The third edition of the Kochi Biennale is drawing to a close — the curtains go down on 29 March. This year’s event, as usual, attracted visitors and participants from across the world. Artists from around 31 countries were part of the grand show. Earlier this month, when I visited Kochi for a short trip, I wanted to experience first hand what lies behind the success of India’s most cosmopolitan and well-attended art event.

The ongoing edition of the Biennale is titled “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye”, and here the visions arise from multiple perspectives. Sudarshan Shetty, curator the show says, “Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) attempts to gather multiple positions. Selecting from and bringing together a multiplicity of disparate sources of material, the artists gather and layer all the complexity of the world into their representations of it. It attempts to level differences between what is an assumed immediate experience with that of multiple other consciousness, of myriad parallel worlds, of manifold physical simulations, retold together within these pages and within the spaces of the Biennale.”

From this fabric of multiplicity one particular theme sticks out: of migration and exile.

Many of us would remember the image that became synonymous with the Syrian refugee crisis — a boy, Alan Kurdi, lying dead face down on a Turkish beach, wearing red shirt and blue shorts. Sea of Pain by Chilean poet and artist Raul Zurita is a work dedicated to Galip, the brother. The world remembers Alan Kurdi but not necessarily his family. Galip and his mother also died the same day in Mediterranean Sea.

In this poetry installation work dedicated to Galip, Zurita has filled a huge storehouse at Aspinwall House in Kochi with water. As you walk in the knee-high cold water to read a poem at the far end of the store house, you understand that the artwork attempts to initiate a dialogue between the poet and the people. One passage in the poem reads, “I am not his father/There are no photographs of Galip Kurdi, he can’t hear, he can’t see, he can’t feel, and the silence comes down like immense white cloths/ Below the silence you can make out a piece of sea, of the Sea of Pain/ I am not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son.”

Here Zurita imagines himself as a father to the dead child. On one wall of the storehouse there are questions for the visitors — “ Don’t you listen?”, “ Don’t you hear me?”, “Don’t you feel me?” — as a repeated call to action.

“Every person made to disappear, tortured, or killed represents the failure of all mankind. We don’t have great democratic values. You can’t be a democracy if you don’t care for the young, the vulnerable, minorities, the marginalised,” said the 66-year-old Zurita, who believes that “it is the responsibility of poets or artists to change this”. Sea of Pain was the first of this year’s works to be selected for the KMB.

Pyramid of Exiled Poets, by the Slovenian artist and litterateur Aleš Šteger, is a pyramid structure built from wood, matting, mud and dung. As you walk inside the dark alleyway of the pyramid you hear the voices of poets cast out from their society. Steger says, “There is a recurring trend across and over civilisations where writers and poets are cast out of their homelands and have had their histories erased. This is both my monument to the histories kept hidden from us and an overturning of the status quo that builds memorials to tyrants. These are the vocal remains and testimonies of Ovid, Dante Alighieri, Bertolt Brecht, Czesław Miłosz, Mahmoud Darwish, Yang Lian, Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Blatný and César Vallejo.”

Here the artist has created a whole new world for those who were hounded out of their country. The voices you hear have a ring of poignancy  to them.  “There is an existential power behind this trend that someone has to go out of the territory where his or her language is spoken and being able to write for no one. I wanted to capture the helplessness someone in that situation feels so that when the visitor leaves this space, it is as though they have been reborn,” Steger says.

One other work that comes close to Sea of Pain is Refuge by Australian artist Alex Seton. Seton has created a marble sculpture draped in a blanket-like material. The draped figure is absent, and what you see inside the blanket is a hollow space. It represents the crisis of asylum seekers. The work also points at the often fatal journeys a migrant has to undertake to seek refuge. The work is presented at the TKM Warehouse in Mattancherry, Kochi.

Seton says, “The term ‘refugee’ has a negative connotation today and it should not, because asylum seekers, migration and displacement have been constants throughout human history. We could all have been refugees but for circumstance.”

Another artwork depicting longing for home is The Revelation Project by artist Salman Toor and exiled poet Hasan Mujtaba. Both Toor and Mujtaba live in New York. Their collaborative artwork includes a poem by Mujtaba and paintings by Toor. The poem titled, For Allen Ginberg, is the source-material from which Toor created his paintings. The poem describes his nostalgia and melonchaly of being an exile. Toor, through his art, creates a space between fantasy and memory. He has layered and juxtaposed scenes from New York with Pakistani imagery.

Toor says, “I decided to make a panoramic painting with Mujtaba’s recorded voice narrating the poem to me. My composition would be entirely unplanned, figurative. I added multilingual text, at times gibberish, to the painting. I wanted the imagery to be led by his lament of being an outsider in multiple worlds, on the disruption of the rigidly of religious and cultural rituals that divide, and the illusive nature of the divine.”


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