When Art Explores the World’s Mysteries
MUHAMMED NOUSHAD reviews the second edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale held between December 2014 and March 2015. Photographs by NAVAS MACHINGAL.
Art opens a door: to the infinities of universe, to the obscurities of human innerness, to the possibilities of another world. Sometimes a spiritual ascension. An unexpected prophetic rescue from the imminent descent into the cave of evilness. Existing or nonexistent. Realistic or surrealistic. Standing before certain exhibits at the second edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, you feel being hugged by the deep longing and anguish of a crowd of artists who desperately venture to interpret their times and spaces.
This year, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale had a theme called “whorled explorations”. In its vast and broad magnitude, the second edition of India’s first Biennale excites you though fabulous works of a cross section of artists from around the world. This time, Indian artists, particularly from Kerala, are duly represented and accommodated. You have a wonderful list of cultural events and academic sessions to add more vigour and charm to the Biennale. Among the additions in the second edition, the most valuable has been, probably the children’s biennale and the students’ biennale. In a country like India, educating the younger generation in art is vital, especially because we do not have a culture of serious art education in schools or colleges. Even when we give media training, at the higher levels, students are left in the dark with no idea about the masters and different schools so that serious appreciation of visual arts is nearly impossible without an understanding of art history. Another huge potential of art, which often goes unrecognised, is its capacity to rehumanise ourselves in a deeply polarising political climate and an excruciating cultural chaos of globalisation. Art unifies a community by reinviting its members to their fundamental human emotions. Art pacifies, consoles, reassures, heals, reconciles. Art operates at the basic emotional level. It achieves a social dimension even when the artist has no claims about it in the typical, old-fashioned “art for society sake” style. Often subtly and often directly, art addresses our social and political complexities.
Responding to Violence Through Art
This biennale had a few art works in which the artists respond to the violence around them – both in the past and in the present. Swastik Pocket Knife by Indian artist Biju Joze frightens you with a strange combination of a number of tiny weapons in the form and size of a typical household nail cutter. Instead of the usual components of a Swiss Knife, you see trissuls, sickles, arrows, swords and other traditional or ritualistic tools come out. Praksh Pandey’s shocking installation, Artha, is made with blood slides, in the shape of a huge diamond. It’s made of 10,000 discarded slides of blood, including that of the artist. The smell of the blood that comes from the diamond is surrealistic. You remember the meaningless battles we wage for prosperity and more radically, the blood that slaves shed for others’ power and charm. The use of “impure” objects is very visibly political. Another very striking political work was a sound installation called Pan-Anthem by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. In this brilliant work, he arranges a series of loud speakers with ultrasonic proximity sensors, fixed on a wall. When you stand before each set of loudspeakers, they sense your presence and national anthems are being played. You can read the name of the country on electronic labels lit up for a short period. The arrangement of the anthems and the corresponding countries is in an important order: the ascending order of the annual military budget of each country. This makes the installation an alarming and painful experience as you have ascension from the lowest military spending Costa Rica to the USA in the other end of the wall.
Another irresistible installation was Mona Hatoum’s Undercurrents. This Palestinian artist brings out a beautiful, poignant visual treat in which many bulbs are arranged in a circular shape, their interwoven wires originate from a square in the center. The relentlessly brightening and fading bulbs remind you of certain in explicable and uncontrollable threats. You realise the beauty and terror of a political landscape. Nataraj Sharma’s response to Gujarat genocide, Alternate Shapes to Earth, was an artist’s open challenge to our perception of the planet we live in. Instead of taking the earth for granted as a sphere, he imagines and creates several geometrical possibilities of earth – cylinder, cube, spiral etc. – and questions our monolithic and hegemonic ideas of seeing the world and its inhabitants. Sushantha Mandal gives you a chilling fear through her kinetic installation when you notice that a few tied sacks in a corner have slow, slight movements inside. It reminds you of a feudal past in which many revolutionaries were persecuted by landlords and thrown away tied in sacks. We witness today the state sponsored encounter killings in which innocent people are victimised. They never die. Their immortality and maryrdom come back to us through those slight, interrupted, recurring movements and we are left with no option other than to open those sacks of cruelty and amnesia from our own past and present.
Science, Astronomy, Sheer Creativity
One should not miss to mention that this Biennale was richer with a lot of science-related, astronomical explorations in a creative sense. The unending human quest to address and challenge the infinite is often related here. Christian Waldvogel would want to experience a few moments where the earth would rotate without him, by travelling in an aircraft against the direction of the earth’s spinning, with the same speed of the earth’s rotation. As Waldvogel, there are many artists who problematise time, in philosophical and civilizational angles. Mark Formanek builds a huge time display board, where a group of workers work hard to literally change the digits in every minute. This 24-hour long performance, titled Standard Time, happens in the background of a city, which is very contemplative. The labourers and their strenuous effort to keep the time moving often make us tensed. David Horvitz’ The Distance of a Day was simple but stunning. He asked her mother to shoot the sunset at her California home and when she did this, at the same moment, David was shooting the sunrise on the coast of The Maldives, on the other side of the world. The simultaneous capturing and presentation of the sunset and sunrise, on the two mobile phones they were originally shot, asks us remarkable questions about time, traveling, and life.
Colonial past and present has been a detailed engagement for many artists. The surrealistic image of a giant pepper corn suspended above the sea in Parvathi Nair’s work reminds you of the expeditions the spices originally caused – it’s temptations and dangers. Nikhil Chopra’s 50 hours long live performance in the first week of the Biennale, La Perle Noire II¸ takes you to magical realism, where the artist, dressed as a legendary character called Black Pearl, being imprisoned by the colonizers, draws on the wall what he sees outside his cell. In the end of the drawing, the sights outside the cell are inside the cell and what breaks him from going out is magically removed. He goes out and sails to the depths of the river in front of his cell. In Janine Antoni’s Touch, the pertinent human desire of touching the other end of what we see or know is acknowledged. The horizon, literally, is an invitation to everyone who stares for long at the sea. Janine fixes a tightrope almost parallel to the horizon of the sea, in front of her beachside house, and decides to walk on it. She positions the camera in a peculiar way as she walks on the rope and, at a particular moment, due to her weight, the rope touches the horizon. Symbolically, it articulates the centuries’ long desires of navigators and wanderers to touch or rather cross that seductive imaginary line.
Sheer expressions of amazing creativity were perhaps the most entertaining part of the Biennale. Among them, Japanese artist Ryota Kuwakubu’s Lost # 12 was one of the works that attracted most of the viewers – children and adults alike. By using lights and shades, it creates a beautiful landscape of villages and cities, constantly changing and mobile, through the simple lighting technique of a toy train that passes through many objects arranged on a floor. The interplay of light and shade brings unforgettable personal experiences of many things we have seen and known and forgotten in our journeys, during the night and day hours. The moving objects have meanings as well as beauty. It enslaves as well as liberates. As genuine art always does.
Originally appeared in Interactive: http://interactive.net.in/when-art-explores-the-worlds-mysteries/