The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has become a pilgrimage of sorts where you can immerse yourself completely in art. This 4th edition is curated by artist Anita Dube, and runs from 12 December, 2018 until 29 March, 2019. With 93 artists from around the world featured, displays spread over 10 venues, the Biennale can be overwhelming and yet leave you asking for more.
Here is my selection of a few artists and their work at the 2018 Biennale that I feel has the potential to make you think, wonder and reflect. While one artist can bring your attention to external realities, such as ecological degradation or the conditions of marginalised mining workers, another artist might evoke a reflection on the fragility of our bodies and existence. Here Art is working powerfully, across its full spectrum, capable of satisfying our appetite for aesthetics as well as serve as a political tool to bring our attention to important issues that face us.
If one truly attempts to understand the context that the artist and the curator place the art in, or if you allow yourself to come up with interpretations that are completely your own – there is very little chance that you will remain to be the same person you were before visiting the Biennale.
Note: This post focuses on Indian artists who were featured in the 2018 edition. (My apologies to William Kentridge, Guerilla Girls and other noteworthy international artists.)
1. Shambhavi Singh
Maati Maa (Earth Mother)
Shambhavi’s installation at the biennale seeks unity between the iron installations representing hasiya (sickle) and the rehat (water garland). While the sickle is a farming tool that can also double up as a weapon, the water garland in disuse can be used to “regenerate seeds disappearing from our consciousness”.
In her observation of the pulsating silence and darkness of the vast landscape, she sees Earth (mother) with reverence and irony. The artist identifies a friction between depictions of the idyllic pastoral and the precarity of the peasant.
Shambhavi practice is largely non-figurative and focuses on the relationship between man and nature, as well as the precarious social and metaphysical condition of the agricultural worker.
2. Nilima Sheikh
In this work, the Baroda-based artist takes inspiration from the global presence of Malayalee nurses. Often working in other parts of the country, the Middle-East and other regions, the mass exodus of female nurses from Kerala present a rational and emotional capacity among women in the region, that they make their livelihoods from.
The various scenes in her wood panels celebrate the unsung heroes of the medical field — nurturing, maternal women in the state of Kerala — who travel to alien lands, away from their families to take on roles that perhaps no one else wants to in caring , for the ailing often while living in less than ideal conditions.
The title of the work, Salam Chechi is a salute to these women who are sisters to all, and their natural affinity towards one of the most laborious and indispensable roles in the world.
3. Arunkumar HG
Con-struction I, Con-struction II, and Vulnerable Guardians
Arunkumar’s work maps the complex relationship between ecological issues, informed by his childhood and the wasteful urban industrial mode of thinking and living that he faces within the city. His use of material is carefully considered. By recycling, reclaiming and reworking industrial waste, especially packaging wood from scrap yards, he not only comments on environmental issues, but indicates a rebirth for this material.
Con-struction I and Con-struction II, stress on the prefix “con” to point to the deception in the developmental model. His large and hollow anthropomorphic figures loom in the space as divine spectres.
For Vulnerable Guardians, he photographed small-scale farmers who were affected by the agrarian crisis — largely the result of genetic modification of seeds and monopoly farming. This forced many to migrate to the cities and find odd jobs, often as security guards to be able to support their families left behind in the village. These digitally printed portraits on reclaimed wood position them as imperilled, lost guardians of ecology.
4. Priya Ravish Mehra
In the body of work on view, Priya has extended the idea of ‘invisible’ repair in rafoogari darning by combining fragments of her rejected weaves with paperpulp, reconstituting both fibres. Two entities consequently come together with jagged, dissonant effects. She saw both mediums as essentially one, since they arise from the same source: paper pulp comes from natural fibres, as do the discarded cloth scraps that she recycled.
“I employ the metaphor of rafoogari or traditional darning to invoke sudden, unexpected and violent rupture in our daily experience. It is a symbolic affirmation of the place, significance and act of existential ‘repair’. The natural ‘cloth’ fibres disappear into the paper, the natural ‘paper’ fibres vanish into the cloth”
5. Prabhakar Pachpute
Resilient Bodies in the Era of Resistance
Prabhakar Pachpute’s work explores the effect of India’s industrial decrees on the lives of mine workers. He highlights the grievances of Indian farmers who have recently come together to organize protests — in Mumbai, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere — to demonstrate against the lack of government support in the face of declining income, crippling debt and corruption.
Prabhakar populates his mural installations with scenes rendered in the dark, heavy lines of charcoal. His works bring viewers into the scarred landscapes and underground arenas that coal miners inhabit. Pachpute illustrates the laborers of mines with an air of proverbial poetry — he puts an axe head or lamp where a human head should sit, and bodily proportions range from oversized to miniature
6. Chandan Gomes
There are the Things I Call Home, This World of Dew
In Gomes’ intimate and narrative approach to practice, the format of a book takes on special meaning, often becoming his preferred mode of presentation. His books resemble the personal objects that one owns, collects and carries with them.
In the book There are the Things I Call Home (2009-2012) Gomes took photos of the objects in his childhood home in an attempt to resolve the feeling of alienation he felt towards his family growing up.
For another project he journeyed to find the family of a deceased young girl whose sketchbook of crayoned mountain ranges he discovered in a Hospice in Jaipur. After four years of travelling, this culminated in This World of Dew (2011-15), a book including her drawings, and his photographs of places she had imagined in them, but probably had never been to. (Previously featured on Curious India here)
Chandan’s photographic explorations are a testament to how an artistic practice can be utilized to better understand and reconcile with life’s most perplexing phenomena — loss, loneliness, and growing up. For him, photography occupies a liminal space between fact and fiction, where the photographic object is able to trigger memories and feelings — contrary to the popular notion that photographs record memories. His process is often immersive, where he submits to a ‘feeling’ or inspiration for several years at a stretch and then slowly, threads his material together to weave a narrative.
7. Mrinalini Mukherjee
Sculptures, watercolours and etchings
Mrinalini primarily worked with natural fibres to raise yoginis, yakshasis, vulva-like forms and other anthropomorphic archetypes, which can be read as decidedly feminist. She crafted fibre forms from hemp, preferring a technique of knotting as opposed to weaving. This resulted in a totem-like monumentality for forms that evoke animal, vegetal and sexual imagery.
Mrinalini occasionally made watercolours and etchings. While the watercolour works are studies of foliages, her etchings are nature studies that have captured the qualities of rain, sunset, storm and moon-light. This focus on nature finds expression through the water colours and etchings by her on view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018.
8. Shilpa Gupta
For In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit -100 Jailed Poets
This installation at the Biennale expands on the artist’s investigations of political borderlines, and how they exist beyond maps to the invisible mechanisms of control and surveillance. The work is an installation of one-hundred speaking microphones that sit above corresponding stakes that each pierce a page of poetry. Recitals of a different poet’s work emanate from each microphone in a synchronized chorus.
All of the writers who are represented, some living decades or centuries ago, were imprisoned for their poetry or politics, and the installation gives voice to their forced silence. Incarceration instigates a physical boundary between prisoners and the free world. However this installation points to how orchestrated oppression is harder to detect as it renders those imprisoned voiceless and invisible.
Artwork photographs taken by Vaibhav Mathur
Artist portraits courtesy of KMB2018 website.
Artwork description text adapted and edited from the Short Guide to KMB 2018 published by the Kochi Biennale Foundation.