2nd Kochi-Muziris Biennale, “Whorled Explorations”

Erika Balsom

January 20, 2015
Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi
December 12, 2014–March 29, 2015

Along the edge of the Arabian Sea in Fort Kochi, men haul in so-called Chinese fishing nets, now a popular tourist attraction, while beyond them container ships move in and out of the industrial port. Both testify to the region’s importance as a site of transnational circulation, centuries old and still ongoing. The area is thought by some to have been the ancient city of Muziris, a key stop on the Silk Road. This legacy is evoked in both the name of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the curatorial premise of its second edition, “Whorled Explorations.”

On a wall facing the water, hand-painted graffiti shows two men throwing banknotes into what might be a fire. A third looks on, giving the thumbs-up. The caption reads “AGAINST BIENNALE.” This image reiterated what has been perhaps the most discussed dimension of the exhibition: money. The state government of Kerala promised to provide 63 percent of the Rs 26 crore (approximately 4.2 million US dollars) budget, but had delivered only Rs 2 crore by the opening. Perilously close to that date, private patrons were approached in an effort to avoid a repetition of the first edition, when many works were not installed on time. As the graffiti made clear, some members of the local community—historically one of strong Communist sentiment—questioned whether the exhibition was the best use of government funds.

A handful of screen-reliant works were not operational during my visit, but this was the only trace of these difficulties. Had one known nothing of the backstory, one would have seen only an ambitious and frequently engaging display of 94 artists across eight historic venues, boasting tremendous attendance from an overwhelmingly domestic audience and notable initiatives aimed at community participation. The financial and infrastructural challenges of organizing a major biennial in India are undoubtedly real and important, but focusing on them too intensely risks overshadowing a very simple fact: this is a fully realized exhibition that need make no apologies.

The first major curatorial project of artist Jitish Kallat, “Whorled Explorations” punningly evokes Kochi’s history of maritime cosmopolitanism while also gesturing to notions of flux and destabilization. Kallat gave artists a double prompt, inviting them to reflect on the region’s status as a site of conquest and trade in the fifteenth century, while considering the legacy of the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics, active in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. At times, these themes are deployed with an excessive literalism that’s led to a proliferation of globes, stars, ships, and repeated appearances of Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea. Even Anish Kapoor’s spectacular showpiece, the abyssal whirlpool Descension (2014), is blandly illustrative despite leaving crowds transfixed. But in its more speculative moments, this framework provides an effective way of excavating histories of globalism before globalization and probing their contemporary relevance, often with a focus on locality.

The trajectory through the biennial’s primary venue of Aspinwall House begins with Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1977), a film that moves between the infinitesimal and the galactic, effecting shifts of scale and perception. While it would be easy to take this piece as foundation for the exhibition as a whole, Powers of Ten displays a faith in objectivity that is quickly unsettled by what follows. Though cartography remains a guiding principle, it is swiftly revealed as subjective, affective, and even fictional, with the “whorl” of time undoing any aspiration to mastery. Marie Velardi’s Future Perfect, 21st Century (2006/2014) presents a timeline of the twenty-first century compiled from science-fiction filmic and literary sources, charting the unknown to-come as a site of imagination and contradiction. These apocalyptic fantasies are echoed in Aji VN’s Untitled – II (2014), a panoramic Keralan landscape exquisitely rendered in charcoal. Palms and thatched huts line the shore, but in the background a large cloud of dust—perhaps an atomic explosion—casts a foreboding mood over the otherwise tranquil scene. Sajeh Rahel’s site-specific installation Harbinger (2014) fills a former laboratory with hundreds of unfired clay sculptures, evoking an ancient past and a post-apocalyptic future. It is as if a cataclysmic event had taken place, leaving behind the remnants of something silenced and lost.

Engagements with the archive extending beyond mere citation yield fascinating results. Xu Bing’s Background Story: Endless Xishan Mountain Scenery (2014) appears initially as a copy of a landscape from the Ming Dynasty, a period when Chinese explorers were travelling to India. From the rear, it is revealed to be an elaborate play of shadows cast by discarded materials. The ephemeral and the enduring collide, as the supposed stability of history is undone. Andrew Ananda Voogel’s Kalapani: The Jahaji’s Middle Passage (2014) turns to the personal history of the artist’s great-grandparents’ passage from India to Guyana as indentured laborers. With a title referring to the Hindu taboo of sea crossing, the installation presents his ancestors’ immigration documents at the entranceway before ushering the viewer into a dark room displaying an inky projection of a shore with a large rock, the cresting waves generating white foam. After a surplus of illustrative works, the poetic opacity of Kalapani is refreshing and even ethically charged. Against any epistemological urge, Voogel ponders the unknowable trauma of forced passage and the extent to which past experience is never fully recoverable in the present.

Abstraction provides a viable strategy for artists to interact with the curatorial brief in non-didactic ways. Akbar Padamsee’s film Syzgy (1969–72)—one of only three historical works on view, the oldest besides Yoko Ono’s Earth Piece (1963), which was displayed as a stack of postcards—is a minimalist revelation engaging with astronomy and rule-based systems. In Pepper House, Bharti Kher’s sculptural installation Three Decimal Points \ Of a Minute \ Of a Second \ Of a Degree (2014) fills the upper floor with wood and rope, forming suspended triangles that reference both astronomical instruments and the Great Triangulation Survey of India, an effort to map the subcontinent’s terrain so as to measure its value to the British.

The venues of the biennial are not climate-controlled, and Kochi is hot and humid. Extended viewing of Chen Chieh-jen’s four-channel video installation Realm of Reverberations (2014) proved impossible in airless rooms. Ho Rui An’s rather brilliant lecture-performance Sun Sweat, Solar Queens: An Expedition (2014) fittingly took up sweatiness as a condition of shared exposure, theorizing the “solar unconscious” of the colonial project through the sweaty back of a Dutch explorer and the figure of the “solar queen” whose white femininity must be protected from the sun in imperial landscapes. Despite Ho’s impassioned delivery, this is ultimately a written text recited; as such, it might be more compelling in published form. Sissel Tolaas’s Sweat Fear/Fear Sweat (2005) paints scents distilled from sweat molecules onto stones from Kochi, making a sweaty room smell even sweatier. But beyond the effects of temperature on visitors, one must also consider the impact of these conditions on the conservation of artworks. The watercolors of Marie Velardi’s terrific Atlas des îles perdues [Atlas of Lost Islands] (2007) were rippled with damage only weeks after the opening. Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s garden installation in Cabral Yard, How Goes the Enemy (2014), is meant to evolve as it is exposed to the elements, but this will happen unintended to other works. Rather than see climate as an obstacle, these conditions of display might prove a fascinating avenue of exploration for a future edition.

This biennial is undeniably a symptom of the rapid change occurring throughout India. But unlike the onslaught of shopping malls, it provides a much-needed space for reflection on the global networks of transformation and circulation of which the subcontinent has long been a part. If issues of financial precarity must be discussed, it is perhaps best to begin from the unquestionable strength of the event, taking this as evidence of the need to develop infrastructure and mobilize support to ensure its future sustainability.

Globalization, Colonialism & Imperialism
Money & Finance, Biennials, Indian Subcontinent

Erika Balsom is Reader in Film Studies at King’s College London. She is the author of four books, including After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (Columbia University Press, 2017) and TEN SKIES (Fireflies Press, 2021, shortlisted for the Kraszna Krausz prize). Her criticism appears regularly in venues such as Artforum, Cinema Scope, and 4Columns. With Hila Peleg, she is the co-curator of the exhibition No Master Territories: Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (HKW Berlin, 2022) and co-editor of the books Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (2022) and Documentary Across Disciplines (2016), both published by MIT Press. In 2018, she was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize and the Katherine Singer Kovacs essay award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

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