Art & Entertainment

Bulwark Against Despair

Now more than ever, there is a need to reclaim the space available for art to reflect the politics in our lives. The fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale does just that.

Bulwark Against Despair
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“The intersections of people and incidents, flashpoints of censorship and sites, all point to the crucial importance of the political, cultural, literary, scientific and philosophical climate necessary for ideas to thrive and flourish. There is unsurprisingly no perfect concatenation of circumstances, times or epochal characteristics necessary for ground-breaking work, ideas or revolutions. The human need to think freely without proscription, in spite of, and sometimes because of repression, all point to the way we react to conflict. The only enemy is apathy. That has no name or face and it lies entwined with its bedfellow—self-censorship.”

—Shubigi Rao, curator of the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

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“It is said that it is all done for the sake of art, and that art is a very important thing. But is it true that art is so important that such sacrifices should be made for its sake? This question is especially urgent, because art, for the sake of which the labor of millions, the lives of men, and, above all, love between man and man, are being sacrificed—this very art is becoming something more and more vague and uncertain to human perception.”

—Leo Tolstoy

In 2016, we waded through the ‘Sea of Pain’ mimicking the journey of Syrian refugees. A man-made sea by Chilean poet Raul Zurita in the warehouse at Aspinwall House at Kochi-Muziris Biennale during its third edition curated by Sudarshan Shetty had also dissolved the so-called boundaries of art. In a post-truth world, you turn to the poets. That’s where history can be found. Of our times and our brutality, of memory’s insistence on course correction and hope’s fortitude. The poem at the end of the make-believe sea, Zurita said, was an ancient one that he had thought for more than 66 years. “Ah, the world of art, the world of images, billions of images. The words of a poem are cleaner, more pure,” he wrote. He called the sea a tomb. A tomb of those that have been displaced, misplaced and lost.

Six years later, the same warehouse transformed into a memory map, a site of warning of what waters can do if unleashed in the name of development. But there was hope in the song that played, in the resilience of remembrance that Goan artist Sahil Naik demonstrated in recreating part of his village Curdi in Goa that was home before the river devoured it after a dam was built for development’s sake. Every summer, the displaced villagers return to see the ruins and sing to them, almost invoking what was. Their claim to home has been ritualised and in these songs, there is hope that forgetting isn’t easy and in remembering, there is scope for return, for belonging. ‘All is Water and to Water We Must Return’ at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale—is a tale of homecoming, the story of an elegiac landscape of displacement and a narrative of hope against all odds.

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A poster at Aspinwall House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale Photo: Chinki Sinha

The curator Shubigi Rao’s efforts at making the biennale a “bulwark against despair” after a ravaging pandemic that made inequalities starker and put forth questions that we are still looking to answer, is a brave attempt at being highly political in terms of what she chose to display. The role of art is more pronounced in a world that operates on greed and accumulation brought in by a market economy, on fear and disenfranchisement and on oppression and erasure of identities. The fifth edition raised a lot of questions about the existing patriarchal order that dominates the art world where the curator, a woman and an outsider, had to wrestle with gendered power structures, is a testimony to a woman’s way of looking at the world, a unique curation that chooses a direct approach in terms of what it addresses and showcases in a country that is no longer tolerant of dissent, of any expression of identity. Rao wrote that even when we work alone, we amplify the voices of others and in her struggle to put out this very idea of sociability, she has given us courage to challenge apathy. Her curation is brave. It is empathetic. That’s what we need. That’s what art must do. Everything is contextual.

The fourth edition curated by Delhi-based artist Anita Dube was announced in a sprawling plot at Delhi’s Golf Links. The curatorial note called ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’ was read out to select the list of the invitees. The paradox of that itself was evident in the hierarchical order of the art world. 

“At the heart of my curatorial adventure lies a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model) where the possibilities for a non-alienated life could spill into a ‘politics of friendship’ ...In this dream, those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives will speak: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels,” Dube, who once was a member of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association in the late 1980s, read out.

Rao’s curation is almost like a journalistic mission. She goes everywhere to look for stories and the biennale forces the viewer to engage with those stories.

It was in line with the recent attempts by the art world to go for inclusive representations but yet again, it couldn’t resist the temptation of the established and the recognised in the art world. The biennial form has become a popular showcase of visual arts with more than 250 biennials operating globally but whether the biennale can contest existing powerful relations is worth answering and in the fifth edition, with the delay in the opening and Rao being sidelined, it becomes even more important to answer. In fact, in its fifth edition, the biennale in Kochi offers a counterpoint to the existing “white cube” practice of museums, galleries and art festivals that  refrain from being “political”. Dube had refused to call her curation of the fourth edition “political” and it is in that denial that one encounters the politics of the art world that pays lip service to the marginalised and the underrepresented. Catchwords like those are plenty and yet everything is marked by what we call the obscureness of art world practice and curation. Being political is dangerous. It has always been.

Over the years, there have been many debates about the role and positioning of art and its scope. The era of aestheticism is no longer relevant. What is important is how and what we speak, for speech itself is threatened. Gallerists and artists may dismiss it as “conscience-clearing art”, a trend that’s manifesting itself in many art festivals across the world but what’s important is that at least there is an expression of the vulnerable and the subaltern. Rao’s curation is almost like a journalistic mission. She goes everywhere to look for stories and the biennale forces the viewer to engage with those stories. This is not a postcard series. This is art’s emphasis that it can be inclusive of everything—films, poetry, songs, photos, installations.

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Art for art’s sake makes no more sense than gin for gin’s sake.

—Somerset Maugham

The original phrase l’art pour l’art was used by the French poet Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) in the preface to his 1835 book, Mademoiselle de Maupin. In the Aesthetic Movement that advocated Art For Art’s Sake, many held that art is an aim in itself. While there was a context to this movement, it is no longer desirable in our world with its many conflicts that puts art’s relation to social, political and economic life at the forefront. Isolation is no longer an option. Never was. Art is knowledge that explains life. And in this edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, some of that experience of life of others was accessible. A glimpse constitutes hope. From Nagaland to Palestine, this biennale goes everywhere in search of stories. It addresses the war in Ukraine. It becomes a place of learning and unlearning. It provokes and celebrates. And yes, women are political beings.

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At the entrance of Aspinwall House, there’s Richard Bell’s Embassy project which has travelled the world since it was first mounted in Melbourne in 2013. ‘White Invaders You Are Living on Stolen Land’; ‘…Why! Preach Democracy’ and ‘…We Wuz Robbed’ are the slogans on the walls of this tent. The ‘Aboriginal Embassy’ has a film playing in loop—Alessandro Cavadini’s Ningla A-Na (1972), which tells the story of Aboriginal activism in south-eastern Australia in the 1970s. This is a space for alternate histories. Like many others across the world. Like the ones in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand where indigenous people are demanding what is rightfully theirs. There are many stories in this biennale that can help us understand ourselves better only if one disengages from notions and histories that are imposed on us by those in power.

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In the placement of artworks itself there is a narrative, a defiance of any chronological order, a tapestry that challenges geography as well as histories. The juxtaposition is an important part of the curatorial exercise and in Fort Kochi where the city itself is an installation of sorts with its multiculturalism and its politics, the fifth edition is about an assertion of that fundamental right—the freedom of expression.

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Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a place where storytelling is more about shape shifting and reimagining the world with a map of a past, a map that has been altered by greed perpetuated by the market economies under the pretext of individual freedom. It has blurred boundaries and made art more inclusive in ways that can help us process grief and counter it with hope. This edition is that.

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In the last few months, Outlook looked at art showcased at Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in December 2022, the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala and the India Art Fair in Delhi in February. In this issue, we look at what resonated with us.

As common people, we looked at the art with our experiences. That would be a new way of seeing. Without any restraints, without any theories, without any art criticism framework. An artist who is part of the ongoing biennale refused to give us an interview saying we weren’t art writers. But isn’t that denying us the possibilities of viewing and debating? As people who invest their time in seeing and knowing.

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We decided to be non-conformists in our approach in viewing and processing art. I suppose that’s the only way. The way of dissent. Like the lantern that Kashmiri artist Nasir Hassan carried as a way of finding his lost world. His grandmother’s lantern, he said, is his bulwark against despair. That’s how we heard the stories. That’s how we have narrated them. In our print and in our online editions.

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