THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS OF ART
Travel+Leisure India|September 2021
As the Kochi-Muziris Biennale—deferred to November this year due to the pandemic—dusts away the cobwebs at Aspinwall House, unspools the yarn at Cabral Yard, and contextualises the contemporary at Kashi Art Cafe, it is time to look back at some of the art extravaganza’s most thought-provoking narratives.
SIDDHARTH DASGUPTA

IF I WERE TO USE one word to describe my decade-plus existence in the Middle East, the chosen utterance would be “ephemeral.” Within a melange of expatriates and immigrants (depending on which-world country you were from), conversations on transience, identity, and exile were never too far off the table. This held especially true when some of your closest friends came with hyphenated labels: Syrian-Lebanese, Palestinian-Syrian, Lebanese-Palestinian, and so on. For an Indian submerged in Arab notions of friendship and diplomacy, the decade was an exploration into a life of no fixed address.

Those same midnight conversations came rushing back to me in a flood when the bloodsoaked existence of Alan Kurdi washed ashore a beach in Turkey in 2015. Similarly, lifeless bodies of his mother and brother were soon by his side. I gazed into the young boy’s soul—through a mixture of fierce reportage and the sort of media coercion that almost slithers in unnoticed—so did the world. So did Raúl Zurita. Only, the preoccupations of the Chilean protest poet and artist were on the fate of Alan’s forgotten five-year-old brother, Galip.

In the coastal town of Kochi, cemented in the heart of the globally celebrated Kochi-Muziris Biennale (slated to commence with its fifth edition on November 1, 2021; kochimuzirisbiennale.org), Zurita’s grief and guilt, those twin devils of artistic instigation, manifested themselves in The Sea of Pain—dedicated to Galip’s memory. Years have passed, but the memory remains fresh. In a large warehouse infiltrated by dilapidation and a curiously mildewed smell, the thatched roof is a flimsy rejoinder to an increasingly torrential downpour. The weather, it seems, is overcome by what it has witnessed.

In constructing his installation poem, Zurita has flooded the warehouse with murky, ankle-deep seawater, compelling viewers to wade through this discomforting stretch of remorse and culpability to read the words—spelt out in individual lines on blocks of canvas-filled walls. As you embark on this architectural recreation of a refugee’s journey of desperation for an imaginary horizon, Zurita’s words scream at you: “Don’t you listen?” “Don’t you look?” “Don’t you hear me?” “Don’t you see me?” “Don’t you feel me?”

This installation’s majesty grabs you at the throat; its immensity cannot possibly have been withstood by a museum or the predictability of a traditional spatial environment. Its poignancy lies in the process: some drift through the expanse—unnerving in its placidity—in silence; some struggle against the water; a few hesitate to get their boho-chic pajamas and frilly gypsy skirts drenched. Very few come away unmoved.

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