Anne Samat’s totemic installation Cannot Be Broken, Won’t Live Unspoken, is a personal deity painstakingly inter-woven with everyday objects like rakes, swords, keychains and toy soldiers.
When I reached the fifth edition of the Kochi Biennale together with a group of friends, I was feeling tired and burnt out. It didn’t feel like the year had just begun.
The theme of this year’s show is ‘Through Our Veins Run Fire & Ink’ and curator Shubigi Rao, a Singapore-based artist, has imagined it as ‘a bulwark against despair.’ Nevertheless, her curatorial lens seemed dark and sombre – not surprising given that we have stepped from a pandemic into a war, and are in the middle of a climate crisis and global recession.
From the installation of a Rajasthani village devastated by floods resulting from an ill-conceived dam, to the graphic image of a worker’s foot ravaged and peeling, to photographs of manual scavengers and documentation of female genocide, the artists have used words, visuals, poetry, film and music to draw you into their worlds of pain. Of course, there were several optimistic, lyrical pieces, but these seemed few and far between. Half an hour in, I was feeling like I had made a mistake – this was not what I needed in my current frame of mind.
I am far from an expert on art and this story is not about the merit of the exhibits anyway. But as I continued to walk through the venues of the Biennale, my mood started to lift. It was impossible not to be moved or inspired. Here were artists across the world, using vastly different mediums, creating similarly cogent portraits of the challenges of our time. Maybe there were more questions than answers, but surely if enough people ask the right questions, we will collectively stumble towards the solutions? Is it not infinitely better to poke and prod and feel pain, than to be numb?
Perhaps Jitesh Kallat’s seminal installation, ‘Covering Letter’, summed up the precarious balance of our world best. It is anchored around a brief letter sent by Gandhi to Adolf Hitler a few weeks before the Second World War, beseeching him to reconsider the invasion of Poland. The words scroll in a loop from a large screen onto the floor, so the viewer can walk amongst them. The room is dark and a grey fog swirls around the exhibit. This letter, from the greatest advocate of non-violence to one of the most violent men who ever lived, represents the spectrum of choices that humans are capable of.
Kochi Biennale is also unique because it stands apart from the typical logo-infested, corporate art events. This is an inclusive community initiative and one of things that delighted me most was to see people of all ages and backgrounds thronging the venues. There is little evidence of the snobbery that plagues much of the art world. “How,” demanded a young girl standing in front of two trunks from the 1947 partition, “Is this art? It’s just two boxes.” I lingered to hear a volunteer step in to explain the emotions of the families who had preserved the trunks for so many decades.
We discussed that eternal question in the evening over a well-deserved drink. What is art and who decides what is good and bad art? Of course, there was much debate and no agreement. For me, the answer was becoming clearer – by allowing unfettered self-expression, by evoking emotion and moving us in a way that ordinary objects cannot, art keeps the light of our hopes alive.
You can read all about the Kochi Biennale here. Do plan a visit.