First month at the biennale – December 2016

The Kochi Muziris Biennale is back for its third edition and yours truly got the chance to be a part of the proceedings as a volunteer. This post is the first in a series documenting my experiences up and close. And if you’re visiting, come say hi!

Narrowing down my favourite artworks for the first month at the Biennale wasn’t easy, but I’ve tried to do it anyway. These are my four favourite artworks from the main venue (Aspinwall House) for the first month. Keep in mind, however, that most of these would’ve simply grown on me; I’ve visited each of these more times than I can keep count.

Multiple Choice, by Martin Walde


…he sits helplessly in the chair, frozen in place, covering his eyes in despair or pain (or both) until someone steps into the room triggering the harsh red light that promises to melt him away, day by day. He might never melt, of course, given that there’s an AC installed in the space to make sure some semblance of an artwork remains by the end of the biennale in the hot and humid Kochi weather. I personally would consider a blobby misshapen mess on the floor by the end of three months a success for the artist, but I’m not sure everyone shares those sentiments.

Multiple Choice consists of a wax statue and an infrared lamp bent on destroying it. The lamp is triggered by motion sensors everytime someone steps into the room, and is switched off when they leave. It is upto the visitor, then, to decide how much damage he wishes to inflict on the statue with their presence.

More than the apparent choice, however, what strikes me is rather an apathy, or a lack of control. The ‘audience’ to this room, by the end of the Biennale, is not a collective being which decided to destroy it. Rather, it is each individual who through their actions lead to its eventual demise. They are ‘expected’ to step into the room, enjoy the hapless being blinded by the light over him, and step out.

Digging deeper, more parallels emerged – perhaps a police interrogation room or a hospital waiting room, punctuated by random comings and goings which slowly erode away at your patience, given some respite for the 16 hours when the biennale is closed, followed by 8 hours of madness again..

Ghost Keeping by Istavan Chakany


His work is one which blows you away at the first glance; a well-lit factory floor, but devoid of workers. Situated at a first floor space between the general buzz of the Biennale on one side and the calm winds of the water on the other,you’d half expect someone to arrive with workers and start business if only it wasn’t all made of wood.


I’ve deliberated for a long time to consider whether my main reasons for appreciating this artwork is merely due to the sheer work involved (entirely handcrafted and then assembled). At first glance it seems like a cop-out that a contemporary piece of art is appreciated for its craft more than the idea it embodies.  Upon further consideration, however, I feel its craft IS the idea it embodies – that an artist spent months of his life handcrafting an image of a place where workers spent years of their life ‘crafting’ the central image of the Industrial Revolution – rows and rows of efficient, specialised workers as the image of modernity.

Perhaps in a biennale 10 years from now you’d see an empty IT company floor eternalised in stone, who knows?

Bathroom Set by Dia Mehta Bhupal


Image courtesy  The Verve Magazine

Some people might be struck by a simple question ‘Why?’ There’s only a slightly Obama-esque answer which comes to mind – ‘Because she can’. The life sized installation of a public bathroom has been fashioned from tens of thousands of colourful magazine pages each of them cut, rolled and glued to make tiles, fixtures, lamps, doors and so on. The colours have been flattened into a uniform white, blue and grey from a distance – it is only when you get up close that you notice the little differences between the individual sheets of paper.

There’s a Laurie Baker quote hiding here somewhere :

“Bricks to me are like faces. All of them are made of burnt mud, but they vary slightly in shape and colour. I think these small variations give tremendous character to a wall made of thousands of bricks…
…each brick, although simple in shape, has its own individuality”

Perhaps the artist never intended each paper roll to have its own individuality – I do not know. While Istavan Chakany’s work is monochrome and monolithic in a way at the larger scale – and you appreciate the genius and handiwork of the artist at the details; Dia Mehta’s work hides its intricacies behind the rather plain (even boring?) facades of her settings – much like a Laurie Baker brick wall.

Sea of Pain by Raul Zurita

(posting an image has been deliberately avoided)

The Sea of Pain is an installation in remembrance of Galip Kurdi (brother of Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless picture has come to symbolise the horrors of the refugee crisis) Both boys and their mother drowned at the Mediterranean Sea while trying to escape to Europe.

The installation as of now seems to have become an ankle-deep wading pool of sorts; so if you could, try to go in at a time when there is less than 3 or 4 people along with you. The proportions of the room and the quality of light filtering through the edges can haunt you. The water body is long but shallow; short enough for an estranged father to run back and forth searching for his lost child – and deep enough for the helpless 5 year old to drown..

As much as this work is about the Syrian refugee crisis, I feel the medium of the work itself (The scale and what it wants you to feel verus what it shows) is a comment on how ‘disaster’ media is created and consumed. Alan Kurdi, the 3 year old who unfortunately became the poster child of the refugee crisis upon his death – signifies what’s wrong. His photo was a viral hit; widely shared and commented on, it brought social media’s attention to a humanitarian crisis which had been going on since much before. Should empathy and international outcry be commodified to such an extent that if you share that picture, you feel validated? The true extent of such an event can never be spoonfed; it needs to be felt.

Curiously, my four favourite artworks for the first month fell into one of two camps – the first, artworks to be appreciated in the “classical” sense in terms of the materiality, texture, and scale of the work itself and at the other end, artworks filled up by the meaning you bring into them on each visit.


Apart from the artworks, there are talks, debates, and other events held almost everyday at the main event venue at Cabral Yard. Discussing any one event at length would require a separate post on its own, so let me just stick to my favourite – Artists’ Cinema


A series of films of which my favourite was ‘Ozhivudivasathe Kali’ (an off-day game) which dealt with the undercurrents of caste and class discrimination and the power play dynamics which come out of the closet on an ‘off day’. The other films were mostly hit or miss, with more misses than hits. Some dealt with a sensitive topic but failed to be anything more than a video information brouchre – there was nothing “cinematic” about them.

There are curated film packages periodically, so I’m excited about watching good cinema for 3 months.

That concludes my updates for December 2016 at the Biennale. I’m wondering whether to make this a longer monthly post series or several shorter ones; I’ll be sure to update if something really important or interesting comes up though.

Watch this space for more.

4 thoughts on “First month at the biennale – December 2016”

  1. Loved reading the whole article. I don’t know if you have seen Arjun kamath’s photography page. The story that’s written for every photograph kind of makes you feel it. And not having seen any of the biennale works before and seeing it the first time through your words. Wow 🙂 loved it sarat! I m really looking forward to visit this and say hi to you Ofcourse 😉

  2. I have gone through your article and glad to know that you are observing all the art work very keenly. Expecting more article about biennale and the explanations on your perspective. Keep writing Sarat !!

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