In a year defined by controversies surrounding large-scale exhibitions, first at the Berlin Biennale and then at Documenta 15, India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) offers a ray of hope. Nurtured for four years by Singapore-based artist Shubigi Rao, the fifth edition of the Biennale, titled “In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire,” is finally opening its doors on December 23 after being postponed twice due to Covid-19 and then again just two weeks ago due to “organizational challenges.”
The latest delay, announced hours before the exhibition was set to open, led to palpable disappointment amongst artists and curators who flew in for the event. However, now, Rao’s exhibition is finally opening.
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The delays didn’t seem to dampen Rao’s spirit. Instead, she adapted and re-adapted her strategy with each Covid curveball. Her initial curatorial concept, first drafted in 2020, focused on how collective knowledge can foster joy, and it has remained largely unchanged since then.
“The pandemic only exacerbated issues and revealed hypocrisies the project hoped to consider,” Rao said in an interview. “Restrictions on the ability to congregate and on cultural common activity lay bare the fragility of social contracts. But, unfortunately, nation states used these seemingly neutral laws to silence protests worldwide.”
Rao’s exhibition initially placed a larger emphasis on satire and humor before the pandemic caused artists to go in a different direction. Now, her show focuses a lot more on sound, which she posits as a language in its own right.
Peruvian artist Claudia Martinez Garay’s video animation and sound installation Ayataki (2022) unfolds as a lamentation in the wake of the Peruvian Civil War, which took place between the 1980s and early 2000s. The video is both a personal remembrance and a collective one for the civilians caught in the crossfires between the military and the Maoist guerilla group Shining Path. Subtle folk songs played by the artist on the synthesizer are interspersed with found sound clippings of Indigenous Andean people.
For Martinez Garay, the effect of sound in her video art is as essential as the visuals. “Sound,” she said, “touches you in a way you cannot verbalize. There are so many things that music can make you feel; it almost makes it unnecessary to speak.” The digital soundscape is the artist’s way of claiming a part of history, which she described as being continually reconfigured by who’s in power, “leaving Indigenous people always in the wrong, and always in the midst of conflict.”
In Amol K Patil’s work, songs are used as a form of resistance. An interest in labor and inequality has informed his past work, which appeared at Documenta 15 this summer. At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a part of Patil’s project will build on that Documenta work with another examination of Powada singers, the poet-musicians of India’s Maharashtra state who navigated Dalit resistance and persevered through a vibrant performing culture. For this project, he will work with a cacophony of sounds in the room at Aspinwall House, one of the exhibition venues, alongside kinetic works and video installations.
Visceral vibrations will also come courtesy of a Haegue Yang work called Sonic Droplets – Steel Buds (2022), consisting of over 100,000 bells and commissioned especially for the biennial. In over a decade of working with sonic sculptures and specifically with bells, the artist maintains a consistent interest in unfolding the different, often divergent, meanings tied to sound. Yang plans to transform the room at Aspinwall House by creating five curtains that the visitor will have to navigate through, causing lasting reverberations that will be heard around the space. The divisions will cause viewers to walk through the installation in circles, lending the work a ritualistic quality.
Participants in the biennial spoke of wanting to ask questions about the nation-state and interconnected cartographies.
Khin, a Myanmar-based photographer, will show haunting, large-scale images taken in the fortified city of Naypyidaw, the military-built capital of the country. Khin took these images in late 2019, a year before the coup d’état that began in Myanmar in February 2021. Titled “Soulless City,” this series of photos examines the emptiness of the prominent architectural structures in Naypyidaw, which was designated the new seat of power by a general in 2005, and which houses state buildings like the Supreme Court, House of Parliament, and official residences.
While capturing the city, Khin could not shake off an uneasy feeling. “I always wondered what was being deliberated inside those compounds,” she said. “The Military is never transparent about their plans, not even with the government.” After the coup in February 2021, Khin’s fears became true. Now, her ghostly images feel like prophecies. In an equally quiet and self-reflective manner, Seher Shah has penned a group of short poems and notes against a backdrop of brutal nationalism and pervasive surveillance in Delhi. Notes from a City Unknown (2021) takes us through Shah’s meandering thoughts as a series of events unfold in the city, from the riots that shook Delhi in February 2020 to the protests at Shaheen Bagh between 2019 to 2020. The artist will present 32 cards, each pairing screenprints of monochromatic geometric compositions resembling architectural forms with an excerpt of poetry, creating bonds between language and form.
In a slightly different mode, Uriel Orlow will contemplate ways of joining disparate geographies through networks of nature and weather. Developed over two years in collaboration with the Swiss National Park in Engadine, Switzerland, Up Up Up (2021) looks at the exponential increase in plant species in the summits of the Swiss Alps due to climate change. Orlow increased this project’s scope for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale by starting similar research around the Himalayas. Unsurprisingly, he found that the same thing was happening. The artist will present a two-channel video and drawings created in the Alps, along with visual depictions that mark the temperature change in the Himalayas from 1901 to today, in a 98-foot-long corridor at Aspinwall House.
The same artworks tend to circulate between a discrete set of international biennials, and visitors to many of these big shows often wind up feeling jaded. Rao is hoping to avoid this with her Kochi-Muziris Biennale by envisioning it as what she calls a “commons,” or a porous space where one can have disagreements about what biennials mean while also embracing plurality. Through her selection of artists, she aims to create an even playing field where marginalized voices find meaning with one another when all other avenues are suppressed.
Although Rao’s biennial features some usual suspects (Orlow, Yang, Cecilia Vicuña, Forensic Architecture, Slavs and Tatars, and other biennial regulars made the artist list.), she has made a significant attempt to highlight artists that typically get overlooked, especially women from the Global South. Perhaps, after all, the show will be successful in employing song, satire, and humor to tell new stories. Sight unseen, it’s hard to say, although Rao seemed to embrace whatever reactions end up emerging.
“When you release something into the wild, it has a life and imagination of its own,” she said. “I’m okay with that. And I know that I don’t have ownership over this, and I should not have ownership over this. I’m merely a very valuable spokesperson, that’s all.”