A City at the Edge of the Horizon: The 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale

The ancient port city of Muziris, perched at the mouth of the Periyar River near the tip of the Indian subcontinent, offered harbor to merchant fleets of Greece, Rome, Phoenicia, and Egypt in the earliest centuries of global maritime trade. Romans disembarked from their ships with hoards of gold, glass, wine and linens, and set sail again with stores full of black pepper and pearls. This bustling seaport—described by the early Sangam bards as “the city that bestows wealth to its visitors indiscriminately, and the merchants of the mountains, and the merchants of the sea … where the rumbling ocean roars, is given to me like a marvel, a treasure”—disappeared without a trace in the 14th century, washed off the face of the earth by a cataclysmic storm, and buried by silt from the Periyar river. That same flood opened up a new harbor to the south, at Kochi. In the centuries that followed, the city of Kochi, sought after by explorers and traders—Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese, and Arab—became at once the center of the spice trade and a vital outpost for Western colonizers. Along with the conflux and conquests of the “Age of Discovery,” Kochi became the center of advances in ideas, in particular in astronomy and mathematics.
Trade, travel, colonial conquest and cosmological inquiry: the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, curated by the artist Jitish Kallat, uses these histories as coordinates to guide an exploration into contemporary art production in India and around the world. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is India’s first and only biennial, inaugurated in 2012 by the artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. Situated between a number of venues in Fort Kochi—once the seat of Portuguese, Dutch and British military and economic occupation—and the city of Ernakulam on the mainland, the former warehouses and office compounds that serve as the sites of the Biennale are in themselves important reminders of the past.
A copy of the short guide.
Kallat evocatively describes the 2014 Biennale, titled Whorled Explorations, as a “temporary observation deck hoisted at Kochi” from which a particular vista of contemporary art could emerge. The allusion and image is quite powerful, conjuring the maritime history of the region—a lookout poised on a narrow platform, precarious by nature but offering the widest potential view. Kallat’s telescope was aimed not only at the horizon, but also the stars: Whorled Explorations evokes oceanic, cartographic, temporal, and historical themes, and delves into the nature of the planet earth and the wider cosmos that surrounds it.
David Horvitz’s ‘The Distance of a Day’ at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi. Two videos/ colour / 12 minutes each.
Pors and Rao’s ‘Teddy Universe’, 2009-11, faux fur, fiber optics, metal, plastic, electronic components, 34.25 x 52 x 61 in, at Aspinwall House. Courtesy: GALLERYSKE.
Many of the artists turn their gaze toward the sky: Katie Paterson looks to the moon, replicating its light; and David Horvitz looks to the sun, documenting it at the same moment from opposite ends of the globe, as both sunrise and sunset. Other artists grapple with the vastness of the universe. In a long room of the main Biennale venue, Aspinwall House, N.S. Harsha’s 80-foot-long acrylic on canvas painting cannot be viewed straight on in its entirety; rather it must be navigated from end to end. Titled Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam (2013), from a Sanskrit hymn dedicated to the cycle of life from birth to death, the painting depicts the cosmos as an elongated ouroboros rather than a vast expanse or plane. Nearby, Pors and Rao’s Teddy Universe (2009-11), an installation of faux fur and fiber optics suspended from the ceiling, resembles the starry night sky—in the shape of a cuddly stuffed animal. Its fuzzy edges not only refer to the toy object it resembles, but perhaps also to the limitations of our own perceptive abilities.
Marie Velardi’s ‘Future Perfect, 21st century’, 2006, print on paper, 16.14 x 216.92 in, at Aspinwall House. Courtesy of the artist.
Madhusudhanan’s ‘Logic of Disappearance’, 2014, charcoal drawings on paper, 26 x 16 in (each), at Aspinwall House. Courtesy of the artist.
Artist Nikhil Chopra during his 51-hour-long performance at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi.​
Our perceptions are shaped and delimited by our contemporary moment, and this, too, colors our imagination. Swiss artist Marie Velardi looked to the past for an understanding of the present moment. Her work Future Perfect (2006) mined science fiction of the 20th century for predictions of the 21st, offering us a “memory of the future.” Filmmaker and artist Madhusudhanan looks to the past as well, finding but fragments of his own memory, which he has recreated in an impressive series of charcoal drawings on paper, installed in long rows along the wall of Aspinwall House. Charcoal figures prominently in the work of performance artist Nikhil Chopra, as a pictorial and transformative medium, wielded by the character he inhabits for the performance and inevitably becoming covered with the black material. In his 50-hour-long performance for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, La Perle Noire: Le Marais (2014), Chopra explored a character of ambiguous identity modeled on India’s colonial past named the Black Pearl, a reference to the spice that shaped this region’s destiny—pepper.
Anish Kapoor’s water vortex ‘Descension’ at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi. 
The vortex, the spiral, the whorl—a “pointer to life-forces” as well as a “mark of erasure,” as Kallat puts it—is a recurrent motif in many of the works in the Biennale, from works by Mona Hatoum, Manish Nai, and Wim Delvoye, but perhaps best exemplified by the installation Descension (2014) by Anish Kapoor. In an ambitious display of the sheer power of natural force, he created a rushing perpetual whirlpool, conjuring up images of mythical monsters and cataclysmic cyclones, masterfully contained in the gallery space.
Janine Antoni’s ‘Touch’ (stock image). Courtesy of Kochi Biennale Foundation
​From the view of the “observation deck,” the Kochi-Muziris Biennale reaches across borders, across space and time, towards the boundless and the unknown. This desire for a sensual experience of the beyond, tempered only by our own perceptual and physical limitations, is perhaps encapsulated best by the image of Janine Antoni performing Touch (2002): the artist precariously, tentatively walking along a tightrope suspended above a sandy beach; the camera is positioned just so, and for one moment, it appears as though she is walking along the edge of the horizon. It goes to show, it’s all a matter of perspective.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale runs from December 12, 2014 to March 29, 2015.