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London-based artist Hew Locke was in for a bit of shocker when he reached the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 site, Fort Kochi in Kerala. His installation, Sea Power, was apparently crafted from his imagination of what the historical kingdom of Cochin would have been. Indeed, he had yoked his imagination to that of a 17th century German printmaker. The printmaker had in turn conceived the kingdom of Cochin based on the tales of another. “My work is imagination based on the imagination of an image that was perhaps real. It was double fiction and I thought the prints were elaborate romantic imagery...but I discovered when I arrived in Cochin that this double fiction has elements of reality. People still wear lungis and walk around bare-chested,” says an amazed Locke.
Hew Locke’s beaded frieze of mythological and historical figures that gently sway in the wind is a response to the biennial theme, ‘Whorled Exploration’, and suggests blips in the seminal movements of history. “The Kochi Biennale is a 108-day observation deck to view the world,” says Jitish Kallat, curator of the second edition, inaugurated with the prerequisite political speeches and an attendant percussion performance by 200 artistes on December 12. He continues, “Two unrelated episodes triggered the curatorial process. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the shorelines of Cochin were the recipients of the great maritime movement often described as the age of discovery. This was a time when the movement of ships were reorienting the shapes of continents and maps. With the changes in geography, we see brisk shifts in history. Cochin becomes a protagonist in that maritime movement. The other is the great flurry of intellectual activity around astronomy and mathematics in this region, making propositions of where the human being is located in the cosmos. And they were making definitive leaps in trigonometry and calculus here almost two centuries before their counterparts in Europe. The biennale draws images from the sweep of history and some works project into the future to interrogate how we live in the present. It isn’t just about time but also about space. Everything we do or believe is marked by our perceptual limits and some of the art in the biennale probe this dimension.”
Graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee toys with the idea of history as perceptual hallucination with his work, Liquid History of Vasco Da Gama 2014. Spread out as a single scroll of 36 pages, ‘Vasco’ history is written by an unreliable clerk called Digital Dutta who doubles up as a history writer after taking his daily dose of opium. Sarnath completely refutes the objectivity of history writing here. The novelist says that most historians emphasise on the truth of their work but his protagonist Digital Dutta is lying through his teeth, exercising his falseness. “History is subjective writing. And if your voice is louder and sexier, then it is heard. Dutta has a tendency to plant himself in various historical moments—either as a minor character or as an active agent responsible for changing the course of history. History-wielders are truth- making machines and claim history to shape the present. We have seen political powers doing this over and over.”
As Sarnath scavenges history to shape the present, Swiss artist Marie Velardie’s Future Perfect delves into the past to mould the future. Says Velardie, “It took me nearly a decade of research and this will be exhibited for the first time here. I am inspired by science fiction in books, and cinema of the last century that has travelled into the future. It’s another point of view of the present tethered to the culture, desire and fears of the people of the past. This is completely text and I have given the source of each text.”
Ironically, though the period referenced is of discovering lands and drawing of new maps, the future is wrought with the angst of redrawing the maps of disappearing lands and countries. On cue is Velardie’s second work, Atlas of the Lost Islands, Edition 2107, which attempts to draw the rapidly changing contours of the islands of Maldives, Kiribati and the Tuvalu that are slowly but surely going under due to the effects of climate change. While Brazil artist Rivane Neuenschwander’s video installation, Contingent, is a world map created with honey and the ants adrift between consuming rapidly the continents—changing geographies till the world disappears under their feet. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gurlpLOyubA). It provokes in us a foreboding sense of loss as human consumption of natural resources crosses all markers and threatens the sustainability of Planet Earth.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation brochure boasts of 94 artists from 30 countries. And virtuosos like Sumakshi Singh, Prajakta Potnis, Xu Bing, Yoko Ono, Christian Waldvogel are only a few names to watch out for. Away from the cultural canopy, though, everything isn’t going so smooth. India’s first biennale, as this is called, seems to be once again in a financial crunch and the Biennale Foundation that the Kerala government will release the rest of the money they had promised. Says KBF president Bose Krishnamachari, “The government is the major sponsor and they have released Rs 2 crore while they had promised not less than nine crore. We hope it will happen soon.”
Taking no chances, the biennale has also gone in for online crowd-funding (it has managed to collect over Rs 2 lakh till now) but that’ll merely be a drop in the ocean for now—the budgeted project cost now totals Rs 26 crore. The foundation is also expecting corporate sponsors to pitch in. Says art critic Ranjit Hoskote, “The government is putting the biennale foundation in an awkward position...it’s behaving extremely irresponsibly. This is sending a message to the world-at-large too, for the audience here is international too.” That said, the primary audience are the locals. As Hoskote adds, “At the last biennale I saw ordinary people coming in, curious and excited about art. Kerala has always supported cinema and dance, so why not visual art?”