In a book she wrote on conceptual art in 1964, Grapefruit, Yoko Ono encouraged the audience to watch the sun until it became square. At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a three-month art festival, the Japanese artist will urge the audience to listen to the sound of the earth turning on its axis. To tell them how to do it, Ono, the wife of John Lennon, will parcel postcards from the US that contain instructions. The Biennale, which starts on December 12 in Kochi, will feature reproductions from limited-edition postcards, printed in 1999, featuring the relevant piece from the book.
Her artwork will be part of works of 93 other prominent artists from 30 countries that will be displayed at various venues in Kochi — from the sea-facing Aspinwall House to historic waterfront warehouse Pepper House and 17th century Dutch bungalow David Hall, among others.
A large installation is expected to be unveiled by Indian-origin British artist Anish Kapoor at Aspinwall House, while French botanist Patrick Blanc is at the Veli Gardens in Kochi designing a vertical garden with native plants dedicated to Hortus Malabaricus, the 17th century treatise on plants of the Malabar. The winner of the prestigious Artes Mundi Prize, Chinese artist Xu Bing’s work will be inspired by a landscape painting by Xu Ben, an artist who lived during the rule of the Ming Dynasty. Artist NS Harsha, who won the Artes Mundi from India, will present an installation of an enigmatic sage-like monkey, pointing towards the mysteries of the universe.
Curator Jitish Kallat hopes to turn Kochi into an observation deck, from where artists will view the world. “The shores of Kochi were closely linked to the maritime chapter of the ‘Age of Discovery’. The maps changed rapidly in the 1500s with the arrival of navigators on the Malabar coast, seeking spices and riches. Within the revised geography were sharp turns in history, heralding an age of conquest, coercive trading and colonialism, animating the early processes of globalisation,” says Kallat. Invited to curate the second edition of the Biennale, the artist worked closely with co-founders Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari and other artists who have been visiting the port town to finalise a venue appropriate for their work.
Though Kallat’s theme, “Whorled Explorations”, defines the broad gambit, each artist will bring his own interpretation. So Skoda Prize 2011 winner Navin Thomas’s installation Long Live the New Flesh will comprise two archery targets connected by an invisible, reverberating wave of sound, modelled on the idea of two lighthouses communicating with each other.
Raqs Media collective, on the other hand, will suspend a monitor speaking in Morse code, commonly used for communication by lighthouses, at the entrance of their installation Log Book Entry Before Storm. This will lead into a domestic space, once a single house cut into two by a concrete wall to accommodate two families. The artists’ collective has perforated the intervening wall and introduced the possibility of movement, with the aim of reintroducing circulation of air, light, sound, depth and ideas.
There will be role-play too. Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen will appear as Mago, a seemingly homeless person who speaks gibberish, does not understand the concept of time and is in a state of transit between two unknown places. She went and stayed at a home for minor orphan girls and victims of sexual and emotional abuse in Kerala. She interacted with children, seeking to make herself the subject. The Biennale will feature a video and sound installation assembled from this experience. “This project seeks not only to locate communication outside the narrow alleys of comprehension, but also tries to envisage dialogue in a way that cannot be read, heard or understood,” says Sen.
The master of masquerade, Nikhil Chopra, will be ‘The Black Pearl’, both the ruler and the subject, monster and angel. Dressed in European clothes reminiscent of Portuguese explorers from the ‘Age of Discovery’, he will be imprisoned and shackled. He will peer out of the prison to observe the Periyar River through the periscope, drawing what he sees on the walls of his cell.
Mumbai-based artist Sahej Rahel spent months in Kochi, scouring it for objects that went into the creation of his installation Harbinger. Spread over a disused laboratory in Aspinwall House is an anchor, an ancient blade, astronomical devices, monoliths, visors, and sci-fi automations. “The promise of precision offered by the laboratory space is met with the possibility of a release where fiction and history collide,” says Rahel.
The sail isn’t smooth though. With an estimated budget of Rs 26 crore, there are concerns over the sustenance of the Biennale over 108 days. A crowd funding platform has been launched on online forum Catapoolt, to garner Rs 15 crore in 90 days. “We want to make it participatory, allow people to take ownership of it and feel proud about it,” says Komu. Perhaps, that will be “The Road of Hope” — borrowing from the title of Ono’s acclaimed 2011 installation.
The story appeared in print with the headline Down by the Shore