist him. The Biennale Guide text references embroidery with its ancient tradition as a vehicle for reclamation of the past. But, do those continuing a tradition need to reclaim it, or is it for us now removed from such practices, to find ourselves through that tradition? In this instance, I am not sure how that could have been achieved, not unless the artist undertook to learn the skill and execute the embroidery himself. In addition, the absence of credit given to those who may have worked with him in continuance of the tradition of this embroidery practice, detracted from a statement that was also not corroborated visually. From the perspective of craft revival and enhancing the value of working with the hand, the craftsmen employed could well have been exposed to newer ways of using age-old techniques that would augment their vocabulary of form and texture and enhance the scope for embroidery. And, I was happy to see thread used so extravagantly and find its place in the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The skilful execution of these two tapestries was also a significant feature that attracted and sustained my interest.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 2, a detail
Looking at so many works of art needs frequent pauses and the galleries at the Biennale are well located among cafes and restaurants to create a viewing experience that includes quaint lanes and expansive vistas of a charming city, its history and multi-layered culture. Quite naturally Maggie, Anjalee and myself sat back and relaxed in the natural environs of The David Hall cafĂ© to natter and mull over the art we’d just seen. Filter coffee, Kerala style, with an impeccably cooked French toast using banana bread, was the perfect punctuation after some intense art viewing. The swing, hung by coarse rope from a tall tree, was just too good to miss out on and taking off from Veeraraghavan’s embroidered playground, swinging high, I reconnected with a childhood pastime.  However, the eerie viewing of a chicken’s dismembered foot on the garden path as I walked past, created a horrified Eeeks! for the reality of everyday living, to offset the aah’s of art appreciation.

On our way to The Kashi Art Gallery, we walked through ‘The Passage Malabar’ to stop by and check out the merchandise at ‘Cinnamon’, a designer retail outlet. In the Passage, we encountered some curiously manipulated photos, as visual essays on the palaces of India, imagined by Karen Knorr where the inhabitants were creatures of the animal kingdom. It was part of a collateral event presented by Tasveer.
Meydad Eliyahu, The Box of Documents - Kadalassuppet, 2, Kashi Art Gallery

Some of the other art that I engaged with, included an installation at Kashi by Meydad Eliyahu [Jerusalem] who explored a lost personal history and connection to Kerala Jews, through ‘The Box of Documents/Kadalassuppet’, a compelling series of photographs by Endri Dani [Albania], at TMK Warehouse, expressing how people subvert the homogeneity imposed by totalitarian leadership, and Margaret Lanzetta [USA] speaking colourfully at Kashi, about the ‘Folded Language’ of patterns that have migrated through trade in textiles.
Endri Dani [Albania], CM 182, from a series of photographs,
 TMK Warehouse,
Margaret Lanzetta [USA] ‘Folded Language’, Kashi Art Gallery
Yesterday, Maggie and I had a sumptuous lunch at ‘Oceanos’ on Elphinstone street, where the ‘Thiru Kochi Mango Fish Curry’ and the ‘Syrian Catholic Fish Pollichathu’ were beyond delicious. Today’s choice was the Ginger House Restaurant in Mattanchery, which also houses an antique store.  Sitting on the waterfront, upon and among antique furniture including the tables, chairs, counters, pillars, door frames and traditional Kerala artefacts, the museum restaurant was a perfect counter point to contemporary art viewing and a reminder of the cultural palette of the city hosting it. 

365 days of Shringar, Nathdwara Pichvai,
Heritage Arts Antique Showroom Mattanchery, 2

It was also the venue for a Biennale collateral event presenting the Nathdwara Pichvais of Rajasthan where the highlight was a series of miniature-scale line-drawings depicting the various modes and forms of ‘shringar’ captured by an innovative artist.
Boats and a Boatyard, and Naval  ships in the distance, Mattachery
Thinking, about the art I had seen over the last two days, of being surrounded by the Arabian Sea, with large Naval ships and fighter aircraft flying above, I was waiting for my companions inside the antique store, seated on a darkly polished rosewood sofa-set with an ornately carved, large than life, Garuda backrest, when I glanced around me and found that I sat amidst dulled brass face and body masks used for dance performances, larger than life painted but faded wood carvings and other antique artefacts.
The Garuda backrest Sofa and brass body and face masks,
Ginger the Museum Restaurant Mattanchery,
In a city where civilisations have colluded and collided over trade and warring princes paved the way for colonial masters; where a culture once seeped in mythology and lore of an indigenous ethos had imbibed much yet ignored a great deal of the foreign influences of ruling factors, choosing to stay rooted in their own unique culture, I wondered how this city would be, or could be impacted by the world of International contemporary art and artists it was hosting. I wondered about the very language of art and its capacity to move others - especially the uninitiated public. Some of the artistic concepts that I had engaged with had been deep and required total commitment to viewing, letting go of preconceived ideas and just being part of the experience. This kind of viewing is a practiced art that comes from years of looking and making art, how then do others engage with such expression?
Alex Sexton [AUS] 'Refuge' 2015, [TKM Warehouse].
Though tired from stretching my mind to contextualise the art already seen, my day had not yet come to a close. Egged on by Maggie and Anjalee, I dragged myself to yet another Biennale venue to be utterly awed by Alex Sexton's 'Refuge' 2015, [TKM Warehouse], which highlights the struggles of those seeking political asylum. Powerful as the work is, I may well have overlooked it, not because it wasn't striking but because in my fatigued mind it appeared as if a tarpaulin fabric had been draped and cast in plaster of paris, so no big deal! But, as Maggie read out the details of the work posted on the walls of a run-down, possibly out of use warehouse, my senses perked up. Did she say carved marble statue? Yes, it was indeed carved as if the human being it draped had left a hollow of its earlier presence. By choosing to depict a single figure Seton [Aus] personalises the story of the refugee. The empty space could have been, or could be occupied by anyone, including myself.  His use of classic form, skills and material connecting to the history of sculpture that heralded the figurative and realistic representation, added another dimension. Not only did the concept gain strength through my admiring attention of its skilful execution, but the power that skill and excellence in execution has in drawing us into itself, was brought to the fore. In another, adjacent gallery, six, large (167 x 670 cms) water colour paintings by T.V Santosh compelled my attention in much the same way, marvelling at the technical expertise of using water colour at such a large scale.
T.V.Santosh,(167 x 670 cms) water colour
Yesterday too, despite relating to and thoroughly enjoying the deeply philosophical and socio-politically motivated conceptual art works at Aspinwall House, it was the lighter-veined, innovative drawings in a collaborative work with Madhubani artists, at a collateral event at OED gallery on Bazar Street, that had been just as memorable. Skilful in execution, imaginative in content and subject matter, with a lightness of being, were the hallmark of artworks that I found exceptionally attractive – be it embroidery, drawings, water colour or sculpture. The capacity for excellence in execution and presentation couldn't override the notions an artist explored, but somehow, it seems that conviction in the idea is often communicated and made consummate by the level of commitment in its execution, even if not done entirely by the artist him or herself.
Godh - in the lap of nature 2016, detail 2
The acquiring of a skill and facing challenges encountered in traversing newer conceptual terrain, is also about making a pledge to excel. Even where the artist is not the skilled executor, getting traditional craftsmen to interpret the concept and provide just the right technique and texture requires a tremendous level of commitment. It is perhaps this depth of engagement which can and does grip the imagination of even the uninitiated in art, leading to curiosity and awe and through this to impactful and far reaching dialogues - beyond that of the converted preaching to themselves. I am always moved by art that takes me deeper into myself, that enables an experience beyond the sensual. Yet, the sheer materiality of the embroideries, skilful water colour paintings and marble sculpture were breath-taking, even though the subject matter may have alluded to desolation, loss and trauma.
T.V.Santosh,(167 x 670 cms) water colour, panel of six
Indigenous art had found ways to incorporate a gamut of human emotional experience by embracing the disgusted and grotesque with as much power as the lovelorn and romantic. And these rasas became a highly-codified language now intelligible only to scholars and that ilk. In the realm of textiles, emphasis lay in the exquisite exploration of skill in making and embellishing fabric, prompted as much by trade as by a spiritual quest towards discovering greater and greater heights of excellence in human endeavour.  The ancients in India, had devised an art practice which eschewed personal glory by extolling the gods or creative forces of the universe that blessed the hands that created in its name. This encountered its own set of complications in the modern world dominated by western ideals of art making compelling a shift in the practices of art making in the subcontinent.
Dana Awartani, 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, 
(200 x 200 x 200 cms)
Towards a return to traditional practices, Dana Awartini alluded to such ideals by emphasising the dominance of the art over the artist. However, in an era where personal glory is prized, such ideals are hard to sustain and her art, in keeping with the practices of the contemporary world, was presented with her individual identity. Placing technique at par with concept or of art over the artist, are ideals of the past, and perhaps in reclaiming the past, as Veeraraghavan attempts through the extravagantly embroidered abandoned playground, they become ideals for the future.  It is however, reassuring to see that no matter how tentative their steps, the masters of skill are beginning to find their feet in our contemporary world.  But, before renouncing identity to extol the forces of the universe that creates through the human form, they must  first find their place in a world of contemporary art that has overshadowed humble anonymity to exalt human vanity.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1,
a detail

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