Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 diary: Demonetisation, Sudarshan Shetty's vision and FOMO
Art writer Rosalyn D'Mello was at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 during its opening week. She highlights what makes this third edition — curated by Sudarshan Shetty — unique.
Around 8 pm on the evening of 13 December, as I walked past Parade Ground in Fort Kochi, I felt sure I could have sold 30 ml of my liquid soul for a glass of whisky. Even if it were Royal Stag. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. Two days since I had arrived and I’d had my fill of the kind of red wine that boasted a decent body but was lacking in finesse, and beer that could have been better refrigerated. Compared to the last two editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, this one had fallen squarely in the midst of Modi’s demonetisation blunder, which obviously complicated the sourcing of intoxicating substances, thanks to the ensuing cash crunch. Kerala’s alcoholic regulations compelled all bars to stop serving liquor — confined to beer and wine — by 10 pm, thereby imposing a limit on the amount of time that we had, in the past, spent socialising.
On the morning of 14 December, my last day at the Biennale, I had to borrow Rs 300 from a friend so I could make multiple trips between venues in an “Arto” rickshaw, official vehicular mediums that took visitors around for between Rs 20 and 30. After watching Joan Jonas’ performance lecture by the Chinese Fishing Nets by the beach, the unofficial plan among visiting artists was to reconvene at Seagull Hotel for an informal belated celebration of Pushpamala’s 60th birthday. I shared a table with Amar Kanwar, Pooja Sood, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. When the waiter verified that the hotel wouldn’t be accepting cards, I realised I was at their mercy. Needless to say, I was well fed and was privileged enough to additionally feast on a scintillating buffet of conversation.
Something truly incredible comes to pass when artists hang out with each other; a kind of subtle shift in cosmic energy that is greater than the sum vibrations of meditating monks or rotating prayer wheels. Anger gets subversively distilled into hope; disillusionment into an infectious strain of utopian zeal; banality into a profound, fecund reappraisal of the human condition. For art allows us to do precisely that: transcend the boundaries of reality, a proposition that was made abundantly relevant through Sudarshan Shetty’s curatorial strategy in assembling the third edition of the Biennale. Shetty achieved what the previous editions weren’t able to, he expanded the conceptual horizons of the event. In ushering a move away from the lure of Fort Kochi’s enormous history, he was able to liberate the biennale from the trap of site specificity it was threatening to get mired in. Titled Forming in the pupil of an eye, the edition which opened on 12 December 2016, and which will be on view for at least 108 days, takes the viewer on an invigorating and nuanced poetic journey through the infinite possibilities of the artistic imagination; a word that that has acquired an unpopular reputation in an age that has come to prefer the authenticity of facts and algorithms over alternative fictive possibilities, in a world that increasingly seems like a satirical version of itself.
Dearth of alcohol aside, what marked my experience of the four-day foray across the multiple venues that were to house works by 97 artists from 31 countries, no mean feat, was a previously unfelt but overwhelming sense of FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, a millennial anagram that doesn’t quite exist in most artists’ immediate vocabulary, but which perfectly encapsulates the challenges of viewing an event of such a magnitude over what will always seem like an immensely brief time span. If before I was ensured of the merits of being present at the opening week, now I am certain that it would have been wiser to have visited later, over the course of the coming two months, for both the luxury of time and the benefit of seeing works in a more heightened state of completion.
On 12 December, at least 30 per cent of the art had yet to be installed or rendered functional. There were artists like Khalid Samsabi who were still waiting for their work to be dispatched from customs. But given that Shetty had been cautioning the art world about his ambitious idea of a “Biennale in progress”, it seemed not as anomalous as one would imagine. In fact, at Pepper House, a prestigious venue, artists like Nicola Darvasula were actually attempting a studio-like set-up where works would be created in residence as the Biennale unfolded over 108 days. Praneet Soi, whose coir rope sculptures have been installed on the lawns has a collateral space in Aspinwall House, the foremost site, where he too will create work over time. Visitors are allowed to enter his gestative space for a glimpse of his process. The most evocatively “in-progress” installation was one that has been slotted to appear on the facades of multiple sites across the island town: 88 chapters of a novel by Argentine writer, Sergio Chejfec. Each disembodied chapter was still being painted by local painters whose brushes were working overtime to complete the spectacle. I would have liked to have read the entire book over my four-day stay, but since it’s probably only finished now, I suppose I might have to return to Kochi.
The FOMO turned out to be quite real, now having settled within me as the knowledge of having missed out, the only corrective for which is to return to Kochi over the next two months. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t make it to at least two important venues — Durbar Hall, a quick ferry-ride away from Fort Kochi, and the historic Kottapuram Fort, and the Student’s Biennale, which by all accounts is apparently very impressive. I confess to having missed seeing Abir Karmakar’s work at Kashi Gallery because I went to their café by mistake, and didn’t manage to retrace my steps because I was in a hurry to get to the TKM Warehouse to catch Aki Sasamoto’s performance at 2 pm. There were too many choices to be made, and no matter what you chose, you were still left with a twinge of regret for not having been able to act on the un-chosen.
Over dinner each night, we exchanged notes about what we had seen, attempting to compare this edition to its predecessors. I found myself defending Shetty’s stance and its outcome; satisfied, despite the overwhelming array, by the subtle intensity of it all, the refocusing on the inner workings of the artistic mind, the audacity that marked the non-spectacular overall display and all the ensuing poetry and contemplation. Shetty proved to us that the experience of a Biennale could go beyond ticking off artworks off a checklist, beyond visiting all that was on offer, beyond even the act of seeing and believing. It could be about a feeling, a feeling that is still forming, still evolving, still gestating and transforming. It was my most sober biennale, and the most unexpectedly poetic; the only time I ever left an art event armed with the suspicion that I, too, could stake claim to being an artist, that the term was indeterminate and open-ended.
Rosalyn D'Mello is former editor-in-chief of Artinfo India, and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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