THESE OCEANS WE BEAR AS CRUCIFIXES Kochi-Muziris Biennale/ 2016
As the Kochi-Muziris Biennale takes stock of nature’s aftermath – dusting away the cobwebs at Aspinwall House, unspooling the yarn at Cabral Yard, and contextualising the contemporary at Kashi Art Café – perhaps it’s the right time to look back at the previous edition’s most compelling narrative.
Sea of Pain/ RAÚL ZURITA | Kochi, India
If I were to use one word to describe my decade-plus existence in the Middle East, the chosen utterance would be “ephemeral”. Within an influx of expatriates and immigrants (depending on which-world country you were from), conversations on transience, identity, and exile were never too far off the table. This held especially true when some of your closest friends came with hyphenated labels: Syrian-Lebanese, Palestinian-Syrian, Lebanese-Palestinian, and so on. For an Indian submerged within Arab notions of friendship and diplomacy, the decade was an eye-opener into what it means to be of no fixed address, into what it means to yearn for the tiniest sliver of whatever constitutes “home”.
These same midnight conversations and drunken revelations came rushing back to me in a flood when the muddied, blood-soaked existence of Alan Kurdi washed ashore a beach in Turkey in 2015. Similarly lifeless bodies of his mother and brother were soon by his side. Through a mixture of fiercer reportage and recurrent media coercion, there have been frequent occasions when the world’s gaze has settled on the same image; rarely had it done so with such crushing finality. I gazed into the young boy’s soul; as did the world; as did Raúl Zurita. Only, the fabled Chilean protest poet and artist’s preoccupations were fixed on the fate of Alan’s forgotten 5-year-old brother, Galip.
On the Indian coastal town of Kochi, cemented in the heart of the globally celebrated Kochi-Muziris Biennale (soon to commence with its fourth edition, come December), Zurita’s grief and guilt, those twin devils of artistic instigation, have manifested themselves in Sea of Pain – dedicated to Galip’s memory. I arrive at Kochi through the misty veneer of distance, the hazy dissonance of conversations, and the impudent insistence of hope. In a large warehouse infiltrated by dilapidation and a curiously mildewed smell, the thatched roof is a flimsy rejoinder to an increasingly torrential downpour. The weather, it seems, is overcome by what it has witnessed.
In constructing his installation poem, Zurita has flooded the warehouse with murky, ankle-deep seawater, compelling viewers to wade through this discomforting stretch of remorse and culpability to read the words – spelt out in individual lines on consecutive blocks of canvas-filled walls. As you embark on this infinitesimal recreation of a refugee’s actual journey of desperation for an imaginary horizon, Zurita’s words scream at you with the eerie silence of ghosts: “Don’t you listen?” “Don’t you look?” “Don’t you hear me?” “Don’t you see me?” “Don’t you feel me?”
You wade on, accepting the world’s collective failure towards refugees, minorities, and immigrants onto your shoulders for this moment in time, haunted, as much by the providence of so many lost millions, as by the hushed echoes drifting through the immeasurable expanse of what Zurita has created.
This is a monumental piece of work, one whose immensity couldn’t possibly have been withstood by a museum or the predictability of a traditional spatial environment. Its poignancy lies in the process. Some drift through the expanse - unnerving in its placidity – in silence; some struggle against the water and the distance; some hesitate to get their boho-chic pyjamas and frilly gypsy skirts drenched; still others clench themselves for the emotional upheaval at hand. Very few come away unmoved.
The Biennale’s main venue – Aspinwall House – lying snug in the heart of a Fort Kochi district redolent with sweetly-scented palms and the aromatic pull of coastal life, blooms with life and laughter, even as Sea of Pain simmers in silence. Zurita’s quite literal immersion into the Syrian refugee crisis’ most enduring image culminates in a cubed wall canvas, where the story’s breadth is finally revealed to first-time visitors. While this ending may afford some closure to the homage and its narrative, it offers little respite from the suffocating desperation of the human truth.
Sea of Pain offers unambiguous proof that the 68-year-old Zurita, recipient of Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2000 and founder of the rabble-rousing CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte), remains as furious with the world as ever, despite a crippling battle with Parkinson’s. “I’m not his father, but Galip Kurdi is my son”, his anger reverberates.
As I reminisce on Sea of Pain, it’s impossible not to frame it within the devastation that the people of Kerala have had to withstand this monsoon. The figures surrounding the Kerala floods only compel silence and the tonality of prayers uttered in anguish: over 350 dead, 1,500 relief camps, thousands of people rendered homeless, and a trail of destruction across the state’s forests and wildlife.
But the manner in which the armed forces, NGOs, charity organisations, medical teams, the people of this land, and the state itself have rallied has been an inspiration. The Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund alone stands at close to 750 crores. The rains are abating. Slowly, Kerala will rise. In battling its own ‘Sea of Pain’, humanity has exhibited a desire to awake.
In this atmosphere, art, the Biennale, and this essay almost stand moot and irrelevant. But if the thought persists that art has a place in healing and that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale remains a pertinent reminder of just how Kerala can triumph, then it stands to reason that all these elements ought to not just live, but thrive.
Perhaps the forthcoming edition of the Biennale will witness something just as fierce as Zurita’s work, perhaps it won’t. Maybe art, politics, and the social fabric of the human condition will manifest themselves in similarly unexpected ways, maybe they won’t. I still intend to be there though, arms raised, eyes open, heart beating wild.
If nature wasn’t enough, the storm of the Me Too movement has swamped the Biennale as well. Earlier this year, an anonymously-run Instagram account – Scene and Herd – levelled allegations against a member of the managerial team. To its credit, the Kochi Biennale Foundation was quick to constitute a five-member Internal Complaints Committee to investigate the allegations. Biennale co-founder and secretary Riyas Komu has stepped down from his managerial role, until the committee can come to some manner of conclusion. All of which leaves us with ripe ground for revolution.
I’ll be hoping for an artist to chart contemporary geopolitics and its shifting frequencies with the accuracy of a cartographer. I’ll be hoping that the artistic choir has more women’s voices leading the charge, their fables and their triumphs serving as the heartbeat to every chorus. I’ll be hoping that the wounds of fascism, migration, violence, and dwindling liberties that inflict this land and the world at large will be treated with the old-fashioned panaceas of kindness, gentleness, and yes, anger.
In the 2016 edition of the Biennale, themed Forming in the Pupil of an Eye, Zurita’s creation was a reminder that even global tragedies often have deeply personal geneses. For the forthcoming edition and given what has just transpired in Kerala, I’ll be hoping that hope, often an elusive little devil, reveals itself to be the most crucial genesis of all.