The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 – is art finally accessible?

This is a long, image-heavy post.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 – if you haven’t heard of it, please go check out the link and then come back. It is an exhibition for showcase of contemporary Indian and international art. The first edition of the biennale was held in 2012, and the second edition is happening right now so if you find yourself with a free couple of days, go check it out.

I got a chance to visit it last weekend – 2 days is not sufficient to cover it all but I managed to see all the venues, even though I was not able to check out the Artists’ Cinema or Students’ Biennale. This post covers, to a great extent, the installations which I really liked, some which I did not, and my general commentary. And side note – the cover image is not from inside the biennale, but graffiti art on the walls outside the venues by a wickedly talented anonymous group called Guess Who? Yeah right.

Well right off the bat, let me say I am enthusiastic about good typography, visual design and presentation in general. Their entire packaging, right from their website to hoardings to tickets was very well designed, with neat colours and clean typefaces.

This is the first time I’ve been to a contemporary art exhibition. I don’t know what that says about the kind of commentary I’m going to provide, but I’ll take some comfort in knowing  that half the crowd there would’ve been in the same boat as me.  We’ve heard and said enough jokes about ‘contemporary’ art that I’m pretty happy my experience out of the whole outcome was not ‘I did not understand a thing of what I just saw; the art must be really deep’ but rather a mixed bag of emotions about the utility of, and the different ways of creative expression.

Which is funny, because I found this image on 9gag just before I started writing this post –

Alright, let’s get on with the most interesting/ones I liked. (If you haven’t visited it yet, spoiler alert!)

The Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames

My visit started with this short and powerful film by Charles and Ray Eames, called the Powers of Ten. Being a bit of a science nerd myself, it was pretty awesome to find our whole universe explained very succinctly in one short video – it really expands your perception of scale. Another beautiful concept which the video shows which I believe our human mind still finds difficult to wrap around, is exponentiation.

Well thankfully, you don’t have to go to the biennale to watch it because, YouTube.

 

Artha by Prashant Pandey

This is, by far, the installation which got the most reaction from my side. I don’t know if my slightly squeamish reaction was what the artist was hoping to elicit from me, but yes, I was grossed out for a bit.

The premise is very simple. It is a diamond (crafted quite beautifully) from thousands of slides of glass. The shocker being these are slides of discarded blood samples collected by the artist – over 10000, including his own.

Sorry for the terrible quality, it was quite dark in there

For sometime I didn’t know what the aesthetic appeal of this was – once you got past the initial shock value, what did it hold for me? In quite a cheesy way, it literally had the blood and sweat of thousands, but over that? Perhaps it was that it managed to contain such a loud, in-your-face message in such a subtle, unassuming and beautiful manner. The scales at which this installation works is in itself sufficient to convey this message. Seen from far, it is a glittering diamond. When you get closer you understand the shine comes from the blood on its body.

Zero to the Right by Sunoj D

This installation dealt with Kerala’s present connections with the Gulf countries and historical connections with the rest of the world. In three rooms, three separate loudspeakers chanted on and on, almost in a meditative state. While one counted from 1 to 2000 dollars, the other two dealt with dirhams and Indian rupees, respectively.

What made this piece dear was its quirks and human imperfections – the woman in  an American accent had reached 1935. One thousand nine hundred..she paused for a whole of 2 seconds, as if to think..thirty six. Meanwhile the male voice happily chanted away in Malayalam (fortunately not Anglicised) skimming through 1,24,000 with ease.

 

The Fires of Faith by Benitha Perciyal

Old worn out tools in an old worn out studio. Sculptures arranged around it in various stages of completion, almost as if the artist of the studio had to leave in a hurry and would return any moment. In my mind, this surreal fear of disturbing this imaginary artists’ work held me back from touching it any more than those ‘Do not touch’ signs.

Without even reading what it was about, if it was able to kindle a curiousity about this medieval location the artist Benitha Perciyal was trying to personify, isn’t it successful already? Rather than me trying to second guess the position and orientation of each sliver in that room trying to understand what the artist was trying to convey?

Balancing act by Gulammohammed Sheikh

What do you get when you combine a tightrope, our world leaders’ faces, and inspiration from an old Jaipur Miniature painting? This:

 

In many ways, I found comparing this to Artha (the diamond installation).  Both had loud messages packaged subtly in sarcasm and macabre humour which for once, was readily accessible.

Installations by Bijoy Jain

Need I say more? I’m sure the intent of the installation was lost to me though, because the architecture student in me kept pushing. To look at the bricks done beautifully to scale. The variety in colour and texture. Arranged so carefully haphazardly, if captured by a good photographer, could make you believe it was a real ruin with bricks.

Untitled by Unnikrishnan C

Paintings by the artist in a freestanding wall, (I quote here) “..they reveal the artists urge to archive objects and ways of living that face extinction…”

This piece takes the cake for two reasons. Firstly, the artists age (two years older than me) which leads to one of those existential “he has his artwork exhibited at the Kochi Biennale and here you are taking pictures of it to go put on your blog” moments. Secondly, a vast majority of the viewers might not care about “archive objects and ways of living that face extinction..”. But the artist has been able to convey it through a medium which is so lucid, and so universal, rather than resort to contextual responses which would just end up being exotic.

And honourable mention – located on all three venues were videos from a popular YouTube channel – VSauce, by Michael Stevens

I’ve watched the videos from his channel before and they’re quite insightful, philosophical and funny at the same time. Highly recommended. Here are a few:


The biennale included many, many more installations, of course. There are quite a few which I liked but didn’t take photographs of, and I don’t want to erroneously reproduce them from memory.  Due to lack of time and the risk of putting the rest half of you to sleep, I’d like to stop my lengthy descriptions here.

Do I believe rushing through this biennale for barely two days has given me a well rounded appreciation for contemporary art? Hardly. Has it given me the ability to look at a piece of art and judge for myself, what the artist intended and what I presume? We’re getting there. Has it helped me, to an extent, what can pass under my myopic viewpoint as art which also makes a good point? Pretty much.

The biennale is said to be the first of its kind in India – and hence so is the artwork it projects. I’m curious as to how much it has succeeded in becoming truly accessible to the public – and not just being talked about in niche circles of people in creative fields. How much dialogue, debate and introspection can it create in a common man?

Before I sign off, here is some more work by the Guess Who group:

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