Cover Story

KMB 2016

By Jyotsna Sharma   1 Jan, 2017

The opening week of the Kochi Biennale 2016 saw more than 30,000 visitors. Individual performances drew crowds that averaged about 300 visitors daily through the week.

On the 12th of December, at the official inauguration ceremony of the Kochi Biennale 2016, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced a permanent venue for the Biennale and also 7.5 Cr. rupees as funding. A loud cheer went up in the crowd, and I too was a part of that happy lot. 

This year the Biennale is larger in scale, spread across 11 venues; it has 97 artists participating, of which, 36 are Indians. Curated by eminent artist Sudarshan Shetty and titled ‘Forming in the pupil of an eye’, the biennale seeks to question the labels attributed to, and blur the lines between, various modes of artistic expression.

The theme and the projects of the Biennale are a result of various conversations that he (Sudarshan Shetty) had with a number of art practitioners. During these conversations, they explored the meaning of ‘contemporary’ within the art world. They examined the conventional and the ‘not so conventional’ art world practices. Also, they discovered that it is not possible to engage with a world that is contemporary without referencing the past.

As a result, a number of intriguing practices outside of the conventional art world made it to the Biennale. Another key element of the curatorial vision was to involve and use the physical space itself in the project.

When asked, Sudarshan Shetty told me that the Biennale had in fact, exceeded his expectations and had come together nicely given the multiplicity of the projects, and the fact that a number of the chosen artists we from outside the conventional ‘Biennale space’. I would have to agree.

In addition to the projects, the overview of which I will give you in a moment, I also enjoyed the BMW Art Talk.

BMW held an Art Talk and breakfast at the Ayana Fort Kochi on the 12th. The panellists included Dayanita Singh, Feroze Gujral, Dr. Thomas Girst and Dr. Venu V. The importance of patronage to further the Arts in India, Government support and support from the art community were the key issues discussed.

According to Dr. Thomas Girst (Head of Cultural engagement BMW), BMW’s support to platforms such as the Kochi Biennale is a way to give back to society –a way to help build and further Art & Culture in India.


Artist Dayanita Singh suggested that in addition to the Corporate and the Government sector supporting the Arts, artists should create and sell artwork specifically to fund and encourage platforms like the Kochi Biennale -an idea definitely worth putting into practice.

As promised, here’s an overview of some of my favourite works from the Biennale.

G R Iranna’s ‘From Ash to Ash’ is a spectacular work. Through this particular work he explores the relationship between form and the formless. He comments on the fact that every form turns to ash / dust towards the end of its life. Through its shape, which is that of an egg like ovoid, he is exploring the idea of rebirth – an idea deeply rooted in Indian mythology and especially Hinduism. The interesting part is that the sculpture is made of Holy Ash (Vibhuti), which falls away when touched ever so slightly. So there again, it is a form that will be rendered formless in time. 

What adds to the appeal of the work is the space in which it is placed. The room is almost like a container, in which this large egg is placed with just enough space for one person to walk around it. He said to remove it from the room he would have to break it and turn it back to ash.

Camille Norment’s ‘Prime’ is a sound installation. She explores pre lingual sounds, the relationships between the voice, the body and vibration – essentially primary expressions.

 Though this installation, she explores the similarity between cultures from across the globe where the voice is used to create vibrations, such as in the Buddhist chanting of the ‘om mantra’ or even ‘moaning’ in the African American church. She worked with vocalists to draw out their experiences and present them to the audience while referencing historical examples. She invites the audience to participate in the process and draw their own interpretations.

Poet Raul Zurita’s ‘Sea of Pain’ is another impactful installation/ project. It is made in the memory of Galip Kurdi, the brother of Alan Kurdi. The three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed ashore a Turkish beach in September 2015, leading to global outcry. Galip and his mother were also drowned at sea. 

Gabriel Lester’s ‘Dwelling Kappiri Spirits 2016’ is an installation depicting a room with bellowing curtains and a lit cigar on a table, it seems, as if the room is frozen in time. A friend of his passed away and in his culture, they have to open the windows and doors of the room, to let the soul pass to the heaven- this is where the inspiration came from. Through his work, he tries to capture that moment when this transition between life and death takes place.

The in extinguishable cigar in this installation is a comment on the tradition in Kochi where a cigar is lit to commemorate the death of the slaves that were traded during the 16th & the17th century. 

P K Sadanandan’s ‘12 Stories (of the 12 progeny)’ is a large-scale mural that depicts mythological stories. This particular work depicts the story of Parayi Petta Panthiru Kulam. The narrative revolves around the twelve families born to Parayi (a woman of the ‘paraiah’ caste) and comments on aspects such as inequality of the caste system, fate and the roles of families in society. In addition to the scale and the detailing in the mural, the fact that Sadanandan makes his own colours from natural pigments adds to the appeal of the work. 

Of course, I loved the way Gunjan Gupta combines design and art in her exhibition titled ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ curated by Yoichi Nakamuta. Through this exhibition she traces the evolution of the chair in India, from the time Vasco Da Gama brought the chair with him when he arrived in Calicut, India. ‘Pichvai Tradition and Beyond’ from the studio of Pooja Singhal is a fantastic exhibition showcasing the traditional art of Pichvai and miniature painting transformed to suit contemporary tastes. Dia Mehta Bhupal’s ‘Bathroom Set’ is an interesting life size installation made of layers of paper cut outs from magazines. These are rolled, cut and glued together to create the installation. 

Of the projects at the Students Biennale, I liked the work done by the Aligarh Muslim University students and the College of Art, Delhi students.

All in all the Biennale is a success in what it set out to do. I would urge you to visit if you haven’t yet.