Walk along the waterfront

A critique of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2017- a Contemporary Art Exhibition

By Hema Nair

We believe Art should be beautiful and poetry musical, but here’s artistry that confounds, even disgusts. Amidst bountiful beauty, there is something pernicious that’ll eclipse your sun and erode your joy like ulcer in the gut. This is contemporary art, drawn from contemporary world – meant to tilt your axis, and question your faith.

Every piece affects you differently; while your mate admires the form and poise of the dancer’s body, you cringe at her painful predicament as she stabs and slashes a piano with sharp knives fastened onto her feet.

It is not important to understand art, nor imperative to explain it. For what you take away was only ever yours – not even the artist’s who gave it to you.

So, walk with me.

See the Kochi Muziris Biennale, through my eyes.

The Sea of Pain – Raùl Zurita (Chile)


As I hitch up my skirt and wade barefoot into knee deep sea water collected within a cavernous warehouse, I know this is about Syrian refugees. Absorbed in keeping my camera safe and skirt dry, my eyes adjust slowly to the gloom. I’m standing in dark water surrounded by baby waves reflecting the daylight streaming in, looking at the giant canvas panels on the wall with the stark words- “Don’t you see me? In the sea of pain. Don’t you feel me? In the sea of pain…………. Won’t you come back? Never again? Never? Never?”

With every dragging step I take, I think of Galip Kurdi of whom no photographs were taken. 5 years old and elder brother to Alan Kurdi, the boy in a red shirt the world saw laying face down dead on a beach. Was Zurita talking about the time their father left one son to rescue the other? As I stood in the water, imagining the tragedy playing out, I too experienced the sea of pain, but on an infinitely smaller scale and even that was bad enough.

En Puntas – Javier Perez (Barcelona)

En Puntas

Eerily empty theatre with a grand piano on stage – lid down, awaiting a performer. She’s lacing up her silky peach ballerina shoes, face serene, body beautifully contoured. Your peace is rattled as you notice cold steel kitchen knives fastened to her shoes. Balancing on the knives points using a rope, a strenuous effort, she lets go of the rope and executes her first steps, en pointe – a dull thump of the knife piercing the smooth wood of the piano. I watch enraptured, feeling every stab, every scrape while she struggles to keep balance in her pirouette. Muscle taut, sinews straining, face contorting, a moan escaping sometimes. Finishing her routine, she crumbles onto the piano top, not having missed a single step, and I find my hands hurting from gripping my wooden bench.

Defilé 1

Défilé – Arzamasova, Evzovich, Svyatsky & Fridkes

You see her even before you enter the hall. Peaceful and ethereal, dressed in white like a bride, her incandescence at odds with the surrounding decrepit walls. As I walk in, the uneasiness hits me viscerally before I could decipher why. Close up, I see her lifeless eyes, and realization dawns as I take in her cold dead body.

I see the others too, laid out on giant wall mounted backlit boxes – pictures of corpses. Recently deceased men and women dressed up in high fashion like runway models, the stigmata of death clearly visible on their bodies.

The incongruity is stark; the impact, macabre. Clothes meant for beauty and youth, on bodies well on their way to rotting. 


Dance of Death 2016 – Yardena Kurulkar

YardenaHer preoccupation with death, the slow inexorable march towards our end, reflects in her work. Visualize the naked body of a woman, beautifully proportioned, wrought in raw clay melting into dirt as its slowly submerged in water. Also a dissolving clay heart that won her the Blake prize for religious art last year.

She explores her own mortality in this installation – fast paced flicker fusion lights that spell out her birthday. When the lights die out at the end of their life, they are snuffed out, leaving you in darkness listening to the strains of ‘Danse Macabre’ that fills the room. Very few of us can view our end objectively. Here she prompts you to think about it.


Where the Flowers still Grow – Bharat Sikka 



Kashmir, the beautiful land God created is today ravaged by the mayhem that man has brought down upon it. Bharat’s lens sees them all.

The normal objects seem out of place in times far from normal.

The desolation in the faces of these men, from the hopelessness of their situation. Their melancholy beauty captured from where its hidden underneath the blood, grime and frown.

Here is a sad commentary on the futility of it all, in conflict zones. How does it matter what you call your Gods, where you draw lines on this earth or which nation claims your allegiance, when your daily bread, a peaceful rest, and the freedom to laugh is forfeit?

                                                    Dream stop – Gary Hill

Dream stop 1


You merge with this artist’s creation walking into this majestic hall with its Grecian columns and polished wooden floor. The walls look colourful and chaotic like a kaleidoscope image, and I recognised my turquoise blue blouse, and felt a start of surprise. The perspectives constantly changing as I walked around searching the walls and finding myself projected from different angles.

Dream stop 2These images are from roof mounted projectors and captured by 31 cameras you cannot see. In the center of the room, is suspended an elegant circular design that closely resembles the ‘Seed of life’ a recurrent symbol in sacred geometr y. Six circles merged in perfect symmetry to form within it, 3 flowers.

Admiring its shiny contours up close, I noticed my face projected on the wall coming closer. Its then, that I spot the tiny holes at the merging points of the design, where the spycams are housed. Walking around this aluminum flower is like exploring different facets of your reflection, a strangely alluring experience.


Prime 2016 – Camille Normentprime

The polished wooden benches are arranged like pews in a church with the altar that is an arch overlooking the ocean inlet. We sat down on them resting our tired legs, and that’s when we felt vibrations run through our bodies.

My companion lay down, eyes closed, absorbing the sounds through his skin. A moan, a hum or a “primordial groan”- gentle waves resonating in our bodies just as a wake from a passing ship lapped the seawall outside. We spotted the wires running into the wood, and wandered off feeling the buzz.


Studio flood -Tom Burckhardt

What does it look like when your world is upside down and drowning? For Burckhardt, its not an abstraction, but something recreated in a cardboard room. The canvases in his studio, tubes of colors, all possibly destroyed by rising floodwaters.

Flood 1

Is it the ignorance and intolerance of our times or the rising oceans from the inexorable destruction of our planet that is destroying art?

Burckhardt’s attention to detail was also impressive, the New Yorker with me, recognizing a Manhattan apartment right away.

Flood 2


River of Ideas – Chittrovanu Mazumdar

The ebb and flow of ideas are like swells in the flowing river. On special days, she sparkles with a million prayers, held in lamps that dance to the rhythm of waves. The lamps don’t quite dispel the darkness, but adds to it as they glow, flowing like a river of light into the darkness. Standing in the sultry heat of Kochi with sweat flowing in a rivulet down my back; DeepavaliI could see in my minds eye, Ganga – at Dev Deepavali. Resplendent with floating lamps; carrying with her a million different boons, prayers and dreams.

A walkway fashioned takes you through his river of ideas, fostering an inclusiveness evident in several installations at the Biennale. This is where I believe contemporary arts scores over the conventional art forms – the jump from being a mere voyeur to player in the drama of it all.



Hema Nair is a cardiac anesthetist working in Narayana Hrudayalaya, the world’s largest heart hospital, well known for its philanthropy. In addition to medical writing, she enjoys writing prose and poetry on anything that catches her fancy.She’s also a movie buff, avid reader and enjoys cycling.