Ways Of Seeinghttps://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/ways-of-seeing-2/

Ways Of Seeing

Does life imitate art or is it the other way around? At the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the boundaries have expanded to include artists who push the audience to reacquaint themselves with the changing idiom of international art.

The agony and the ecstacy: Chilean poet Raul Zurita in Kochi, where he is exhibiting his work, Sea of Pain. (Source: Kochi Biennale Foundation)
The agony and the ecstacy: Chilean poet Raul Zurita in Kochi, where he is exhibiting his work, Sea of Pain. (Source: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

The ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) is not just a visual experience. Here, conversations are as vital as the colours on the canvases and performances have become as significant as the sculptures that dot Aspinwall Hall, the prime venue of the biennale. Curator of KMB, artist Sudarshan Shetty says opening up the biennale to every person with a vision was a well-thought-out decision. “The question that I wanted to address was what does it mean to be contemporary; what does it it mean to be together in time, if that is what contemporary means,” says Shetty.

And so, the biennale now accommodates artists and architects, authors, poets, theatre people and musicians showcasing their vision of life. As viewers step from one exhibit to the other, they are inundated with multiple visuals, sounds and mediums. If Slovenian poet Ales Steger’s Pyramid for Exiled Poets has a pyramid with a labyrinth within, echoing with verses penned by exiled poets across centuries, author Abhishek Hazra is taking the audience through a mobile lecture performance, structured like a guided tour, where he discusses the numerous works on display, emphasising that the Biennale has no singular narrative.

In several ways, this year’s KMB is a challenge to the art audience in India. It encourages them to refamiliarise themselves with the changing narrative of international art, the loosening of its borders to accommodate experiments that go beyond traditional media, and to ask themselves if life imitates art, or is it the other way around. A look at three cutting-edge artists at the KMB who are redefining the way sound, words and images are being used in art:

The World is Their Stage
A Russian collective and their unique reinterpretation of politics and philosophy

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Colossal and complex, this Russian collective’s work projects cultural collisions and the volatility and paradoxical nature of modern life. “In art and real life, we have no recognisable samples of what means good and what’s bad. It is about perception,” says Tatiana Arzamasova. The red-haired architect-turned-artist is the A of the acronym AES+F. Her architect husband Lev Evzovich is “E”, while multidisciplinary designer Evgeny Svyatsky and photographer Vladimir Fridkes form the other half of the quartet. The couple and Svyatsky came together in 1987 to form the collective. Fridkes joined almost a decade later, in 1995.

During the post-Soviet art boom in Russia in the late 1990s and 2000s, the quartet gained fame through their avant garde work that involved a dialogue between different media — fantastical photographs, video and sculptural works — that deliberated on terrorism, power, Islamophobia and other modern malaises. By the time they represented Russia at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where they exhibited their large-scale multi-channel video installation, The Last Riot, they were already a global phenomenon.

The constant changes in the world order have always been of special interest to them and their work is replete with baroque and contemporary references. In The Last Riot, their vision of a new world made “no difference between victim and aggressor, male and female”; in Kochi, the collective is presenting yet another inversion. The digital collage, Inverso Mundus (Inverted World), has the poor giving charity to the rich, a donkey riding a human, a student punishing a teacher, and a pig slaughtering the butcher. First presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, it digitises medieval engravings with farcical scenes and reinterprets it anew. “In our interpretation, the absurdist scenes from the medieval carnival appear as episodes of contemporary life,” says Evzovich, adding, “We live in times when values are changing very fast; we are already in a world that is upside down.”

Presenting an inverse world order, though, is not new to them. Their 2007 series, Europe-Europe, for instance, included a porcelain figurine of a neo-Nazi girl and a Hasidic Jewish boy in an intimate position. And between 1996 and 2003, their famed multimedia series, Islamic Project, was a “visualisation of the fears of Western society about Islam”. The artists presented the skylines and monuments of major cities in a world that was under Islamic influence. If the Statue of Liberty wore a burqa, the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan was surrounded by mosques with domes. “When we started this project in 1994, it was more of an intellectual game with a dash of humour. We talked about Islamophobia and the Western political correctness where they did not want to discuss the problems of terrorism and so on. Now, the situation has changed,” says Svyatsky.

Death has also been one of their abiding preoccupations. In the 2000-2007 work, Defile, a series of seven images on lightboxes — also being exhibited in Kochi — they dress the dead in designer wear. “We were motivated by the idea of pairing fashion, with its extreme temporality, with death, with its constancy and inevitability,” says Svyatsky.

Inverso Mundus by AES+F. (Source: Arjun Suresh)
Inverso Mundus by AES+F. (Source: Arjun Suresh)

Even as they engage with the political, social and economic realities of the multicultural world, their work also derives from the experience of growing up in Soviet Russia and the transition from Soviet to contemporary times. “We have never directly addressed Russia in our work, but it is part of the global world where all these contradictions exist,” says Evzovich. Since the last few years, however, the four members of the Moscow-based collective are considering migrating to Berlin. “It is a work-related need,” says Evozovich. Svyatsky adds, “We already exist internationally.”

Their 2017 calendar vouches for their popularity: while their work will show in Kochi till March, the quartet also has ongoing exhibitions at the Photon Center for Contemporary Photography, Ljubljana, MAXXI Museum in Rome, Today Art Museum in Beijing and the ROSIZO State Museum and Exhibition Centre in Moscow. In September, they exhibit at the prestigious Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea
Chilean poet Raul Zurita on resistance and why the deep, dark ocean is both suffering and salvation for him

Raul Zurita’s work in Kochi is not one that can be viewed from a distance. It’s a spectacle where the viewer is both a protagonist and a performer.

The ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) is not just a visual experience. Here, conversations are as vital as the colours on the canvases and performances have become as significant as the sculptures that dot Aspinwall Hall, the prime venue of the biennale. Curator of KMB, artist Sudarshan Shetty says opening up the biennale to every person with a vision was a well-thought-out decision. “The question that I wanted to address was what does it mean to be contemporary; what does it it mean to be together in time, if that is what contemporary means,” says Shetty.

And so, the biennale now accommodates artists and architects, authors, poets, theatre people and musicians showcasing their vision of life. As viewers step from one exhibit to the other, they are inundated with multiple visuals, sounds and mediums. If Slovenian poet Ales Steger’s Pyramid for Exiled Poets has a pyramid with a labyrinth within, echoing with verses penned by exiled poets across centuries, author Abhishek Hazra is taking the audience through a mobile lecture performance, structured like a guided tour, where he discusses the numerous works on display, emphasising that the Biennale has no singular narrative.

In several ways, this year’s KMB is a challenge to the art audience in India. It encourages them to refamiliarise themselves with the changing narrative of international art, the loosening of its borders to accommodate experiments that go beyond traditional media, and to ask themselves if life imitates art, or is it the other way around. A look at three cutting-edge artists at the KMB who are redefining the way sound, words and images are being used in art:

He has to wade through knee-deep seawater that fills an erstwhile warehouse at the Aspinwall Hall. The Chilean poet makes the journey momentous with his verses painted on adjacent walls, asking poignant questions of his viewers: “Don’t you listen? Don’t you look? Don’t you hear me? Don’t you see me? Don’t you feel me?”

At the end of the humongous hall are Zurita’s reflections of the ongoing refugee crisis and his heartrending tribute to five-year-old Syrian refugee Galip Kurdi, whose body was washed ashore at a Turkish beach last year. Zurita calls Galip his son. “I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son,” reads the 66-year-old poet’s poignant eulogy titled Sea of Pain.

Zurita says it was important to envisage the sea as a site of suffering and pain. Over four decades ago, Zurita was floundering himself. His notebook of poems had been thrown in to the sea by soldiers of Chilean dictator Augusto José Ramón Pinochet and he had been arrested on September 11, 1973 — the day of the coup at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in Valparaíso — for studying in a Leftist university. He was 23 then, pursuing engineering and writing poetry alongside. Zurita was imprisoned in Maipo for six weeks, where 800 prisoners were packed in a space meant for only 100.

Camille Norment performing in Kochi. (Source: Arjun Suresh)
Camille Norment performing in Kochi. (Source: Arjun Suresh)

The experience left a lasting impact and defined his writing. “I felt humiliated and remembered that phrase from the Gospels that talks about turning the other cheek. So, I closed myself in a bathroom and burned my cheek with a knife that I heated until it was red. After hours, the poems that I had memorised when they arrested me came back to me and I began to write,” says Zurita. The poems were published in his first volume of poetry, Purgatory, that released in 1979. It was conceived as the first text of a Dantean trilogy that includes Anteparaíso (1982) and La Vida Nueva (1993).

Recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Poetry Prize of Chile, Zurita is counted among the most celebrated poets in contemporary Latin America. He responded to the sufferings of the people during the military dictatorship through his work and sought a poetic idiom distinct from the iconic Pablo Neruda, one that addressed the violence and censorship of the times. Despite the miseries, his poems express hope for a better tomorrow. “I believe the whole universe partakes in an individual’s pain. Poetry will survive as the symbol of hope. It is the hope of what has no hope. It is the love of what has no love. Like death, poetry was born with the human and will die when the last of the beings contemplates the last of the sunsets,” says Zurita.

While he reflected on the atrocities, he was not ignorant of the risk he was undertaking. Published at the height of Pinochet’s rule, his 1985 work, Song for his Disappeared Love, was a love song for those whose bodies were discarded into the sea during the dictatorial rule. As a member of the Colectivo de Acciones de Arte, an artists collective established in 1979, Zurita gained notoriety for his provocative public performances. If, in 1982, he hired planes to write his poem La Vida Nueva over New York, in 1993, he bulldozed the phrase “Ni Pena Ni Miedo”(Without Pain Or Fear) into the Atacama Desert, which could only be seen from the sky. The last art action by the collective was to cover all of Chile with the phrase “No más” (“No more”) with the + sign. “People could finish these phrases by adding their own words. No + dictatorship, No + murders, No + terror. The graffiti didn’t stop until the dictatorship ended,” says Zurita.

The dictatorship ended in 1990, but memories of those years still drive Zurita’s works. His 2011 book, Zurita, for instance, has a section where each poem is titled with the name of a prison that operated during the 17-year dictatorship of Pinochet. His steps have become measured because of Parkinson’s Disease, but it has not dimmed his enthusiasm. He is preparing for another ambitious project “Inscriptions Facing the Sea”, where he will inscribe 22 phrases on the cliffs of the north coast of Chile that can be read only from the sea.

The water never ceases to fascinate him. In Kochi, as people roll up their trousers to enter his man-made sea, he says, “For me, this is poetry. It is beautiful and painful, but the act itself is exultation.”

The Other Side of Silence
American artist Camille Norment on how human experiences are wired for sound

What is the relationship between human body and sound? Camille Norment might have an answer. The Oslo-based American artist has spent over two decades exploring how the body can be potentiated by sound. “Music has such a hold over the body; it can elicit different emotions — ecstasy, frenzy, even fear,” says Norment, seated on one of the wooden benches that are part of her installation, Prime, designed for the Biennale. As the viewers sit on these sea-facing benches, a deep groan-like chant emerges and the vibrations shoot through the body.

The sonics, says Norment, come from the practice of moaning in African American churches. Recorded in a studio in New York, she intersperses them with an instrument that she has resurrected: the glass armonica. During performances in Kochi, she turned the horizontally-mounted bowls of the instrument with a foot pedal and played it with water-moistened fingers to produce visceral sounds.

An integral part of her art practice, she first discovered the glass armonica in the early 1990s. Invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, it was used to heal melancholia, notably that of Princess Izabella Czartoryska of Poland, by hypnotising women during healing sessions. But rumours soon spread that the instrument causes madness and it was banned. Gradually, it disappeared from public memory for nearly 200 years. “I got interested in its paradoxical history of being adored and then being outlawed from a fear of the power of its sound. It’s spatial omnipresence and relationship to pyschoacoustics (how we perceive sound) fell right in line with my interests,” says Norment. Since then, she has played the instrument across the world.

The main venue of the Biennale. (Source: Arjun Suresh)
The main venue of the Biennale. (Source: Arjun Suresh)

In 2015, Norment was invited at the Venice Biennale to explore psychoacoustics through her installation and performance. Norment says she chose to weave the site-specific installation around topical socio-political matters: censorship and repression, gender roles in society and the suspense of the unknown future. “I am interested in how music has, for long, been used to facilitate both the forging and transgressing of cultural norms,” says the 40-year-old.

Last year, acclaimed art market website Artnet listed her among the world’s top 12 sound artists who are changing people’s perception of art. Her ensemble now includes Vegar Vårdal, who plays the Hardanger fiddle, and Håvard Skaset on the electric guitar. Norment wears her fame lightly. “Things are changing, and people are becoming more open to experiments, though at a slow pace,” she says.

Born and raised in New York, Norment trained in dance and piano during her childhood. While some of her earliest works were installations, sound gradually became the focus of her oeuvre. When the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organised the first major museum exhibition of contemporary sound art, ‘Soundings: A Contemporary Score’ in 2013, Norment was one of the 16 participants. She showed her 2008 work Triplight; she installed a Shure microphone with a pulsating light that cast its shadow on the walls at intervals. It represented the silent noise of social realities and suppressed voices. Norment also explored the sound of silence in her 2000 work, Dead Room, where the space was silent but the sound audible as low bass frequencies on sub-woofers.

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Keeping the artist occupied at present is the relationship between the dulcet tunes of lullabies and the harsh realities they often portray. At the ongoing Montreal Biennale, where her work Lull — So Ro is on showcase, a woman sings a short phrase from a lullaby in hypnotic repetition. “Several lullabies depict violent realities set in soothing tones. I found the discrepancy interesting. I wanted to understand what is going on, why is it the way it is, who the lyrics are for if the child does not understand the language, and, the role of the mother in all this,” says Norment.