As I looked at a pile of rubble on the floor, it reoccurred to me that art can be interpreted in so many different ways. A young boy was walking around the stacked up bricks, rocks and cement pieces, his face a mix of expressions which I could not fully comprehend. He tried to kick a brick—a part of this installation—before being pulled hastily away. We had many years between us in age, yet our perplexity was shared.

That’s art: a personal experience, a complex emotion and, to the uninitiated, like me, a combination of surprises, amusement, irritation and awe.

We were at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016-17, the biannual art festival in Kerala in which nearly a hundred artists from about 35 countries are currently—till 29 March—exhibiting across 12 venues. Here, digital art, videos, sound sculptures, installations and paintings all come together in practically one neighbourhood. It was an unusual choice for me as I don’t have much appreciation or patience for installation art—I am rather intimidated by it—but saw this visit as an attempt to change that ignorance.

We were at the largest venue of the Biennale—Aspinwall House—on a steaming hot March weekend. Just before seeing what could have been a replica of a bomb site, I had walked through a giant pyramid covered in cow dung (The Pyramid of Exiled Poets by Aleš Šteger), seen miniature buildings made of dog chew (Big Dog by Liu Wei), seen recently deceased people shown as decaying models in images (Défilé by AES+F), some random bunch of objects on a table (was the mosquito coil among them intentional or was it merely indicative of Kochi’s wildlife problem?), ducked through foliage (also an installation) and walked past a life-size toilet made of rolled up paper (Bathroom Set by Dia Mehta Bhupal). 

I had sat on sea-facing benches (Prime by Camille Norment) that vibrated to humming sounds—not sure if it was intended, but I appreciated the massage. I also spent several long minutes with Martin Walde’s Multiple Choice, a wax sculpture of a man melting under the glare of infrared light, which was triggered by human movement. This was everyone’s favourite room because of the air conditioner.

Then there was Chilean artist Raúl Zurita’s Sea of Pain, which requires people to wade through knee-deep water in a warehouse for about 30-50m. At the end of the walk is his poem on a wall dedicated to the five-year-old Syrian child who drowned and was washed ashore. A deep, disturbing piece of work tempered substantially by visitors’ joy of rolling up their pants and finding some relief from the heat by splashing through.

By the time I reached Anand Warehouse—one of the venues—and saw three pairs of very dusty shoes underneath a photograph, I wasn’t sure if the footwear were part of an installation or left behind by someone intending to visit the Sea of Pain.

Obviously, all the walking around—venues visited include Pepper House, Kashi Art Café, Cabral Yard, David Hall, MAP Project Space, TKM Warehouse, Kashi Art Gallery—involved tons of varied, interesting (surprisingly expensive) food. What would have helped elevate the whole experience—but was available very selectively—had been rendered rare by the local government’s laws of prohibition/abstinence.

On this trip, I was accompanied by, at certain times, children—some belonging to friends, some to people I did not know. Brought along by parents keen, probably, to inculcate an appreciation of art early on, children react to it differently than adults—with less pretension and more honesty. The Sea of Pain, for example, inspired one child to ask her mother, “Can we go back to the hotel and into the swimming pool?"

Another one shared my concerns over the pyramid—connecting key words like hot sun, dry cow dung, combustible and biofuel to come up with a morbid picture.

Did I appreciate the art? In most parts, yes, but as mentioned earlier, I am a cynic with little understanding of the finer things in life—except malt.

Some pieces were astounding, in particular Abir Karmarkar’s Home 2016, a “photorealistic installation of domestic interiors" at Kashi Art Gallery and Avinash Veeraraghavan’s After the End, a work in embroidery, at David Hall. 

Albanian Endri Dani’s series of photographs in which the artist stands under the entrances of apartment blocks to show the homogeneity of people’s lives under communist rule, T.V. Santhosh’s The Protagonist and Folklore of Justice 2016 and Alicja Kwade’s play with mirrors and reflections in Out of Ousia made the trip to TKM worth the last-minute scramble. 

I felt less intimidated by art by the end of the trip, trusting my own emotions rather than allowing the artwork’s description to dictate how I should react. Karmarkar’s work is so real that you feel like you have lived in his drawn up house; Veraraghavan’s artistry so intricate that you can’t imagine it being made; Dani’s pictures are sweet and sad while Kwade’s imagination is unreal.

But beyond my insular world, what the biennale achieves is multifaceted. It makes art accessible to everyone. All venues had a continuous stream of visitors of all kinds, including—based on arbitrary chats and observations—students, tourists, artists, at least one model, at least one architect and children. Many of the local residents had knowledgeable opinion about where to go and what to see—we visited our favourite venue TKM Warehouse encouraged by Kannan, who gave us a ride in his autorickshaw. 

The entry ticket for the festival is just Rs100, which allows you access to all venues, and entry is free on Mondays. It’s the reason nearly 500,000 people have visited this third edition of the biennale since 12 December. 

The venues are old warehouses, colonial properties, storage spaces or godowns, clubs, halls and cafes, all converted into cutesy studios. These are mostly in the neighbourhoods of Bazaar Road, Mattanacherry and old Jew Town, which allow first-time visitors a great sense of the city’s history and heritage. Some of the venues have been touched up for the biennale but retain signs of age, use, legacy and smell of spices. Most open up facing the waterfront—a charming way to refresh after an overdose of something incomprehensible.

Even when not “arting", as a friend put it, Fort Kochi offers so much more for a tourist that you walk around and not feel compelled to only participate in the biennale. The art stays with you though, through graffiti and Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec’s 88-chapter novel broken up across walls in the fort. 

The only complaint I would have is while accessing art here is easy, understanding it is made difficult. The problem comes from how displays are described: in dense, complicated and abstract use of words and language—I soon stopped reading them. I would baulk every time I saw phrases like “existential crisis", “his work oscillating between presence and absence", “distinct spaces exist next to each other but resist being perceived together".

It was perhaps the reason why a bunch of boys—who passed by as I was leaning against a wall for support after seeing the mosquito coil—told each other that “this is not for people like us". 

“Let’s just head to the beach instead," one of them said.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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