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Investigating curated experimental and immersive works at the Students' Biennale

Running parallel to the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2022, STIR explores a curation of selected immersive works by emerging young artists and curators at the Kochi Students' Biennale.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Feb 14, 2023

Perhaps, the saving grace of the ill-fated and eventually postponed opening event of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022 was the Students' Biennale. Showcased alongside the Kochi Biennale 2022 in Fort Kochi, it was able to mark its presence, owing to experimental artists, earning itself a rightful place of its own. While the show still needed a few finishing touches to round out the edges, it was fascinating to see a large community of young artists as well as early-to-mid career curators, working tirelessly. In hindsight, I wonder why it must be labelled as a 'Student' Biennale? The chosen works are of practising artists, many of whom have already completed their formal education in the arts, and are thereby no longer students. Not that, I believe, that a formal arts education should be a prerequisite to being called an artist.

Personally, I have observed a distinct and significant trend, one that has emerged over the years in the art of early career contemporary practices—the theme of immediacy. These young artists explore ideas from their immediate environment and respond to perspectives that are personal, not borrowed from the West. They are experimental and do not hesitate in sticking their necks out, on glaring issues that concern them. Owing to that, nothing, of what was presented, felt foreign or alien. 

This year marked the fifth edition of this section of the biennale. The programme emerged under curatorial mentorship, workshops, and reviews by seven mid-career curators, with regional and international experience. Titled In the Making, it was led by Afrah Shafiq, Amshu Chukki, the Anga Art Collective, Arushi Vats, Premjish Achari, Suvani Suri, and Saviya Lopes and Yogesh Barve. Each curator was assigned a minimum of three states for their research, college visits, workshops, and project shortlisting, eventually resulting in a total of 50 projects for the final showcase. 

STIR has curated a selection of projects that stood out from each of these curations.

En Vallkai, 2022, sculptural installation with bricks, wood and terracotta, A Livingstan Video: Courtesy of STIR

to witness / an expansive route; Curated by Afrah Shafiq

Afrah Shafiq is a Goa-based multimedia artist. Her work combines text, sound, animation, code, interactivity, the handmade, and maintains poetry within technology. She is currently a fellow at the Field Research Programme of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. In her early research for the Kochi Biennale, Shafiq says, “Evidently there is a wide chasm between the contemporary Indian art world and what happens at state-run art institutes. Departments are water-tight categories such as art sculpture, painting, print, applied art and sometimes additional programs like ceramics, textiles and murals. Modules are often focused on strengthening skill-based practices that directly translate into creating a livelihood on graduating.” In her curation of selected works, she chose artists and projects that lie within a broad spectrum, beginning their journey of creation inside institutes, yet seeping beyond its borders.

A Livingstan reminisces about his mother, who works in a brick kiln, spending her life safeguarding her children’s well-being and dreams, while sacrificing her own. At the end of each day, she cobbles up the leftover clay and makes little round beings. She plunges her fingers into them—an artist signing her work—and burns them along with the bricks. Over the years, the artist has collected these precious symbols of her agency and creative freedom and presents them in her dowry trunk.  By overlaying the poetics of brick-making, with his memories, he expresses his deep emotional regard for his mother, imagining himself as the brick and his mother as the brick mould that shaped his being.

Govar Toli, 2022, discarded mobile phones, Shiv Shankar Video: Courtesy of STIR

Buoyant Landscapes; Curated by Amshu Chukki

Amshu Chukki is a multidisciplinary artist, investigating new ways to articulate ideas of landscape and cities, lying between the visible and invisible. Interested in the interconnectivity between life, cinema, urbanity, infrastructure, politics, and fiction, his works, more often than not, engage in a conversation between history, fantasy, site, and resistance. The pandemic induced disruption of institutional academic structures that disproportionately affected students based on their social location, was the starting point for Chuki’s curation. “Imagination of new modes of collaboration, exchange, and spaces for ideation and production became the natural balancing act and an escape from confinement,” he shares.

His final selection references the Archimedean principle of buoyancy of a body, completely or partially submerged in a fluid, that is acted upon by an upward or 'buoyant force,' equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the body. The artists, through their works, articulate the effects of this buoyant force, equivalent to the measure of time lost to healing and recovering from the pandemic.

Shiv Shankar describes familial scenarios and caste stereotypes through the medium of telephonic exchange. Govar-toli is a Magadhi word, denoting an area where the Yadav community resides and is seen as immutable. Even as its members pursue new heights economically and otherwise, the artist is disturbed to see that social orthodoxy continues to prevail. In his telephonic conversations with his mother, community events and norms come up as frequent themes, leading him to re-imagine its imagery through paintings and image transferring, by placing them into phone screens. He thus treats discarded phones as a canvas and a portal to display his societal connections.

A Graveyard Under the River, 2022, charcoal and graphite on paper, video, found objects, Vijit Sinha Video: Courtesy of STIR

Mautâm; Curated by the Anga Art Collective

Assam-based Anga Art Collective was founded in 2010, to critically engage with visuality and materiality, based on the geographical and social landscape. Nursing the notion of a studio space breaking itself to become a process, they imagined a fluid structure for the collective rather than a closed ensemble. The basis of their curation for the art fair was the notion of primitivity and the invoking of an unexplored land of Northeast India. "Be it in popular culture, high academic discourses, or in touristic ventures, one still hears the murmurs of this connotation. It is as if history itself is suspended,” they say.

They contrast this belief with the contemporary history of repetitive intrusions, whereby inhabitants—human and non-human—are rendered disposable. This extractive psyche, noticeable even through the recent developmental and infrastructural interventions, is layered with catastrophic ecological consequences. Further, conflicted oral histories, settled in memories, provide the key to forgotten archives. Their selection navigates along these entangled realities using different mediums and materials.

Vijit Sinha references the river Manu, the longest in Tripura, considered to be a shape-shifter. According to the residents of the local community, it changes its course every year and has transformed itself more than once. The artist was inspired to interpret the transient nature of the river, to create images and forms based on the information and stories gathered from the local communities, residing near the river bank, alongside other objects that he encountered. The river is not constant, and thus the drawing process is recorded from the beginning to the end, in order to reflect this transient, transformational character.

These walls will be reinforced, 2022, site-specific installation, acrylic on flex, Pulak Sarkar Video: Courtesy of STIR

Whaching: An Atlas of Thinking Eyes; Curated by Arushi Vats

Arushi Vats is a curator and writer with a keen interest in critical writing on visual arts. Taking reference from Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay for the biennale, Vats asks a few questions: "Why create when it ever so often withholds that which is sought in creation—meaning, revelation, belonging, catharsis? Why create amidst terror and loss? Amidst silence and cacophony, forgetting and misremembering?” Commenting on her selected artist, she shares, “Through their works, I could discern the life force which makes any answers to these questions redundant.”

Pulak Sarkar’s vibrant, angular layering of sites have withstood the measure of time, evidenced in crevices, fissures, and ruptures in stone and cement, reminiscent of the oft-forgotten potential of modernism to yield possibilities of plural articulation. He refuses the figurative tendencies of late modernism for an abstract language that is geometric and fluid, and crucially, rooted in acts of repair and revitalisation of public sites. These interventions in the decrepit infrastructures contain a seed of hope, that an affective encounter with a site can activate multiple readings and further dialogue.

Jannat e' Kashmir, 2022, oil, acrylic and watercolour paintings, pencil, and ink drawings, digital art, acrylic sheets, plywood, reflections using water, KMEA College of Architecture Video: Courtesy of STIR

Seeds Sown Deep; Curated by Premjish Achari

Premjish Achari teaches art history and theory, and initiated Future Collaborations, a platform that promotes theoretically and politically informed curation as an essential aspect of contemporary art practice. He shares that the idea of home and the immediate local was a recurring theme that provided a glimpse of artistic imagination. “They foreground, imagine, and represent the local through utmost sensitivity, care, and playfulness that is often ignored in an external representation and appropriation of these places,” he comments. The vernacular works he selected for the art biennale offer insights into “how specific materials, pedagogical approaches, and image-making practices are configured to engage with the local.”

KMEA College of Architecture presents Jannat e’ Kashmir, where four artists collectively created a collage of memories of their study tour to Kashmir, intended to focus on its craft traditions. It was a multi-sensory experience, fresh in their minds, and a cultural revelation as stereotypical preconceptions of the place and its people melted away from the warmth of their welcome. It is a compilation of their variegated perspectives, experiences, and explorations of Kashmir and comprises a collection of paintings, sketches, doodles, and paper crafts of different sizes, framed and mounted.

Planting Conversations, 2022, mixed media on paper in sandwiched glass sheets, Dheeraj Jadhav Video: Courtesy of STIR

Deriving memory in the mundane; Curated by Saviya Lopes & Yogesh Barve

Saviya Lopes and Yogesh Barve are visual art practitioners at the Clark House Initiative in Mumbai. The core of their practice lies in creating visuals and engaging in conversations that are a part of their own social and cultural experiences. The intersection of their practices is in archives, history, community, and education. Lopes and Barve were both invited to the 11th Gwangju Biennale as fellows for the 'Eighth Climate (what does art do?) Forum' in 2016. Through their curation at the biennale, they investigate the concept of sustainability. “This is not simply about reducing our consumption of natural resources, but rather about creating new forms of connection with our surroundings that allow us to sustain ourselves in a way that prioritises communities over corporate interests,” they share. Preservation of the depleting landscape, they say, is being driven majorly by women and indigenous communities, taking on the mantle of nurturing in an unprecedented way. Their selection explores how these shifts take place through the lens of history, culture and indigenous methods. An attempt to show and capture how changes in cultural values can empower people to make changes that benefit their own communities.

Dheeraj Jadhav’s practice explores ways of documenting the experience through the senses of seeing, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. It is a practice of documenting memories through drawings, paintings, photography, technology, charcoal, ink, dry pastel, and watercolour. Delving into the act of documenting communities, he looks at indigenous ways of farming and maintenance of soil fertility, carried out by women in coordination with the family members of the Banjara Micro community who are descendants of Afghanistan. Their ways of living and sustenance maintain soil fertility, which was depleted by colonial methods of chemical farming. The Indian artist examines the relationship of these communities with nature, focusing on their women who are the flag bearers of ecological balance and personal resistance.

Voices 1, Voices 2, 2022, Installation, Bamboo, handmade paper, coconut leaves, Thangshampha Maku Video: Courtesy of STIR

being with without; Curated by Suvani Suri

Suvani Suri is an artist and researcher, working with sound, text, and intermedia assemblages, and is actively engaged in thinking through listening. Her practice is informed by the techno-politics of sound, aural and oral histories and critical imaginations activated by the relational and speculative capacities of voice. Her selection of works for the biennale project the 'inaudible notes, tones, and frequencies' constituting the uneasiness of our times. “They commonly unconceal and vocalise a sense of lack but in their own singular and deviant ways, they also draw out the plenitude latent within it," she says. The practices underscore a world intent on concealing 'gaps,' rather than attending to them. “The weariness spawns a growing refusal to cover up any of the gaps, making, palpable, the decision to inventively traverse the punctured terrain of our here and now,” she adds.

For Thangshampha Maku, the imagery of the Naga tribal culture is informed by indigenous flora and fauna. The relations developed between humans and their habitat in these locations are that of co-existence with sustenance. The practice of nurturing nature can be observed in these cultures. Voices is an installation belonging to the artist’s project titled Negative Anomalous Behaviour, which presents concepts of belonging, identity, and reclaiming. The structure of the work is inspired by the architecture of Naga houses, their interiors, exteriors, motifs and materials. Architectural forms made of organic materials construct the body of this multimedia project including drawing, interaction, painting, documentation, journal, and installation. The genealogy of tribal cultural practices of 'making' against socio-political discrimination constantly triggers the artist’s praxis.

The exhibits are on display across four venues in Fort Kochi—Armaan & Co. Building, Vallabhdas Kanji Ltd. (VKL) Warehouse, KVN Arcade, and Trivandrum Warehouse.

Read more on Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022, which is on view till April 10, 2023, in Kerala, India.

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