Artists at the recent Colombo Art Biennale 2012 approached the theme of ‘Becoming' from vastly differing directions, analysing the process of transition. Shruthi Mathews

There should be a drinking game for biennales: Every time someone mentions Duchamp's urinal, drink. Or not. The consequences could be messyReferences to the world's favourite toilet aside, what is a biennale? Logistically speaking, it's a large event that takes place biennially — ergo, biennale — artistically speaking, it's a large event featuring art, performances, talks, curated walks — and a lot of other arty activities. A biennale is not, as I discovered, a set of artists and activities lumped together to contrive a social event that appeals both socialites and supposed intellectuals. The theme matters. In fact, it's what really ties a biennale together — giving it the theoretical and critical click that makes it more than just another event you might idly glance at on the society pages. For the Colombo Art Biennale 2012 (CAB), works were produced under the theme “Becoming”. Colombo's first biennale — “Imagining Peace” — addressed the immediate issues facing post-conflict Sri Lanka. Following the conclusion of the country's 26-year civil war, artists were presented with the challenge of looking beyond the euphoria of victory to confront the complexities embedded in conceptualising peace. The 2012 theme “Becoming” maintains its roots in the changing cultural and social geography of a nation still nursing the wounds of war, analysing the very processes of change and transition and honing in on a liminal space of “becoming”. But co-curators Suresh Jayaram (Founder Director, 1 Shanthi Road, Bengaluru) and Roman Berka (Director, Museum in Progress, Vienna) also ask a further, dyadic question: What is the function of art, and can it be a catalyst for social change?

A wider context

Questioning the latter answers the former. The CAB does see art as functioning within a wider context and it is framed by this belief — or optimism. Featuring the works of over 40 artists (24 Sri Lankan, 17 international) under its theme, the artworks exhibited are strongly interlaced with and aware of their own context.

Influenced by Joseph Buey's concept of art as a social sculpture and advocating the pushing of art to participate in social issues and instigate change, Berka advocates the integration of art and life. Not everyone would agree with this — I heard the susurrations of discontent, and “Death of the Author” style protests: Can the work not just stand alone? Must it be doing something? Why are we making art social? I might have even said some of these things myself.Whether or not you agree with Berka and Jayaram, and the social drive that underpins the biennale, it's good when a stance is taken and then stood by — it provides a springboard for more ideas. From what I've seen of South Indian art, sometimes too little of the theoretical verve behind the work is conveyed. Art can attract wishy-washy, ill-defined concepts, not to mention insincere odes to pretty colours — so when theory is elaborated upon and practised, I see this as positive thing. The biennale wanted art to be more social; for it to leave its white-walled purlieu to reach for broader audience and accessibility — to a certain extent, it did.

The art filtered into streets, warehouses and newspapers — a particularly impressive series of double spreads were carried out in the papers, which were said to have been later seen pinned to the walls of random kades, ie. the sort of places you wouldn't expect to see art.

In fact, the recently formed Collective of Contemporary Artists (CoCA) was perhaps the most successful in their challenging of the gallery space. As touched on by Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam in one of the many art talks, the gallery space is often viewed as inaccessible, He's right when he says it isn't for everyone — there is a certain elitism that doesn't quite budge.

As Alam points out, the man in the lungi doesn't really feel welcome. CoCA's works, on the other hand, invite you to touch, interact and play. A refreshing change from the not-so-tacit “don't touch” rule most galleries have.Wrestling with the large and relevant issues of identity, transition and liminality using multifarious materials and forms — new media and installation being notably prolific — the artists approached the theme of “Becoming” from vastly differing directions. To provide the briskest of samplings, they ranged from a vast red dress hung from the ceiling to a giant weeping woman in a bathtub, to reworked government maps of the country — genuinely interesting, provocative works that demand that you think about them.

Still, amid the variety there seemed to be a shared sense of fracturedness. In particular, the recurrent use of the split perspective and the simultaneous portrayal of different perspectives encompassed within the single image or work.

Aaron Burton's documentary “Ape Ammage Gama” (Our Mother's Village) placed two screens side by side — one playing ethnographic footage from 1978, the other, footage from 2011 that returned to the same family to document them watching the old footage (phew). Not in a metafictional sort of way. More in a tracing back across the path of change, looking at generational differences sort of way. It was fascinating.

Malaka Dewapriya's video “Intersight”, also featured the divided screen, split into nine frames, each showing men (or man? maybe that's the point) engaged in the repetitive mechanical action of digging.

Sense of fragmentation

Vimukthi Jayasundra's short film also used three angled screens, toying with perspective and the boundaries of the frame. The formal elements of these works all gesture at a sense of fragmentation that seems to be symptomatic of contemporary consciousness. The proliferation of new media and technology allows for multiple views from around the world all at once, but also takes its toll on the individual trying to define a sense of global, national and personal identity.

How do you measure the success of a biennale? Or of art itself, really? The question of art's role is a perennial one, and like the theme “Becoming”, the answer isn't a finite destination that can be reached; it's more a protean, infinite trajectory which you try to be conscious of and make sense of where we are and what we think.

Whether or not you agree with the CAB's views on the “function” of art, it had a specific aim and outline, and operated well within the parameters it set for itself, showing great sensitivity to and awareness of the global art world.

India is set to have her first biennale soon, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December. Biennales are interesting, relevant events, so you should definitely go. And perhaps implement the Duchamp drinking game while you're there.

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At WorkSeptember 24, 2010