Kochi, Kerala

Song Dong, Water Temple, 2018, glass panel, containers, water, Chinese calligraphy brushes. Installation view, Aspinwall House, Kochi, India. From the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Song Dong, Water Temple, 2018, glass panel, containers, water, Chinese calligraphy brushes. Installation view, Aspinwall House, Kochi, India. From the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Various Venues

Song Dong, Water Temple, 2018, glass panel, containers, water, Chinese calligraphy brushes. Installation view, Aspinwall House, Kochi, India. From the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

THE MOST HAUNTING IMAGE from “Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life,” Anita Dube’s strong, sensitive exhibition constituting the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, is an old photograph that appears nowhere in the show itself but accompanied virtually all of the early press releases announcing the event. The image is undated and the author is unknown. Shot in what looks like an abandoned field or parade ground, it captures the wildly engaging forms of artist K. P. Krishnakumar’s Boy Listening, 1985. Made of painted plaster, cloth, and fiberglass, the otherworldly sculpture groups together the figure of a man—crouching down, resting on bended knee, intently cupping his ear—and a tangled, nearly indecipherable mass that resembles, at a stretch, a twisted phonograph, its horn branching off the mechanical body like an arthritic bloom. In the photograph, shadows encroach on the man’s face and body. A dark ring circles a half-closed eye. The arms and legs are ropy, the profile of the nose bold. The overall atmosphere suggests an act being carried out with great difficulty. You lean in closer and strain to hear the same impossible thing to which the man is listening.

Krishnakumar was born and raised in Kerala, the southwestern Indian state known for its high literacy rates and long-standing commitment to communist governance. He grew up in a milieu of Marxist politics, international literature, and world cinema, thanks to the translation initiatives and film societies popular in the state at the time. As a sculptor in his early twenties, he experimented with resin and cement. His works were largely figurative but exaggerated and intense. Boy Listening appeared in the groundbreaking 1985 exhibition “Seven Young Sculptors” in Delhi. (Dube wrote the curatorial text.) The work was later destroyed; the photo of Boy Listening featured in the biennial’s press material came from the “Seven Young Sculptors” catalogue and may be the only existing documentation of the piece.

The Otolith Group, O Horizon, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 81 minutes 10 seconds.

Well into his long, episodic education as an artist, Krishnakumar became the charismatic leader of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, known as the Radical Group, officially established in 1987. Dube was the only woman in the group, as well as the only member from outside of Kerala. She wrote the collective’s founding manifesto. She has recalled that it was received by the public “like an anarchist bomb.” That same year, several Radical Group works were lost in a fire. By 1989, the collective was in crisis. Its members met to discuss where they were going and to critique what they had done. “All the latent contradictions within the Group erupted violently,” Dube has written, “and a decision was taken to disband. . . . This was a fatal shock for Krishnakumar.” He took his own life within weeks. Meaningful critical reflections on his art have, understandably, been both painful and challenging.

The memory of a group of friends protesting injustice in the Kerala streets colors the biennial’s thematic substrata.

In recent years, Dube has composed a number of moving tributes to Krishnakumar’s life and work, and her exhibition for Kochi is certainly the most generous among them. In a wall text, Dube describes Krishnakumar’s Boy Listening as central to her exhibition. And his legacy also shaped her theme: She first invoked the show’s rubric—i.e., the search for alternatives to the atomization of contemporary life—in an essay describing the “youthful, non-alienated comrade-time” that characterized Krishnakumar’s student days in Trivandrum. The memory of a group of friends protesting injustice in the Kerala streets colors the biennial’s thematic substrata of love and struggle, labor and conflict, humor and care, intimacy and what I can only think to describe as an unburdened sexual honesty. All of these strands, stemming from Krishnakumar’s own experience, weave through exceptional new (or recent) works, among them the Otolith Group’s eighty-one-minute masterpiece O Horizon, 2018; Afrah Shafiq’s textile-digital hybrid st.itch, 2018; and the Malaysian collective Pangrok Sulap’s indoor-outdoor workshop for agitprop woodcut prints, installed in a seaside warehouse on the Bazaar Road. Equally unforgettable are Nilima Sheikh’s painting series “Salam Chechi,” 2018, addressing the exodus from Kerala of Malayali nurses; Zanele Muholi’s majestic portraits from her “Faces and Phases” project, 2006–; and Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s powerful Dissent and Desire, 2015–17, a queer public space for considering India’s recent decriminalization of homosexuality.

K. P. Krishnakumar, Untitled, 1983–85, ink on paper, 30 × 22".

But for all that is filled in and quite beautifully furthered, Dube’s exhibition is built around absence—not only that of the destroyed sculpture, the disbanded collective, and Krishnakumar’s suicide, but the losses that repeat and reverberate into the present day, in everything from political defeats to environmental disasters. The sense of a wound, of something missing from the center of Dube’s curatorial endeavor, accounts, I believe, for the extreme tenderness of her biennial. Of course, she punctuates the show with bold moments and brazen humor. But even, for instance, in the drawings composing Marlene Dumas’s Vocabulary, 2018 (in which small animals, an ear, a kiss, large breasts, and a pinched nipple comprise a whimsical language), the humor feels not palliative per se, but certainly aware of the damage such comedy could hide. Dube’s delicate balance of bravura, humor, and loss makes it possible for the biennial to include—under the same organizational principle as the artworks themselves and as meaningful extensions of the exhibition’s activist ethos—nimble responses to the catastrophic floods that ruined whole portions of Kerala last year, wiping out fishing villages and crafts cooperatives up and down the Malabar Coast. Marzia Farhana created her large-scale installation Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall, 2018, out of the refuse of the floods themselves; while in the biennial’s shop, one can buy small, multicolored chekutty dolls made from the soiled textiles of handloom artisans who lost their livelihoods in the disaster—part of a wider fund-raising initiative.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Nag Devta, 1979, hemp, jute fiber. Installation view, 2018.

BY NAMING HER EXHIBITION with a demand for an unspecified opposite—not alienated life but something contrary to it—Dube leaves herself open to a predictable critique: that her curatorial approach is so inclusive it renders her theme arbitrary and vague. But to my eye, the artworks she holds up as proposals for a non-alienated life are both internally coherent and quite specific, connected to the body, sexuality, laughter, friendship, and nature. All the same, Dube undoubtedly did choose a theme that is expansive enough to address diverse expectations, as perhaps all such exhibitions must. Widely known artists such as Dumas, Muholi, William Kentridge, and Song Dong fare well in context. Meaningful geographic links are established, particularly among India, South Africa, and the Middle East. Social spaces including the Sister Library and the Pavilion, in Cabral Yard, promise a full season of community engagements. And feminist work—ranging from a wonderful early video by Sonia Khurana of the artist’s corpulent body tumbling birdlike from a large block, to what was essentially a room-size retrospective for valie export—receives a much-needed critical embrace.

K. P. Krishnakumar, Boy Listening, 1985, paint, cloth, fiberglass, plaster, dimensions variable.

In its crystal-clear organization, active programming, and emphatic response to the Kerala floods, this edition also evinces how far the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has come since its founding—far enough to weather the exit of Riyas Komu, one of its two artist-founders, amid #MeToo-inspired allegations of sexual misconduct. The departure of Komu adds a charged backdrop to the tough appraisals of masculinity present in Dube’s show. For example, the exhibition features a substantial display of Sunil Janah’s incredible photographs of everyday tribal life in India. Dating from the 1950s and ’60s, these images include group portraits of women, children, warriors, and the elderly and are at once beautiful and chilling in the critical distance of their framing. Dube honors Janah’s photographs for their aesthetic and documentary merits. Yet these works also portray women as precious but volatile objects. In turn, Dube, in the accompanying wall text, explicitly questions the presumption and entitlement of this photographer’s very male gaze.

A pointed critique of masculinity can also be felt at the exhibition’s heart: a show-within-a-show of Krishnakumar’s drawings from the early ’80s. Some two dozen works in black ink on paper are on display in Durbar Hall, all of them highly gestural and figurative, depicting men, women, animals, mythical creatures, a helicopter, automobiles, the paintings of Joan Miró, and more. Lone male figures are a recurring motif, shown alternately as anguished and tormented or stubbornly immature and defiant. Dube archly but affectionately refers to one such figure, his body contorted by his thoughts and sexual drives, as the “beast-man hybrid.”

Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh, Rizwan #2, 2017, ink-jet print, 15 × 10". From the series “Dissent and Desire,” 2015–17.

Productively, Dube displays Krishnakumar’s work in close proximity to that of two other artists. Occupying the same gallery in Durbar Hall are drawings, paintings, linocut prints, political cartoons, and archival photographs and effects of Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, a committed Communist Party member who was also a poet, a storyteller, and a popular newspaper caricaturist. One floor down, in the biennial’s most ruminative space of all, are Mrinalini Mukherjee’s sculptures in bronze and knotted hemp. Though these forms tend toward the abstract and the anthropomorphic, they are at the same time quite obviously based on female genitalia. Their energy is radiant. So, too, are Mukherjee’s intricate, rarely seen etchings and watercolors, made in the lulls between sculptures, showing gestures of trees, flowers, and primordial landscapes.

Within that trinity, Mukherjee’s work is for me the heart-of-the-heart of Dube’s effort, the sustaining double to Krishnakumar’s destruction. It also echoes the Otolith Group’s O Horizon. That film puts to the test the pedagogical model of the Nobel Prize–winning Bengal poet, artist, and musician Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, an experimental school in the state of West Bengal, originally founded as an ashram, which was transformed into a university in the early twentieth century. Tagore’s guiding principle, in brief, was that everything could be learned communally and in nature. O Horizon effectively assembles a vision of how such a school could be run, coursing through song, dance, and science. The film isn’t set in the historical past, although the figure of Tagore does stride through the frame several times. Nor is it futuristic, as much of the Otolith Group’s work in the past has been, despite being perhaps utopian in its on-screen approach to learning, transmitting, and translating knowledge, which O Horizon depicts as so many open-air discussions between students and their gentle teacher. As such, it may be the clearest expression of the group’s unique approach to time, in which past bends to future and vice versa. O Horizon offers an ethereal but attainable vision of living from the ground up, agriculture to high art, soil to the solar system. It’s a cosmic dance if ever there was one. Nimbly placed by Dube as if it were a response to Mukherjee’s water-colors, this long and demanding work admirably creates the biennial’s desired possibilities for companionship, working together, and struggling through art and language while maintaining a sensual connection to nature—possibilities that Krishnakumar could perhaps only dream of, and labor like his strange Boy Listening to hear. 

The 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on view through March 29.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a critic based in New York and Beirut.