The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, may well be called the ‘unfinished’ bienniale. A small swathe of the contemporary art exhibition remained undone as a fraternity of art lovers descended upon ‘God’s Own Country’ from all over India (and few from around the world) to witness the triumphant opening of a second edition in an impossible place. Workmen hammered and sawed away, constructing installations well beyond their comprehension, working around the clock to complete the homegrown odyssey that aspires to link into an international network of savvy biennales. Technical glitches abounded with complicated hard-to-install works at the main locations of Aspinwall and Pepper Houses, other smaller venues scattered around Fort Kochi and Durbar Hall a ferry ride away in Ernakulam. Some other art works were hindered thanks to messy customs procedures. For Indians, it was jugaad as usual. For me, it was love on arrival.

Here is my shortlist of contemporary art not to be missed at Kochi. This list does not include collateral events (which I will cover in my next post) and unrealized installations, but the finished work at the opening out of almost 100 projects selected by the curator Jitish Kallat. Within this list, I have selected art by established and emerging artists that reflect a breadth of exciting practices from the region, although a list inclusive of international artists who have delivered works of excellent quality would certainly include Xu Bing, Dinh Q Lê, Marie Velardi, Adrian Paci and Francesco Clemente.

Artist Mithu Sen
Artist Mithu Sen

1. Mithu Sen

Mithu Sen’s I have only one language; it is not mine is a riveting new multimedia work for which the Delhi-based artist lived as her alter-ego “Mago" in an orphanage for female orphans, and victims of sexual and emotional abuse in Kerala for a month. In this unscripted performance captured primarily on her iPhone, the artist alternates between the subject and the voyeur to explore the extremities of communication and domesticity.

Location: Aspinwall House

An installation by Bentha Perciyal
An installation by Bentha Perciyal

2. Benitha Perciyal

Chennai-based artist Benitha Perciyal’s new work, The Fires of Faith, is an incredibly powerful ensemble of biblical characters cast from incense, bark powder, Gum Arabic, aromatic herbs and spices. The installation of sculptures revisits a seminal period in Kerala’s history with the fabled arrival of the apostle St. Thomas at a port in Kerala connected to the ancient seaport of Muziris, which as the myth relates, led to the spread of Christianity in India.

Location: Pepper House

An installation by Sahej Rahal
An installation by Sahej Rahal

3. Sahej Rahal

A room that feels more like a abandoned laboratory at Aspinwall is repurposed by Rahal as a kind of labyrinth filled with supremely bizarre sci-fi inspired sculptures and ceremonial masks mostly made from clay. Harbinger is a grand and obsessive gesture, a sprawling cemetery of fossils by the emerging talent from Mumbai. The artist worked for months on-site and plans to animate his strange, antediluvian world with a performance during the bienniale.

Location: Aspinwall House

4.Pors & Rao

The Bangalore-based duo Aparna Rao and Søren Pors is delightfully unique in the universe of Indian contemporary art. Their kooky animated objects are slightly sinister and often hilarious, surprising the viewer with unexpected motions driven by technology.

Location: Aspinwall House

Hema Upadhyay’s ‘Silence and Its Refelections’
Hema Upadhyay’s ‘Silence and Its Refelections’

5. Hema Upadhyay

Mumbai-based Hema Upadhyay’s contribution comprises a six panel series made entirely of long grain rice arranged in waves with phrases handwritten on miniscule grains that have to be read with magnifying glasses, which accompany the work. Taking her cue from the rhetorical quotes on roadside signs, text boards, newspapers and other sources, Silence and Its Reflections, deftly weaves together an intimate narrative of looking inward that is solemn and spare, while executing a new language of ‘rice-scapes’ that reflect her ingenuity with materials.

Location: Durbar Hall

Performing artist Nikhil Chopra (centre)
Performing artist Nikhil Chopra (centre)

Goa-based Nikhil Chopra is Indian contemporary art’s poster boy for performance art with major venues under his belt like the Venice Biennial 2009. For Kochi, he creates a dubious fictional character from the colonial era called Le Perle Noire, or ‘the Black Pearl,’ who is also a metaphor for the history of trading of spices and pepper to the Malabar Coast. Alas, this marathon performance that lasted 50 hours, witnessing a multivalent metamorphosis and ending with the protagonist’s escape from his prison-like cell –rescued like a humbler James Bond by two lads in a fishing boat rowing him away–leaves remnants behind that include ubiquitous wall drawings and theatrical props as traces of existence.

Location: Aspinwall House

7. Gigi Scaria

Chronicles of the Shores Foretold is a site-specific work by Gigi Scaria in which a giant elevated bell on the shore spouts water from the backwaters nearby. According to the Delhi-based artist, the bell has universal significance as a marker of time and mortality, but is also symbolically important for Kerala’s Christian population, their rituals and folklores. By puncturing this cherished symbol with holes, Scaria seeks to symbolically puncture cultural time and memory.

Location: Pepper House

Sharmistha Ray is an artist, curator and art writer. She attended the opening of the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 12 December. She will write a series of three posts on the exciting artworks on display at the historic port town of Kerala. This is her second post.

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