Kochi: Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014 is by and large a space where our perception of time’s relentless, linear progression is at once reinforced and challenged by art.
Several works on display at the artistic extravaganza depict this theme which has been fascinating artists across the world for years now.
In Whorled Explorations, artist Jitish Kallat’s curatorial vision for the Biennale, time and space are axes along which the viewer moves to bring the world into clearer focus.
“The exhibition exaggerates the gestures we make every day, when we try to understand something,” he says. “We either go close to it or move away from it in space to see it clearly; we also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present.”
The opening work of the Biennale, at its main venue Aspinwall House, is an iconic video made in 1977 by the late Charles and Ray Eames that takes the viewer on a journey to the extremities of space — from the outer limits of the known universe to the smallest entity inside the atom — in 10-second intervals.
In Powers of Ten, the eye travels a ten-fold distance every 10 seconds. As the film camera zooms out from mundane city lives into the nothingness 100 million light years away, and then zooms in again to pierce the human skin, cells and atoms to rest on the smallest known constituent of matter — it becomes a voyage in both space and time.
German artist Mark Formanek’s Standard Time is more of a reflection of the “tyrannous grasp of time on our lives”. Shot in real time, the video shows a group of labourers working to keep a digital-style 24-hour display, made of pieces of wood, ticking.
The workers have to race to reassemble the wooden pieces with every changing minute to make sure the video clock, set to the local time in Kochi, shows the right time. At another level, it is a telling statement on the unseen, unheralded people whose labours keep moving our lives forward.
Time is the ‘enemy’ in Kerala-based artist Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s How Goes the Enemy, an installation made of mud, clay and laterite sited in the midst of the wild greenery at Cabral Yard.
His structure is based on the principle of a sundial but is not a clock; it only simulates the movement of time. The gnomon, a tapering pillar against which is the sculpture of a man standing on his head, casts a shadow on an oval platform 24 feet in diameter, indicating the passage of the day.
Kolleri says the structure’s true beauty will show when time, the enemy, erodes its walls and lets the wilderness take over.
US-born artist Tara Kelton’s video art at Aspinwall House is a record of her ingenious attempt at time travel on a commuter train in Bangalore. The piece has a laptop screen, placed against the open door at the end of the train, live streaming video feed from a camera placed at the front of the train.
It gives Kelton two simultaneous vantage points at the front and at the back of the train, which, for her, “heightens the daily sensation of travelling through two places at one time or through two times at once place, or both”.
While Kelton’s “time travel” is in the real world, Mumbai-based Sudhir Patwardhan’s journey occurs in his mindscape. He faithfully renders the random, strange faces he gazes upon during his travels to the imaginary past and future, in a series of lithographs titled Encounters in Time.
Hong Kong-based artist Annie Lai Kuen Wan’s Phenomenon of Times, displayed at the Durbar Hall, reinterprets what we know to be the most linear human narrative of time – the history book; in this case it is R C Dutt’s History of India, a nine-volume work published in 1906.
Wan meticulously coats each page with clay and fires them in a kiln until the pages burn off, erasing the historical narrative and leaving only the ghostly, fragile ceramic shells of each book; her reflections on the “lightness or nothingness of time”.
As Wan steps into the past to look at the future, Marie Velardi does the opposite. The Swiss artist’s Future Perfect, 21st Century, exhibited at the Aspinwall House, is a timeline of 100 years as imagined in science fiction books and movies from around the world — complete with the dystopic and apocalyptic visions we know from the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, among others.
Velardi speaks to us from an indeterminate time in the future when, following her research to better understand the “history” of the 21st Century, she offers us “a selective itinerary through the century, tracing most characteristic events”.
These “events” include a third World War, a takeover of the planet by computers, human colonisation of comets, the annihilation of life through disease and a time when everyone in the world speaks Portuguese.
The linearity of time is bent into a circle in Neha Choksi’s Iceboat. The Mumbai-based artist becomes the soul in a slowly decaying body, as she rows a boat made of ice. Time melts the boat and she is ‘released’ into the water. The initial despair at drowning gives way to surrender to the belief that the soul will be resurrected in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Time is thus central or peripheral to many of the artworks at the exhibition. Biennale Director Bose Krishnamachari says time and space are two themes that artists feel compelled to explore. “These are not static or definable entities, so capturing and interpreting them is a challenge. As an artist my self-realisation comes from being able to meet this challenge.”