Marissa, Unfactory Co-founder & Curator.Marissa, Co-founder & Curator at Unfactory travelled to Fort Kochi, Kerala, to get her fix of art at the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016-17. And, here’s her story.

My biennial trip to Fort Kochi is never just about the Art. It is that time in my life when I stop to take stock of my life, to reflect, to question. And, what better place than Fort Kochi where inspiration follows you wherever you go, like the sight of the sea peeping at you ever so often or the smell of fish that is all pervasive.

So, it’s been two years since I’ve last been to the island and sometimes it feels like forever and sometimes like only yesterday…. Like the coffee at Kashi Art Café , I didn’t realize I missed it so much till I had that first sip. Or the seedy Excel bar that I dreaded to enter last time, but which has now traded dingy barroom lights for plush sofas and ambient lighting. (but still has only Rs. 20 per packet of peanuts as chatna)

Fort Kochi (Cochin), Kerala.

What did I like this year on the island?
A lot actually! The Art of course, part serious, part fun but fully inspirational. This year’s Biennale includes a wade through water in ‘The Sea of Pain’, a contemplation on life and death in GARBH – a gigantic egg sculpture made from holy ash, and an amble through a real-life pyramid in ‘The Pyramid of Exiled Poets’. The venues included treasures from the past – pepper and export warehouses tucked away in little by-lanes of Mattancherry with the pungent smell of sun-dried chilies in the air.

This year, if only on the last day, I actually got a chance to do a morning beach walk. The sight of the Chinese fishing nets hovering precariously over the tranquil water is a sweet sight for nature-starved urbanites. Fish stalls on the beach tempted me with the morning catch of super-sized sea bass, outrageously red snappers, still twitching tiger prawns, magnificent mud crabs while the fishermen stood by like proud papas.

MY 10 FAVORITES PICKS FROM FORT COCHIN (AND 1 FROM THE MAINLAND)

1. ‘KISSA KURSI KA’ IN JEW STREET
Tucked away in the heart of a bustling Jew Street, in the back room of an antique and furniture warehouse/store, amidst giant dusty copper urns and intricate door panels, Gunjan Gupta’s sculpturesque chair installations seem strangely at home. Her Bicycle Throne series made with bicycle parts and an assortment of objects from colonial cane chairs, balls and brass earthen vessels to mattresses (gaddas), piles of dhurries, etc. are a visual treat for the eyes.

Kissa Kursi Ka by Gunjan Gupta at the Kochi Biennale
Kissa Kursi Ka by Gunjan Gupta at the Kochi Biennale, 2016
Bartan Wallah’s tower of brass vessels, Muda Walla’s cluster of cane and Khilone Walla’s halo of balls, all capture the essence of India’s history of traditional crafts. Her work fuses tradition and contemporary design seamlessly.
As a commentary on ‘seats of power’ or as an ode to the evolution of furniture design, either way Gunjan Gupta’s chair-y tale is a winner.

2. ‘LINA’, VIDEO ANIMATION, ASPINWALL
Eva Magyarosi uses drawings, photographs and videos to lure us into the dark recesses of her chaotic sub-conscious mind. Her surreal landscapes of vignettes with symbolic gestures and metaphorical imagery move seamlessly, slow and then fast, horizontally and suddenly vertically, trapping you in a narrative that is tense and at the same time dreamlike.

The whimsical quality of the work and the visual poetry draw you in as much as the free-association verse that acts as a backdrop to the visuals.

3. MAPUSA MARKET GAME ‘GO PLAYCES’, ASPINWALL
If you need a break from all the art, Orijit Sen provides some playful relief with his game installations on Goa, Hyderabad and Punjab.

Orijit Sen's Mapusa Market, installation at the Kochi Biennale.
Orijit Sen’s Mapusa Market Installation
The Mapusa Market game is a series of illustrated panels of the actual stores that make up the market. Clues are provided in cards and you have to find the answers in the detailed graphic illustrated panels. Winners not only emerge wiser to the local food, dress, dance and habits of the Goankar, but also get a print of one of his illustrations.

4. ELITE HOTEL, PRINCESS STREET
Though this restaurant, bakery and lodge is located on prime Princess Street, it is easy to miss amidst its more fancy neighbors. A no-frills kinda place, it serves local Kerala cuisine like appams and stew and does a pretty good veg and fish thali. Their freshly baked breads and muffins also make for a sumptuous tea snack.

Unfactory recommends: Try their Sweet bun (especially when hot from the oven) which is not too sweet and Banana puff, with its light flaky pastry and coconut, jaggery and banana filling, it hits the right spot with a strong cup of coffee or tea.

5. ‘FUSION’ SHACK, BEACH ROAD
Most of the restaurants (read fancy) on the island, offer fish that you can choose yourself and the chef will then prepare it as per your choice. However, nothing beats the sheer exuberance of walking down to the fish shacks on the beach, choosing from an exhaustive collection of fresh sea-food and then eating it freshly prepared at the shacks on the beach.

Kochi, Fish Stall by the Beach

Unfactory recommends: Eat at ‘Fusion’ a shack on the main Beach Road. The owner-chef personally cooked some amazing grilled kalamari, crab roast and White Pomfret ginger-garlic.

6. ‘DREAMSCAPE, GARY HILL, VIDEO ART, DARBAR HALL(MAINLAND)
Enter a room, only to enter a (dream-like) world where you see yourself looking back at you from myriad positions, close-up on the wall or far-away down the hall, that too simultaneously. In this new movie, you are the sole heroine, and the possibilities are endless.

Video-language artist Gary Hill explores the language of fantasy, surrealism and invention. In ‘Dream Stop’- A mixed-media installation, he uses aluminum, 31 video cameras with conical lens and 31 projectors to reflect and distort views of one-self. Reminiscent of the House of Mirrors that used to be a staple in every circus and amusement park, this installation is intriguing and plays with our understanding of reality.

His other piece ‘Klein Bottle with the Image of Its Own Making’ is an impossible thought experiment that has no beginning and no end, no inside and no outside. His work uses invention, ambiguity and mirage and questions our understanding of the world we take for granted. It illuminates the possibilities that come when looking at anything through new eyes.

7. ‘DEFILE’, AES+F, ASPINWALL
‘Defile’ is a series of life-size photographs of dead bodies dressed in high-end fashion. AES+F, artists from Moscow, Russia, clothes seven recently diseased people in fancy attire, photographs them and presents them as though they are partaking in a fashion shoot.

In stages of early decomposition, these photographs of dead individuals are morbidly fascinating. In as much as the bodies represent the finality of being, the clothes they inhabit speak about the temporal world of fashion and its obsession with youth and beauty.

Defile by AES+F at the Kochi Biennale, 2016
Defile by AES+F at the Kochi Biennale, 2016
‘Defile’ explores the relationship between death and beauty, while bringing together two totally divergent yet equally present expressions of our time- death and fashion.

8. ‘LOVE IS MY LAW’, DAVID HALL GALLERY
Dana Awartani’s exquisite textile installation ‘Love is my law’ is a study in symmetry, harmony and infinity. Inspired by eight love poems by Ibn Arabi, eight intricate embroidered panels of white fabric are meticulously patterned, mathematically cut and presented, to create a piece that epitomizes the beauty of Islamic geometry and its highly codified forms.

Dana Awartani's Love is Law at the Kochi Biennale, 2016
Dana Awartani’s Love is Law
Her use of traditional material ensures that the past is always in conversation with the contemporary and the contemporary is always speaking with the past. Its meditative quality invites the on-looker to pause and look inward for solutions.

David Hall, a beautiful old bungalow, restored and converted into a gallery for  contemporary art and a café has an interesting history. Apparently, the Dutch East India Company built it using material from demolished Portuguese churches. Later, it was bought by a Jewish family who lived there, and since then it is known as David Hall.

9. SEA OF PAIN, RAUL ZURITA, ASPINWALL
Wading through knee-deep seawater in a hall in the main venue, one cannot disregard the questions that Raul Zurita poses to us in this poignant piece that talks about migration, dialogue and hope.

Dedicated to the three-year old Syrian child who lost his life in the arduous migration journey, Raoul uses a simple and clear language to question ourselves and our personal actions in a complex and brutal world.

Sea of Pain, Raul Zurita at the Kochi Biennale
Raul Zurita’s Sea of Pain at the Kochi Biennale, 2016
The experience is reflective, like the water that surrounds us and invites us to take personal responsibility, to overcome boundaries and see possibilities of a different world.

10. COCHIN CLUB
Cochin Club is located along the entrance of Cochin’s harbor and was founded in 1914. A quiet and quaint property, it has sprawling grounds with badminton and tennis court and swimming pool, as well as rooms to stay.

It is one of Cochin’s oldest landmarks. It is located opposite St. Francis Church, which is said to be the first Christian church in India and next to the Bastion Bungalow, which was the residence of the Portuguese Governors of Fort Cochin.

The al-fresco restaurant ‘The Drawing Room’ overlooks the beach and you can see ships passing by, while you enjoy your dinner. On weekends they have live music. Mr. Matt. Justice will woo you with his rendition of old classics.

And thus, this trip with it’s heady mix of art and experiences came to an end. Body rested and mind rejuvenated. I returned to Bangalore energized and inspired, promising myself to take my art more seriously this year and not forgetting to eat more fish!

Kochi Biennale: 2016-2017

Note: The Kochi Muziris Biennale is a 108 days event making it the longest and the largest art event in South Asia. The event started on 12th December, 2016 and continues till 29th March, 2017. For more information and to plan your visit, head over to their website.

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