Ninety-four artists from 33 countries are in Kochi for arguably India’s biggest congregation of art and artists. We ask participants from across the subcontinent to unveil their exhibits at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that opens on December 12
Even as the organisers campaign for additional funds to sustain the 108-day biennale, the progress on site too was facing a slight hitch — artwork of most artists, especially international, had not reached the venue in accordance with the schedule. Reportedly, the cause was the intervention of the customs department, a repeat of what happened in 2012.
Neha Choksi, India (Iceboat; HD video, colour, stereo sound)
In Iceboat, I am dressed in a white gown, as a renunciate or a devotee, and row a boat of ice on Lake Pawna (Lonavala) until the boat melts and releases me into the waters. What remains wonderful was the sense of complete oneness with my boat and with the elements; I could have rowed forever, I could have sunk forever. Since I was not wearing my glasses, my sense of space was vast and intimate at the same time — I sensed the immensity yet could only see as far as the edge of the boat. My dress is made of cellulose so the water is slowly eating it away and eventually, when I am submerged, it completely melts away. The ultimate melting and floundering is a real experience of loss made vivid in a staged and measured way, akin to the experience of disengaging and loss in the other works of the trilogy on absenting, Minds to Lose and Leaf Fall. I approached this performance as a poetic exegesis not only in the effort to stay afloat despite the inevitability of failure, but also on striving and surrendering, on coping and release, resistance and collapse. There is nobility and absurdity to the material surrender that hints at the ultimate bodily forfeiture we all must accept.
Shumon Ahmed, Bangladesh (Metal Graves; Photographic work)
Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal marks the journey’s end for many of the world’s ships. Having out-served their function as working vessels, they are disassembled to their basic element: steel. Steel is the metonym of modernity, the element that makes the entirety. The ship-breaking yards in Chittagong mark Bangladesh’s progress in the modern world, as measured by urban growth and industrialisation. Progress is insatiable, fuelled by the profits to be made in the desire to reshape the future. Cheap, expendable labour and disregard for environmental contamination conspire to sustain a profitable industry and 90 per cent of Bangladesh’s steel. Progress comes at a price. The beached and broken ships at Chittagong are monuments to the globalised world they helped create. They embody nostalgia for a lost past, journeys beyond the horizon, extending back beyond the life of any one vessel to the embryos of our modern world in Europe’s Age of Discovery, colonialism, conquest and commercial rivalry. Just as modernity transforms and remakes all that it touches, these ships in their metal graves, like all monuments, stand mute between the past and an uncertain future.
Hamra Abbas, Pakistan (Kaaba Pop-Ups; Printed paper, 24 x 28 x 8 inches)
Kaaba Pop-Ups has largely been shaped by conversations over an extended time between the curator, Jitish Kallat and I. This work is connected to both my recent body of work, and to my earlier practice of making works with paper (a miniature artist by training, Abbas is famed for her photography and multi-media work). A series of 24 handmade paper sculptures in various shades of blue are intricately folded into Islamic stalactite patterns, which at their centre contain a three-dimensional box-like space reminiscent of the Kaaba. The subject connects to my recent project Kaaba Picture as a Misprint, which took this familiar shape and converted it into the four main primary colours used in offset printing, together converging to form black. Here I investigate blue, which is both a signifier of nature as the colour of the seas and the sky and also of faithfulness and infinity. The title Kaaba Pop-Ups and the fragility of the material suggest impermanence, which is at odds with the Kaaba, an iconic, timeless structure.
Menika van der Poorten, Sri Lanka (Where are you from?; Photographs)
A small community, the Eurasians, remnants of a colonial past, have no grand sweeps of official history, but only memories and stories passed down from generation to generation. My search for traces of what’s left of the ‘Planter’ Eurasian community is a very personal one, driven by the anxiety that soon there won’t be any one to remember. My father was second-generation Eurasian and his ‘Planters’ family, settled in Sri Lanka in the early part of the 19th century. Growing up, it always seemed as if my father’s family were larger than life, and wilder than most, unfettered by constraints of ‘tradition and culture’. Aliens in their own land, they epitomised “otherness”.
Hema Upadhayay, India (Silence and Its Reflections; Long grain rice, handwritten text on rice glued on arches handmade paper, twelve 100 mm magnifying glasses. Six panels, 6 x 4 ft each)
The work is an understanding of ‘globalization’. The belief in ‘progress’ moves us away from ‘present’ moments of reality, where individuality the world over is being converted into ‘mono culture’; a mythical process, which is often always governed by the ever-changing complex ‘human nature’. The rice panels become the artwork. The quotations employed in this work have a reference to the character of greed and resilience in human beings. There are selected quotations by thinkers and spiritual leaders, which are often pensive and cathartic in nature, taking the viewer away from their space and putting them in a reflective mood; allowing a rhetorical triangle to them. These quotations will be handwritten on the rice grains and the audience will have to pick up a magnifying glass and lift the panel to read.