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December 24, 2016

An Art Enthusiast On Her Experience at The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016

Text by Ishrat Kanga

Why it is important for us to step out of the familiar museum or gallery spaces…

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), which is held every two years, is a wonderful counterbalance to the more commercial enterprises that are ever-present on the art scene. Grand artistic ideas are given corporeal form in various heritage properties that were once offices, homes and warehouses. Using elements from their practice and infusing them with inspiration from this culture-rich environment, artists from across the globe converge to create site-specific installations that inspire and challenge the viewer as well as offering beauty and wonder. Free from commercial concerns and the pressure of having to sell their works, a biennale gives birth to a different kind of artistic expression. That is why it is so important for us to step out of the more familiar museum or gallery spaces and view art in another context such as this. 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 endeavour.

This year, the biennale was curated by the mid-career stalwart Sudarshan Shetty and titled ‘Forming in the pupil of an eye’.  For each biennale that an artist is chosen to curate, their own artistic practice and insights inform the topic and direction that the biennale takes. This provides marked and refreshing differences, giving viewers unique and fulfilling experiences, and the motivation to return for the next biennale. Having been to every installment of KMB since its inception, it has been tremendously interesting to see how the same spaces have been transformed under a particular artist’s curatorial watch. For example, one of the large outer spaces of Aspinwall House (the main venue for the biennale) was first used by Subodh Gupta in the inaugural biennale in 2012. His large boat was a prominent feature that year and considered to be a masterpiece. Now, that same space contains one of my favourite works from this year’s biennale, Raúl Zurita’s The Sea of Pain. The poignancy of this installation could never be exactly replicated in a white cube context and have the same impact. The almost dilapidated building with a thatched roof and musty smell lent an ambiance that was otherworldly. Consisting 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 tragically washed ashore in 2015. Using the imagery and story, which haunted the world, this sea of pain makes us confront the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that words never can.

One can always talk about the market for South Asian art or write about new and upcoming artists. However, every two years when this large-scale labour of love comes together, it deserves the spotlight. I will continue to attend future biennales because the endless surprises never cease to delight and amuse. The art is made for the moment, and this is the beauty of a biennale.

Ishrat Kanga is the deputy director and specialist, modern & contemporary South Asian art at Sotheby’s.

Read our previous interview with Dia Mehta Bhupal here.
View Dia Mehta Bhupal’s photography at The Kochi-Muziris Biennale here.
Read about our top 12 picks from The Kochi-Muziris Biennale here.
Read about what you should not miss at The Kochi-Muziris Biennale here.
Read about Diya Mehta Bhupal’s ideas that flow through her work here.

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