Art for the Wayfarer’s Heart

Biennales come not only with the opportunity to create new art, they can also transform how you see a destination.

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Photo by: Olaf Krüger/imageBROKER/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

Let me initiate our dialogue by invoking inaugural working images of two kinds of voyages.” This was the exciting opening line in Jitish Kallat’s letter, inviting me to make a body of work for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 that he was curating. It was the beginning of a stimulating dialogue that resulted in the creation of a suite of drawings and sound, titled “The Fluidity of Horizons.” Spread out across five interconnected rooms at Fort Kochi’s Aspinwall House, my installation explored the history of the Malabar Coast through prisms of science and traveller’s tales, and suggested how the impulse to travel has become an intrinsic quality of the human condition.

Personal travel, and most importantly, an extended site visit to Kochi, was crucial in creating the work. Yes, I do come from Kerala, but when you visit familiar territory purposed with a new pair of glasses, the gaze is different. I discovered long-lost relatives, a road named after the ancestral tharavadu (family house) I come from, and tales of travelling ancestors. I bought history books, visited  palaces and museums, and listened to people talk.

Such excursions translated into a series of small-scale cartographical drawings on the six islands of Kochi, which worked as a way-station in “The Fluidity of Horizons.” One of these six drawings was of Aspinwall itself—so that visitors gazed at an aerial view of the very place they were standing in Fort Kochi, viewing contemporary art.

Many travellers from far-flung lands landed on the shores of Kochi, including those who came to exchange gold for black gold or pepper—ideas which led to the creation of a vital triptych of the installation, titled “Salt and Pepper.” My imagination was stirred as I tried to re-enact in my mind, the clash of civilisations on these coasts. Both cultures were inevitably changed by the process, a lot of which was pretty bloodthirsty. Vasco da Gama’s voyages did redraw world maps, but it was drawn in blood.

But back to Jitish’s note and the “second” travel he evoked, one particularly close to my heart. We move to the cosmic realm, where our own blue planet, along with pretty much everything else in the known universe, hurtles through that mysterious thing we call “space.”

Where would we be without the scientists and thinkers who facilitate such ideas and explorations? I read how travel from the great Age of Discovery was fuelled by the work of mathematicians and mechanics, and was introduced to a wonderful navigational instrument, the astrolabe. This little instrument from the past, which guided seafarers from the West to the shores of Malabar, found its way onto the surface of my artwork. Sixteen feet long and six feet high, “Astro/Lab” became the iconic central work of “The Fluidity of Horizons.”

“Astro/Lab” is a testament to our continuing journeys: from the great sea voyages that used the moon to navigate, all the way to the moon landings and seeing earthrise on the lunar horizon. Events separated by time are allowed to inhabit the same picture plane and to push at the boundaries that contain us.

The 2014 Biennale was spread out over Kochi with public art and artworks installed at eight prime venues. It showcased works by 94 artists from 30 countries and went on for 108 days. Some 5,00,000 people visited the 2014 Biennale and I do believe it is these travellers to the Biennale who completed my works. They brought their ideas to barter with the visuals I had created, and started their own dialogues around the work.

The Biennale itself is an idea that has travelled worldwide from the Venice Biennale, first held in 1895. Today there are over 200 biennales globally, some with a very specific focus, others continuing the grand design proposed at Venice, and yet others closing after a few editions. The Kochi Biennale is unique because it is an artist initiative—the Kochi Biennale Foundation was founded by artists Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari in 2010-—rather than an arts event created by a country or organization.

As Anita Dube, curator of the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 has said, the Biennale is a “knowledge laboratory.”Crucially, she has also spoken about “bringing pleasure back into the most serious things.” For sure, Art is serious stuff to people like me, but the pleasure principle in creating should not be denied. “What inspires you?” is perhaps the most frequent question I am asked as an artist. The pleasures of travel—in its various forms—form a partial answer.

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  • Parvathi Nayar is a contemporary visual artist and writer based in Chennai. She is known for her complex drawings, installations and video work. She was part of the Kochi Biennale (2014-2015); public installations of her work include A Story of Flight, (Jai He art programme, T2 Terminal, Mumbai airport) and solos include Haunted by Waters (2017, Chennai).

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