Vivan Sundaram's work is new but his material is old. In fact, it is as old as the civilisation that is said to have existed once in Muziris, the port town in Kerala after which India's first ever biennale is named.
He has used the terracotta shards, dug out by archaeologists from a place called Pattanam, to recreate the submerged port town and its seafaring culture for the Kochi Muziris Biennale, which will kick off in Kerala on December 12.
Inside the Aspinwall in Fort Kochi, a heritage site that has been transformed into a gallery, his young assistants have been working on his prototypes to come up with what looks like a 45-foot-long replica of a megalithic burial site. The huge art work on the floor with its many patterns is far from complete, however. It will form the basis of a video installation and a crew is filming the work, adding layers of sea and river water that will submerge the city, as well as a ship carrying pepper or black gold that the port once used to export to Rome. Of course, all these are depicted in a subtle and abstract manner, along with sound effects.
This one perhaps surpasses an earlier work by him called 'Trash', which was a representation of a modern city with slums, an industrial area and roads, and especially stunning is the way he has used the actual pottery from a forgotten era, thereby bridging the past and the present. “It is the physical space that often stimulates the artist to create and I told the organisers that half their job already got done when they selected Kochi with its rich heritage as the venue,“ says Vivan, who tried in vain to organise a biennale in Delhi around seven years ago. “When the Sheila Dikshit-led local government heard the figures, they asked how it could spend so much to hang a few paintings?” The same attitude towards art is now troubling Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, two Mumbai-based artists from Kerala, who succeeded in convincing the then Left Front government of Kerala to release `5 crore for the biennale. A section of the local artists and intelligentsia were up in arms against what they termed `waste of money'.
The present Congress-led government, while promising all non-monetary help, has also ordered a vigilance inquiry to ascertain if the money had been well spent. “It could be a unique biennale worldwide and will create a big impact for Indian art which has moved into the global arena,” says Vivan.
Ignoring and often confronting criticism, the organisers are moving full steam ahead, bringing eminent artists from within the country and abroad, and arranging site visits for as many as 45 of them so that they can come up with new creations.
There have been many a controversial and colourful artist spotted in and around Kochi; Subodh Gupta of Delhi went shopping for a country boat which will be the centrepiece of his new work for the biennale while M.I.A., the British singer of Sri Lankan origin, has agreed to perform on the opening day and also produce a print work with the help of new technology.
“We expect the biennale to be a unique intellectual exercise as these artists come up with all these new ideas. Art is no longer about just paintings but involves new media, lighting, sound, publishing and so on. We want to facilitate this process and help artists realise their artistic ambitions,” says Riyas Komu.
He as well as Bose Krishnamachari say the allegations of `money squandering' were a result of jealousy and reflected a lack of awareness about an event of this magnitude. “As there is no precedent, they can't understand the mechanics involved in organising such an event,” adds Bose.
“The art scene has been moving from the US and Europe to China and Asia,” says Australian artist Dylan Martorell, who has already taken part in the biennales of Jakarta and Indonesia this year.
Clearly more excited about the one in Kochi, he stayed in the city for two weeks to assimilate the sights and sounds of this `interesting' venue by visiting music instrument shops, watching Kathakali and packing whatever else he can into his visit.
Another artist who has been looking for inspiration in the streets of Kochi is Giuseppe Stampone of Italy who believes that a work of art should be self-reflecting and that an artist has to step down from the pedestal and create a project for the people that will then be taken over by them. Art, he adds, should be simple and communicate easily with the people.
When he put up his installation in Cuba, it was built around the bicycle while in Venice it was the gondola that took the pride of place. In Kochi, it will be an auto rickshaw, the humble vehicle of the common man. “Till the end of World War II, art was dominated by the schools of Europe and the US. But that has changed and so has aesthetics,” says Giuseppe, who wants his works to demonstrate how globalised communication can create false impressions.
Anant Joshi, an artist from Nagpur, agrees with the Italian artist that art is all about being able to communicate in simple terms with the local milieu. His works gel with the culture of the people around and the installation he is preparing for the biennale will draw inspiration from the surroundings, the fragrance, the mosquitoes and temples.
With inputs from Ajayan