Home Architect Skye Arundhati Thomas at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Skye Arundhati Thomas at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

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CAMP, Bombay Tilts Down, 2022, seven channel digital video, color, sound, 13 minutes 14 seconds.  Installation view, Aspinwall House, Kochi, India.

IN THE MODERNIST IMAGINATION, a viewer’s encounter with an art object should be pure and uncluttered, free from any distractions that might interrupt the aesthetic experience. For an institution, this means erasing any sign of the contingencies – physical labor, mundane bureaucracy – that must contribute to the production of an exhibition. What would it mean for art and its viewers to shatter this illusion? What would it mean to remind the public of the invisible work of art – that of exhibit installers and designers, painters and electricians, forklift operators and audiovisual experts – and, in its in turn, to consider the ways in which labour, land and local work-class lives converge in events aimed at gallery audiences? Such questions are thrown into stark relief by the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a presentation which, though beset by delays and mired in controversy and challenges, invites a deep inquiry into the infrastructure that maintains all that is required of contemporary large-scale production. art exhibitions.

Since the Biennale’s inception twelve years ago, a complex called Aspinwall House has served as its main venue. Built in the 19th century by the British East India Company, the seaside complex includes offices, a bungalow, and even a shipyard. For several years, the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board, a fund that operates under the aegis of the Kerala government, has sought to buy the site, which is currently co-owned by New Delhi-based developer DLF with the aim of transforming the complex into a permanent home for cultural events. In July 2022, these long-term negotiations have come to a standstill. The Biennale team (led by Singapore-based artist and writer Shubigi Rao) only gained access to Aspinwall House in early November, just over a month before the show opened, where they discovered almost total ruin. The overgrowth had broken the walls and the rain had soaked the roofs. The rooms had been flooded and were covered in mold. The interior had last been used for a South Indian horror film, and remnants of filming littered the stage, including a life-size replica of a velociraptor skeleton still dangling from the ceiling, plastic bones tinkling in the breeze. The Biennale team has learned, over the years, to expect a certain disarray before each edition, but this was of a different order.

Just when repairs were due to begin, negotiations with DLF stalled a second time and the developer locked the doors again. Finally, it was not until December that the Biennale team was able to begin its work, less than two weeks before the planned opening of the show. The halls of the place still had to be whitewashed, dried out and, in part, rebuilt. The compound lacked consistent power and required extensive rewiring.

Aspinwall House, Kochi, India, 2022.

It was not the only crisis. Kochi Biennale Foundation Founder Bose Krishnamachari said The week that the organization had started this edition with a debt of 4.9 crores of rupees, or about 600,000 dollars. Then an additional key appeared in the works: new customs regulations held back the works of art at the border. From 2021, an importer of a foreign artwork in India must guarantee 25-30% of its cost, an amount which is only refunded once the object is returned. According to Krishnamachari, this totaled $550,500, requiring additional loans. As the opening date approached, many works remained locked up in warehouses.

Bureaucracy, Krishnamachari said, “can kill your energy”, and by early December the Biennale team was operating on its last reserves. At 3 p.m. the day before the opening, the foundation summoned all the participating artists present in Kochi for an emergency meeting. The decision was made to postpone the opening – news that many visitors did not receive until their planes landed on the tarmac in Kerala. Meanwhile, the third and most intense storm of the 2022 hurricane season, Cyclone Mandous, arrived from Tamil Nadu. Visitors, stranded in the city with no sights to see, lamented mud, wet shoes and damp weather, compounded by poor Wi-Fi. Participating artists penned an open letter: They would support the curatorial team while requiring a review of the structure of the foundation and its procedures for designing and mounting exhibits. The foundation requested an additional $370,000 loan from the Kerala government.

Finally, on December 23, the show began. Rao and Krishnamachari raised a flag and thanked the participants and the conservation team.

If previous editions of the KMB seemed ambitious or celebratory, Rao’s approach is more sedate.

I SAW THE EXHIBITION two weeks later, early January. By then Aspinwall House was freshly painted and fully installed, its courtyards buzzing with visitors – students, tourists, locals. Despite the whirlwind of bad press that preceded the opening, the show itself is thoughtful and understated. If previous editions of the Biennale seemed ambitious or celebratory – poetry and artwork spilled onto the streets during Sudarshan Shetty’s 2016 edition – Rao’s approach is more sedate. She has a keen interest in slow and meditative practices, which stem from artists’ mastery of history. Welcoming the eighty-seven attendees spread across four sites (Cabral Yard, Pepper House and Anand Warehouse, in addition to Aspinwall House), visitors found an emphasis on film and archival research and a strong presence of those whose work engages the stories of the Indian Ocean.

At Thao Nguyen-Phan First Rain, Sun Breeze, 2021–, is a good example. The initial work on display at Aspinwall House, the approximately sixteen minute video fits perfectly into a single room alongside the artist’s watercolor and acrylic paintings on silk. Nguyen-Phan sensitively alternates shots of the banks of the Mekong, which meanders 2,700 miles from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, with images of the modernist Preah Suramarit National Theater in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The connection between these scenes is charged: Built in 1968, when the country was on the brink of independence, the theater features latticework glazing derived from traditional Khmer architecture – an effort to codify a postcolonial “national” style. At the time, however, this architecture was disappearing, thanks to the encroachment of sand mining along the Mekong, which displaced the Khmers living on its banks, many of whom, in turn, worked as workers in the construction of the theatre. Modernism had easily crept into the postcolonial consciousness of many nation states. It becomes dominant, its austerity crystallizing the aim of many decolonial projects: to found new nations on the ruins of empires bruised by violence. Yet new violence has occurred in turn, and Nguyen-Phan’s meditative film, drawing connections between work and nation-building, underscores the ironies and tragedies of progress.

Treibor Mawlong, The Transformer, 2022, woodcut, 14 1⁄8 × 18 1⁄8".

Nguyen-Phan’s work sets the tone for a show whose most powerful moments of critical inflection emerge in its handling of labor, land, money, and working-class life. The 2022 woodcuts by Meghalaya artist Treibor Mawlong, also at Aspinwall House, depict scenes from Mawbri, a village on the Indian border with Bangladesh that is inhabited by just over fifty families. In these images, the villagers work in various ways. They work in plantations that roll down steep slopes, planting betel and bay leaves, areca nuts, oranges and long peppers. They felled trees in dark shady groves, breaking their sturdy trunks. They sort vegetables and cook (Mawlong does not treat housework any differently than any other kind of work). The artist’s chiaroscuro brings intimacy to the woodcuts despite the scale of what they represent. Generations have plowed the same lands and built their lives on the same plateaus. Their work, their labor, is like a shared oral history, a heritage.

The idea of ​​oral history and legacy surfaces elsewhere in the exhibition, most directly in Goan artist Sahil Naik’s raw installation depicting a submerged village, Everything is water and to the water we must return2021-2022, and in the beautifully intimate family portrait of Tenzing Dakpa Reports, 2019. Yet it is the voice – the voice of the working class, in particular – that is perhaps clearest throughout. CAMP’s studio based in Mumbai Bombay bows, 2022, consists of a display of six video screens, each giving a separate view of a CCTV camera placed atop a thirty-five-storey building in south-central Mumbai. Slowly, the camera lowers its lens, shifting its cold gaze from the rainy, misty city skies to the thundering Arabian Sea. In the voice-over that accompanies the footage, working-class poets express their displeasure with hard-hitting humour: This is a city “of nylon, georgette, and hand-spun sprees”, says one, “of a pair of shoes and a pile of books. . . but it breeds unreal crooks! As the camera moves we see flashes of neon helmets and hi-vis vests, reams of blue tarps, fabrics stretched on hot cement roofs that shimmer silver in the midday light . “From bricks we made palaces that now touch the sky…we gave them pleasure and peace,” the song continues, “but our dwelling still remains in question; bamboo and tin are expensive.

No work can be dissociated from the circumstances in which it is shown, and especially not from the crisis context of this Biennale. Yet, as Rao writes in his curatorial note, “a biennale can be much more than just an accumulation of fortuitous collisions”. This is the case of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, whose number of visitors increases with each edition, and whose attendance includes not only those who frequent the circuit of contemporary art but also the general public. The Biennale is a unique thread in the cultural landscape of the Indian subcontinent, and revelations of its precarious situation only underscore how necessary it is for its constituents to come together to ensure its survival.

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer and editor based in Goa, India.

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