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Biennale turns Aspinwall House into a mammoth canvas

S. Anandan
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Show begins:Chief Minister Oommen Chandy inaugurating the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 at the Parade ground in Kochi on Wednesday.— Photo: Vipin Chandran
Show begins:Chief Minister Oommen Chandy inaugurating the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 at the Parade ground in Kochi on Wednesday.— Photo: Vipin Chandran

The ramshackle pier that juts out to the sea had been Aspinwall House’s pathway to glory in the good old days of spice trade. Rejuvenated for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the jetty and the gowdown that opens to it now dot traditional granite wet grinders, 170 in all, collected by artists Sheela Gowda and her husband Christoph Storz from three spots from the streets of Bangalore.

Edged out of households where they religiously pounded spices into a powder, the grinders, together with their granite pestles kept in a heap in a corner of the gowdown, are pointers to the spice history of India.

With family histories writ large on them, the grinders eventually got dumped into ‘little cemeteries of grinders’.

“The stones are in different sizes and structures, and there’s an individuality about each. As I cleaned them, it was like a cleansing act, casting them back to their original memory,” says Ms. Gowda.

On the streets of Bangalore, the grinders were in sheer public gaze, but not exactly visible, says Mr. Storz. “We are rendering them visibility of a different kind now,” he says.

Stacked in a room with walls neatly painted in black columns, they offer contrast in a contained environment.

In a storehouse nearby, the lost port city of Muziris has taken a rebirth of sorts in the ‘imaginary habitation’ laid out by artist Vivan Sundaram with discarded terracotta shards from the Pattanam excavation site. The physical site will have a multimedia projection to boot.

Mishmash of junk

Further ahead in the high-roofed room, Subodh Gupta sits amidst what appears to be a mishmash of junk, strewn around a 60-ft-long ‘vallam’ (traditional fishing boat) laden with household goods, evocative of an improvised Noah’s Arc. “The work is about life, journey, memory and ancestry. It is as if someone is scampering for life when there is high-tide,” he says. Sure enough, there’s a hint of life in the unmistakable recliner with extended arms among the things bundled in a pile on the boat, which will be exhibited at an incline, with one end resting on an iron pedestal.

The campus, a prime biennale venue, is a beehive of activity with artists going about giving finishing touches to their works.

On the attic of one of the structures, Dutch artist Joseph Semah prepares to lay out on a large table his installation on the 72 privileges granted by the Cheras to the Christian and Jewish community of Kochi.

“Don’t forget to come for my performance on Thursday featuring public figures of diverse religious denominations and a secular person, which will go with my installation,” he calls out.

Contemporary visual artist Ariel Hassan, who works between Australia and Germany, is on the edge, with his work, despatched over a month ago, stuck up with Customs in Kochi awaiting clearance. Among the first to come down to the city in preparation for the biennale as early as July this year, Mr. Hassan says he’s keeping his fingers crossed. “I don’t know where it is. I’ve come to engage the enthusiastic youth in town desirous of political and philosophical renaissance in artistic dialogue. If my work [continuation of his ongoing HFV project] doesn’t appear in time, probably I will be making art without an object, striking up conversations with the people here,” he says.

Mr. Hassan’s website project, in the meantime, is up and running.

History of resistance

The Aspinwall House campus is in a state of flux with old structures getting a makeover and new ones coming up. Netherland-based Jonas Staal and Younes Bouadi are gearing up for a political presentation of poster boards of 45 banned organisations under a steel structure under construction. The idea is to hold a world summit on ‘history according to resistance movements’ here in March next, reveals Mr. Bouadi.

At a distance, Indian artist Shreyas Karle has come up with a dysfunctional fountain.

It appears as if it has been there for long. Mr. Karle is working on the element of water “as a catalyst to shape the entire history of the place”. What if water doesn’t behave as we wish, he asks. Besides the erratic fountain, he has two videos — one showing a water tank with varying water levels and the other, featuring a full tank emptying out in seven minutes — and a sound track of an overflowing bucket, reminiscent of our everyday multitasking at home.

He is also compiling a book of ideas, with speech mannerisms of some 20 Indian artists, which will be released in February next year.

And, that is just a tiny stroke on the mammoth canvas that Aspinwall House is turning into.

Sheela Gowda, Christoph Storz, Vivan Sundaram, Subodh Gupta, Joseph Semah, Ariel Hassan, Jonas Staal, Younes Bouadi, and Shreyas Karle transform the old gowdown into a world theatre of arts.

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