Sahej Rahal, Harbinger (detail), 2014, clay, polyurethane, hay, found objects, dimensions variable.

Sahej Rahal, Harbinger (detail), 2014, clay, polyurethane, hay, found objects, dimensions variable.

the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Sahej Rahal, Harbinger (detail), 2014, clay, polyurethane, hay, found objects, dimensions variable.

ALTHOUGH IT IS ONLY in its second edition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale seems replete with history, owing to its two storied sites: Kochi, an extant port on the Arabian Sea with a long history of global trade and multicultural exchange; and Muziris, a mythical ancient port destroyed in a devastating tsunami, whose archaeological traces are thought to have been recently excavated at nearby Pattanam. Given the biennial’s brief existence, its organizers understandably feel compelled to address the region’s past, but doing so without being repetitive or contrived is a tricky proposition. Declared through a somewhat forced titular pun, “Whorled Explorations” presented a shrewd solution, offsetting the weight of local history—which is already also global owing to Kochi’s cosmopolitan maritime past—with a cosmological perspective that reveals Earth as a tiny speck in a vast universe. The exhibition’s curator, artist Jitish Kallat, cited two chronologically overlapping but discrete moments from the region’s past as points of departure: Kochi’s induction, with Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s arrival in 1498, into the maritime Age of Discovery; and the innovations of the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics, active between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, whose discoveries helped provide a better understanding of the planet and its relationship to the cosmos.

The whorl was a recurrent motif, punctuating the exhibition at regular intervals. At Aspinwall House—a sprawling, sea-facing nineteenth-century spice warehouse that was the biennial’s main venue—audiences encountered Anish Kapoor’s crowd-pleaser Descension, 2014, a slurping vortex of water, a primordial drain that threatened to pull us into its abyss. At Durbar Hall, the only venue in the mainland city of Ernakulam, Annie Lai Kuen Wan’s Phenomenon of Times, 2014, was more understated. She made the piece by brushing clay onto both sides of each page of the nine volumes of a colonial-era History of India and then letting the paper burn away in the subsequent firing, leaving crumbly, wrinkled porcelain shells of books whose sides resembled the swirls of crashing waves. In addition to the whorl, other tropes teased from the biennial’s twin curatorial prompts included globes and circles as representations of Earth, the horizon as the terrestrial limit of perception, the sky (and the celestial bodies within it) as an infinite beyond that also unites us, cartography as a tool through which to grasp the world, and da Gama’s arrival and the advent of colonialism. In each case there was just enough variation in concept, material, and scale that the representative works did not feel too repetitive, yet the individual themes remained legible.

Kochi is unrelentingly hot and humid, and the biennial’s eight venues, only one of which was climate controlled, provided little respite. Kallat cheekily acknowledged this unavoidable condition by including a pair of works about sweat. In Sissel Tolaas’s Fear, 2014, scent molecules isolated from the perspiration of men with body phobias were chemically reproduced and painted onto ballast stones salvaged from the area, so that these relics of past labors literally smell of fear. Meanwhile, Ho Rui An’s brilliant lecture-performance Sun, Sweat, Solar Queens: An Expedition, 2014—performed on opening day and re-presented as a video installation—reveals colonialism’s “solar unconscious,” tracing Europeans’ vexed relationship with the unforgiving tropical sun. It starts with the simulated sweat-soaked back of Dutch anthropologist Charles Le Roux in a diorama in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum and ends with Queen Elizabeth II’s apparent mastery over her own perspiration.

A state of perpetual heat and humidity also makes one acutely aware of the body, heightening senses aside from vision and making one more responsive to subtle material variations in weight and texture. Many works took advantage of this effect. At Pepper House, for example, Benitha Perciyal’s The Fires of Faith, 2014, addressed the deep sensory and material history of Christianity in the region—Saint Thomas is said to have arrived in Kodungallur, Kerala, in 52 AD. Her religiously themed sculptures—some of them complete, others mere fragments—cast in fragrant and fragile hand-mixed incense were presented in a manner that put one in mind of a reliquary, or a storeroom of souvenirs. Sahej Rahal’s Harbinger, 2014, filled the tiled former laboratory at Aspinwall House with hundreds of sculptures of varying sizes, most made of unfired clay, some of black polyurethane. Made on-site and incorporating found detritus, they boasted ambiguous shapes and a formal and material earthiness that suggested both the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial, as well as the prehistoric past and the dystopian future, and conveyed the full weight of Pattanam’s archaeological past. Susanta Mandal’s Where Have All the Stories Gone?, 2014, a set of devices with moving armatures that slowly dip into and rise up from soapy water to produce the most delicate of films, provided a necessary counterbalance through its physical ephemerality.

Kallat opened his exhibition with Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic Powers of Ten, 1977, a film that begins with an image of a picnicking couple and then shifts the frame by orders of magnitude, traveling up to the galactic and then down to the subatomic, succinctly demonstrating the value of radically widening and narrowing one’s perspective. Distributed here as a takeaway postcard, Yoko Ono’s Earth Piece, 1963/1999, achieved a similar effect poetically: It instructed us to simply LISTEN TO THE SOUND OF THE EARTH TURNING. By introducing a viewpoint that transcends Earth’s terrestrial limits, Kallat’s compelling exhibition presented a subtle but refreshing alternative to current art-world preoccupations with the Anthropocene, a concept that risks overemphasizing the power of humans over the environment, and thus paradoxically promoting the anthropocentrism that it purportedly seeks to critique. Reminding us of a universe far vaster than our own tiny globe—a cosmos that immeasurably exceeds both Earth and its man-made ravages—the biennial suggested an expanded outlook that may just help us keep our planet in perspective as we try to ensure our survival on it.

Murtaza Vali is a critic and curator based in New York and Sharjah.