Vipin Dhanurdharan’s artwork in the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was a fully functional kitchen. Anyone could come and make food there. I poured some tea into a clay cup, then washed the cup and returned it to a shelf. Dhanurdharan, it turned out, was critiquing India’s caste segregation by referencing a community dining project that took place in Cherai, Kerala, in 1917.
This, apparently, was one of many “Possibilities for a non-alienated life,” to coin the title given to this biennial by its curator, artist Anita Dube. In an introductory text, she cites Guy Debord from his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, in which he refers to a world where representation has superseded reality. Dube calls this “Debord’s warning” but if that’s what it was, it came a little late: by the mid-’60s the dam had already cracked, and in the decades since, the flood of images has only intensified. What this means is that, in an art context, Dhanurdharan’s kitchen cannot help but appear a disappointing copy, mourning the loss of its unselfconscious original. Or, as Debord put it, “In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.”
Dhanurdharan’s backward glance to early 20th-century Kerala is in keeping with this biennial: the Muziris of Kochi-Muziris recalls an ancient harbor said to have been located on the Malabar Coast (the modern-day state of Kerala) near Kochi. In her biennial contribution, Mireille Kassar meditated on loss of a different kind in her silent film, The Children of Uzaï, AntiNarcissus (2014), which shows a group of boys playing in the waves on a beach outside Beirut. The film is edited into a dreamy fragmented sequence, in which the boys are abstracted to the point of appearing as no more than sunlight glinting on water—they have become one with nature. As suggested by the title, we are witnessing a preciously authentic moment, one that becomes impossible after adult self-consciousness sets in. If Kassar’s work teetered on the edge of believing in its own fantasy, it was not the only one in the biennial to do so.
There was an overwhelming number of (mostly black-and-white) photographic series in the service of a minority or political cause, among them Sunil Janah’s on the communist movement in India in the 1940s, Rula Halawani’s from occupied Palestine, Santu Mofokeng’s from Apartheid South Africa, Zanele Muholi’s from Johannesburg’s queer scene, Kibuuka Mukisa Oscar’s depicting breakdance culture in Uganda, and Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s portraying sex- and gender-noncomforming people in India.
Hanging Halawani’s and Mofokeng’s photographs together in a room of Aspinwall House, the biennial’s main venue, was an example of two weaknesses in Dube’s curating throughout the exhibition: a tendency toward photojournalism, and a lack of editing. Ultimately that room was a success, but only because individual works are so strong; one picture by Mofokeng, of a young man gazing out from a crowd, counts among my personal highlights. But time and again, Dube’s selection of works was just not tight enough to appear convincingly considered.
Where the biennial as a whole most often succeeded was through clever juxtapositions: what individual works lacked in self-reflection, irony, or absurdity was made up for in the conversations—or, just as often, the arguments—their intermingling inspired. Next to the display of Halawani’s and Mofokeng’s photographs was a video installation by Sonia Khurana in which the artist, naked and boisterous, attempts to take flight off a pedestal. In context, this humorous and irreverent comment on the obstinacy of life’s resistance to representation made for a playful critique of Halawani’s slightly too beautiful photographs.
Such generative pairings were also present in other Biennale venues. In David Hall, Muholi’s photographs neighbored Vanessa Baird’s watercolors. Muholi’s work is too formally well-behaved to do justice to the solemn audacity of her mesmerizing subjects: the butch dykes and trans guys who return the compassionate gaze of her lens. But their earnestness is offset by the wonderfully deranged feminism of Baird’s paintings, with their take, by turns tragic and slapstick, on the banality of domestic life. In Kashi Town House, Santha KV’s cleverly meta-modernist tapestries satisfied the aesthetic craving left by Gupta and Singh’s photojournalistic series showing queer people inside their homes, each photo accompanied by quotes from the subjects.
Why so much photojournalism? Its preponderance would seem to conflict with Dube’s awareness that, as she reminds us in her introductory text, the “society of the spectacle” is an “ally of fascism.” In such a society, visibility quickly turns from a tool of social justice into capital and control. Photojournalism’s straightforward strategies of representation too often made the show’s overall understanding of mediated society seem inadequate to our time.
In some cases, such well-intentioned artworks shaded into sentimentality. In Aspinwall’s Admin Block, Vicky Roy’s black-and-white photographs of child beggars in Delhi scraped the bottom of my emotional reservoir (his suite of epic, surrealist landscapes in an adjacent room would have made a sufficient contribution). In another gallery of Aspinwall House, Shubigi Rao’s film The Pelagic Tracts (2018) told a fictional story about Kochi’s past, in which book smugglers fight to maintain their local literary culture under colonial rule. Unfortunately, this fascinating conceit is drowned in the moralistic bathos of a voice-over in florid prose set to heart-wrenching music.
Luckily, there was relief in a downstairs gallery, where works by Rania Stephan and Akram Zaatari also played on fictionalizing the archive, but did so through characters who are cheeky, self-serving dreamers. Zaatari’s installation, The End of Love (2012), a collection of found photographs of couples, some of them same-sex, from 1960s Lebanon, was accompanied by his film Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (2010), a typed correspondence between two male former lovers that stings with all the true selfishness of romance. In Stephan’s winning video, Train-Trains 2: A Bypass (1999–2017), she collages private interviews and popular films into a hodgepodge narrative around the decommissioned railway between Palestine and Lebanon. “I like the men who come and go,” sighs a young woman in an Egyptian Golden Age movie. “What do you like about them?” asks her friend. “That they come and go,” she replies. The clip is full of potent ambivalence: even as the character speaks to the lack of mobility caused by political conflict, she yearns for flux over stasis.
The biennial’s wall texts would have you believe that just about every artwork included was subverting or confronting or challenging some order of power or oppression, but the two pieces that actually did so were ones that took the form of actual protest. The installation Sweet Maria Monument by the artist known as Aryakrishnan paid homage to a friend of the artist, a queer activist who was murdered in 2012. It comprised a sofa, a collection of reading material ranging from queer fiction and theory to printouts of newspaper articles about Sweet Maria’s murder, and a tea kettle: this was a place for conversation, where Aryakrishnan himself was spending a lot of time during the biennial. “Here I am, years later,” he told me when I visited, “still without justice, still unable to move on.”
Aryakrishnan’s masterful watercolors of twisted male figures, sometimes engaging in sexual acts, hung in a cluster on one wall as if in testimony to the exhibition that might have been, were his political circumstances different. Unlike Dhanurdharan’s kitchen, which could be an easy target for Claire Bishop’s criticism of Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics—that it does not take into account the quality of the encounter that it fosters, beyond its sheer occurrence—Aryakrishnan’s installation positions itself far from relational aesthetics or Beuysian Fluxus. It puts art on pause; what is shown in its place is a protest.
Tania Bruguera took protest a step further and canceled her participation in the exhibition in solidarity with the artists in her native Cuba, who are suffering new restrictions to their freedom of expression. At MAP Project Space, her room was empty save a wall text that explained her decision. At the same venue, Communitas (2010), a video by Aernout Mik, showed various apparently political-bureaucratic happenings inside Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Both artists were using language, Bruguera by writing an open letter announcing the withdrawal of art in the service of politics, Mik by muting politicians’ speech, and causing all sense and purpose to break down, the silent scenes becoming a strangely meditative display of theatrical fragments.
Language was also key to Dube’s biennial as a whole: communication between artworks was constantly breaking down—to productive ends. The exhibition picked arguments with itself, made up, and quarreled again. The artworks challenged one another, creating a messy democratic space where the friction was the takeaway.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 98 under the title “Kochi-Muziris Biennale.”