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Kochi vs. Venice Biennale

Updated: Dec 6, 2017

Which global art exhibition fared better? I pitted the youngest Biennale in the world against the oldest, just 'coz I happened to have attended both in 2017.

The end of November ‘17 brought the curtains down on the Venice Biennale.

In January this year, when I first heard the word ‘Biennale’, I went 'What's that?'. So, 2017 has been a remarkable discovery of what a Biennale is, how to pronounce this rather Indian sounding word, being mostly disinterested in experiencing it, by a sheer stroke of luck, attending two glorious Biennales back to back, and, now, finding myself sufficiently experienced to pass a verdict on the two.

Biennale is a global art phenomenon. The Olympics of art, so to say; Elaborate 6-month long art exhibitions, conducted in creatively conducive cities around the world, bi-annually. Now, slap those last two words together and work out why the exhibition is called what it’s called. Easy, no?

The tough part is the pronunciation. Many a coffee have endured the debate with friends. My introduction was from a South Indian friend who was going to “Be-nna-le” in Kochi. I immediately had a localized image of the event. Of course, an exhibition for the very artistically inclined Malayalis wanting to channel their talent and draw fellow Mallus from nearby states into the celebration. I stumbled upon multiple pronunciations before stumbling into Kochi. And while I was still working on ‘Biennale’, a ‘Muziris’ was thrown into its name for further turmoil - Kochi Muziris Biennale.

But only when I touched the shores of Venice, did I discover that the word was born in Italy and the hot daddies of the language rested the debate for me. It’s Be-ya-na-leh! Perido.

As I browsed through the massive pavilions in Giardini, Venice, a more relevant debate sparked off in my head.

Who is faring better? The 3rd edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale? Or the 57th edition of La Biennale di Venezia that started in 1897?

Kochi Muziris Biennale is probably the only Biennale in the world in a location that doesn’t exist. Muziris is a legendary lost port that historians and archeologists are still attempting to plot back on the map. And that sets the tone for the imaginativeness transcending the exhibition. The narrow, cozy streets of the seaside Fort Kochi beg you to navigate aimlessly, to chance upon forts, heritage homes, abandoned warehouses and modern cafés to reflect in. And in them were unleashed, for 6 months, the most enthusiastic ideas in contemporary art.

Cut to the glories of Venetian architecture softly reflecting on the waters of the Grand Canal. Gondolas gently breaking the reflection to the live soundtrack of romantic songs. A sprinkling of genuine renaissance masterpieces, outlandish, bold fashion and blushing sunsets that turn even normal people into ruminating artists. Venice, a city that itself is a work of art. Now, imagine this as the canvas for eager artists to display their wares. Welcome to La Biennale di Venezia. No pressure!

The venues leveled up. But entering them threw up a rather vast gap between the east and the west. Entrance ticket to Kochi Biennale was Rs.100 [€1.30/$1.60] for single entry into Aspinwall House, the main venue as well as the other 11 venues, over 3 days. Guided tours inside Aspinwall were free, twice in the day. The regular tickets at Venice Biennale were €25 for the 2 main venues, Giardini and Arsenale. And, a 48hr ticket, which is what is it worth the while, was €30. Guided tours for both venues together were €10. I was feeling a little dizzy even before I saw any art.

At both venues, the art itself, swept me off my feet.

A wax sculpture melting and moulding from the body heat of visitors. Exiled, expired poets whispering in your ears in a pyramid, that grows increasingly claustrophobic. Vibrating, chanting benches, inviting you to sit and face the calm Arabian sea. Woman rowing a boat with a mop to reveals gender biases. A room made entirely with formal ties. Musical instruments suspended in symphony and playing in harmony. Dead people posing as fashion models. A wooden sound studio inviting new creations every day.

I was plucked out of my 2-dimensional art world and thrown into a contemporary space of experiential art.

Don’t just stand there and stare at pieces hanging off a wall, it told me. Immerse in it. Be a co-creator even, to make the piece unique for yourself!

My art sensibilities matured in just 3 days at Kochi Biennale. And, heightened at Venice.

Venice underlined current world issues of migration crisis, identity politics, populism and an uncertain future. Country pavilions were reminding us that the world needs attention. I was moved to a sense of urgency. But many an expression seemed like art for art’s sake. An overstated effort to be understated that often left me cold and wanting.

At Kochi Biennale, the more art I excavated, the more I was rewarded. It presented itself to me with a certain earthiness. The air of an underdog with no benchmark to break.

The truth and genuineness of the expressions at Kochi Biennale overwhelmed me and stole my vote.

I'd like to sign off my illuminating 2017 by sharing my 6 favorites pieces from both the Biennales that have shattered my boundaries of imagination and medium forever.




Venue: Ca’ Sagredo Hotel, La Biennale di Venezia | Creator: Lorenzo Quinn | Category: Installation | Country: Italy

A pair of gigantic hands rising from the water to support the sides of the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel, a visual statement of the impact of climate change and rising sea levels on the historic city. The most viewed piece at the Venice Biennale as every tourist, even those unaware of Biennale, cruised past it on the Grand Canal.

This monumental sculpture swept me off my feet when I was barely stepping into the city. Or, rather, the continent.



Venue: Palazzo Loredan, La Biennale di Venezia | Creator: Jose Eduardo Yaque | Category: Installation | Country: Cuba

4000 bottles on display in the bookshelves of Palace Loredan’s library, filled with flora specimens from Cuba. As it was outside the main Giardini-Arsenale venue circuit, it was not on the tick-off list for many.

To me, the conversion of this classic palace into an apothecary archive seemed to have a golden, healing magic.



Venue: Everywhere, Kochi Muziris Biennale | Creator: Sergio Chejfec | Category: Installation | Country: Argentina

88 chapters of a novel that unfold not only through the pavilions but also on street walls and flyers. This was the most ubiquitous piece at Kochi Biennale that had fragments of Chejfec’s book, 'Baroni: A Journey'.

I was informed that every piece is complete as a fragment and also when stitched together.



Venue: Aspinwall House, Kochi Muziris Biennale | Creator: Raúl Zurita | Category: Experiential space, Installation | Country: Chile

Walk through water in a dark and musty 200 meter stretch, reading cries of help on the wall high above, increasingly desperate the further you wade. At the end, you come face to face with the disturbing image of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi. The poet, Zurita, however, focuses his attention on Galip, Kurdi’s five-year-old brother, whose death went unnoticed.

I was so overcome with guilt that I felt I was struggling through a sea of tears of refugees.



Venue: Giardini, La Biennale di Venezia| Creator: Anne Imhof | Category: Performances and installation | Country: Germany

Wasted-looking youths perform a kind of tortuous, writhing ballet, as a hypnotic, vocal score resounds through the exhibition spaces; All through a plate-glass floor beneath your feet. With a couple of dangerous-looking dogs also lurking among them, it was an extensive vision of the world as a kennel.

I was impressed with the elaborate, lateral execution that unfolded differently over minutes, hours and 6 months.



Venue: Aspinwall House, Kochi Muziris Biennale | Creators: Christer Lundahl & Martina Seitl | Category: Live events and performances | Country: Sweden | Duration: 20 min

Two people at a time are blindfolded, given headphones, and then invited to have a private dream in a public space. You are seduced by the gentle voice in your ear, and by the hands of ethereal guides that flutter around you like birds. During the experience, you find yourself freed from the physical limitations of time and space. You pass through walls, and down tunnels traveling through a network of exhibits around you. Through layers of real and imaginary architecture.

What boggled me about this piece is that it exists only in the head of the visitor. By far, the best expression of art I have ‘seen’ yet.

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