Indian & Himalayan Art

A Poignant Installation is Kochi-Muziris Biennale Highlight

By Ishrat Kanga

Sotheby’s Indian and South Asian Art specialist Ishrat Kanga recounts her recent trip to a rain-soaked Kochi-Muziris Biennale and reveals her poignant highlight.

I have just returned from attending the third installment of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India, curated by the mid-career stalwart Sudarshan Shetty and very coyly titled Forming in the pupil of an eye.

From running out of funding and almost cancelling its second edition, it is both empowering and reassuring to know that there are still devout patrons and regular supporters from the South Asian Art community who believe in non-profit artistic production and the benefits of such an endeavor.

After opening its gates on the afternoon of 12 December, I ventured into Aspinwall House [the main venue for the biennale] first thing the following morning. A short while later, an uncharacteristic and almost absurd torrential downpour hit the Fort Kochi area and lasted so long that I remained trapped in one block and ended up visiting each artist’s room thrice!


Eventually, I just walked out into the downpour as I was impatient to view the rest and noticed a lot of people had the same thought. Buckets of rain were not going to stop the determined art lovers visiting from all over the globe trudging through the mud and braving the elements to see wondrous installations conceived and produced so thoughtfully in this historical and quirky venue.

In a nod to the diversity of Sudarshan Shetty’s artistic practice, this year there was a stronger emphasis on performance which was a notable change and refreshing feature to this third installment.

One of my favorite works however was not a performance. It was Raúl Zurita’s Sea of Pain. Not because the installation was a conversation piece and a crowd pleaser but because the poignancy of the work could never ever be exactly replicated in a museum or white cube context and have the same impact. The almost dilapidated building with a thatched roof and musty smell lended an ambiance that is otherworldly.

Consisting of a large body of dark but shallow seawater that one needed to walk through, while text-filled canvases adorned the walls, this work recalls the three year old boy - Galip Kurdi - whose body was tragically washed ashore in 2015. Using the imagery and story which haunted the world, this sad sea of pain makes us confront the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis and the obstacles across their path in a way that words never can. There is a vast array of possibilities that can be turned into reality when commercial and spatial restrictions are removed from the equation and this is the beauty of a biennale.


Another work that had me lost for words was G.R. Iranna’s Garbh. Tucked away in a non-descript room, this artwork is not to be missed. I would encourage visitors to actively seek it out. A giant egg shaped sculpture made up of Vibhuti or holy ash, placed into a small room with hardly any space to manoeuvre around it, the sculpture recalls different connotations for different people. Its slate grey colour and uneven textural surface reminded me of the moon and I felt transported to another world. The egg shape representing the womb and beginnings of life, is made up of ashes, akin to the material that remains after bodies are cremated, thus denoting both birth and death in a unifying yet contradictory manner. Many meanings can be drawn from this work depending on the viewer’s background, past experiences and memories. It is completely open to interpretation.

Set amidst the charming cultural region of Fort Kochi, the biennale has a relaxed and bohemian vibe. People go to the opening to experience the majestic installations and grand artworks but they also congregate to meet fellow friends from the South Asian art world, who make the journey from all corners of the globe, and take some time out to relax and partake in the exquisite South Indian cuisine. I have been to every single biennale since its inception and as long they keep occurring, I will keep going because the endless surprises never cease to delight and amuse.

There is a vast array of possibilities that can be turned into reality when commercial and spatial restrictions are removed from the equation. If the artists can dream it, people will build it and that is when the magic happens. No thought is given to whether the works are saleable, whether clients will want to buy them or even what to do with them once the biennale closes. The art is made for the moment, and this is the beauty of a biennale.

Find out more about the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale 

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