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Art Biennale

Art gets a back-rub

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BULLET TO RIDE: Clifford Charles paints his bike at the show

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale may be ridden with chaos and controversy, but it's also got some excellent art

India's first big art biennale, which opened in December, is at its peak right now. Unprecedented crowds of visitors - local, national and international - have shown up to view the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012, drawn as much by the storm of controversy and Kerala's beauty as by the fine art on display.

Curated by two prominent Mumbai Malayali artists - Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu - the threemonth extravaganza has been billed as a global event with links to Kochi's historic status as a cultural and commercial hub. But it has been beset with troubles from the start. When the ninety-odd artists from over 23 different nations arrived, they needed workers to help them quickly set up their complex artistic gear and art installations, several of which needed hi-tech inputs. They found themselves confronted by the highly unionised work ethic of Kerala's labour force. There was also the small matter of several different venues, 60 by some counts, several of them in the most dilapidated of warehouses, derelict backyards and overgrown jungles. Finally, the local Kerala artists began to feel that they were being passed over. "Is it our Biennale or theirs?" howled the supporters of the traditional Kerala artists. Some of them doused exhibits with cans of paint. Graffiti on the walls read: "We pay. They benefit. "

Despite all these drawbacks, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has been successful. It does happen to be God's Own Country, a tourist destination to die for. The funds for an artistic event on this scale had already been allocated by the previous government. And though Michelangelo Bendandi, the director of communications said they are still short of the promised amount and have had to make do by charging visitors a small fee (Rs 50/- per adult), there has been plenty of government support. The chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, inaugurated the event. Obviously, the Kerala Tourism board realised that Kerala needed something different to ginger up its traditional offering of backwaters, banana chips and back-rubs, so why not a Biennale?

"It's been the most well-attended Biennale, truly a people's Biennale, with an average of 150, 000 people in the first month alone and there have been repeat visits, " exults Bendandi, a UK citizen who travelled around India as a child, when his parents lived here with their family of nine children. So, presumably, he's used to the chaos.

Besides, as he went on to explain, the site itself, was a huge attraction. The vast Aspinwall estates (now owned by the DLF Group) that line the edges of the Cochin Harbor next to the famous Chinese fishing nets have always been out of bounds to the public. The colonial-era buildings with their gigantic halls, high ceilings, glassed verandahs, sweeping staircases, gardens, fountains and carefully aligned trees are as much a source of fascination as the strange electronic offerings hidden inside some of the rooms. For a film-savvy public, brought up on years of grainy black-and-white films by the European masters, walking down the stone steps to the water's edge must have been akin to taking part in a sequence from that old Russian classic, Battleship Potemkin.

We are sitting in a brightly sprucedup cafê at one of the sites, the Pepper House. At the far end of the inner courtyard is a huge anchor marooned tipsily at the centre. Over the entrance a sign proclaims: 'The Past Has to be Resurrected'. It would be more correct to announce: 'The Past has been Appropriated'.

Many of the artists appear to have been seduced by the siren songs of the past. Some of them like the "London-based Scott" artist Robert Montgomery have put up mall-size neon signage that speaks of the "crying songs of the people we left behind". Rigo, from Portugal has constructed a bamboo wind tunnel like a huge fishing basket that aims to catch the cries and murmurs from the past. One artist has hung out a long line of ghostly white violins in the middle of a corridor-like room. A Jewish artist, Joseph Sema from Baghdad, has re-created prototypes of the original copper plates given by the last Chera ruler, Cheruman Perumal, to the first Jewish and Christian settlers at Kochi. He's made 72 of these plates that have strings attached to them. They are placed on a long wooden table with holes in the plates that signify the stars over Jerusalem, and are accompanied by the shrill wailing of different religious sects on a video monitor.

"Has listening to the video driven you mad?" I ask the volunteer who has to watch over the copper plate installation sitting on a red plastic chair. "I get mad when people ask me whether I am mad, " he replies.

Valsan Koorma Koleri from Kerala has created a stage setting to the dead. He has meticulously laid out a crypt of corpse-like forms in what appears to be a storeroom with the debris that he has collected from the surrounding landscape. K P Regi, another artist from the home state, who now lives in Baroda, combines nostalgia with a hard-edged realism in a stunning mural at the Pepper House. It depicts the staring face of a naked man, whose body acts like a dyke, a tribute to a folk tale about a real peasant who gave up his life to save his village.

At other times, it is the scent of the past that is overpowering. At the disused warehouse called 'Moidu's' it sometimes becomes a stench of drains and decay, a putrefaction of dead ambitions that lurk behind the peeling plaster and the dank floors. It's here also that one of the most triumphant of the artistic interventions has taken place. Ernesto Neto, a well-known Brazilian artist has placed his composition as an upside-down creation, a colourful cloth hanging from the wooden roof so that it dangles like the underside of a cow, each of the four udders filled with aromatic spices. You have to climb up a steep ladder into the loft-like space so that you can fondle the udders as you inhale the intoxicating essences of cardamom and clove. Just as at another venue the visitor is enthralled by the drama of a thousand mosquito domes emitting light and scent, arranged in exactly the same sequence as the thousand lamps around the walls of the Padmanabhapuram Temple at Thiruvananthapuram. Is it supposed to be an ironic comment on the prevalence of pests, both of the winged and vocal variety in Kerala, or a moment of transcendence?

I make my own contribution to the Biennale by collecting images of the red plastic chairs that dot the landscape. I call my installation: Chairman Miaow and the Little Red Chair.

As one of the elder statesmen of the artistic fraternity of Kerala, Namboothiri, has observed, "The Biennale challenges our ways of seeing. "

After all that traipsing about, you really need a little red chair.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on until March 13

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