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Slow Looking in Three Parts: City, Swings, Sea | Reflecting on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

We’re living in the age of hyper-connectivity. Our lives are faster than they have ever been. We’re either running to something, or running from something. Always on the move, no time to stop; on the street, on the daily commute, at home, at work, after waking up, before bed, every waking hour, even in a state of sleep. The world seems to always be switched on, our minds and bodies are hyper-aware. It’s almost like there is no other way to live. A new form of rapid internal and external stimulation is ready to bombard us mentally and physically even before we can begin to comprehend what we are currently faced with. Time has warped itself into everything but the present moment. We’re living either in the future or in the past; a string of disconnections, experiences that exist only in traces.

What is the role of art in a world like this?

This January, I spent two days in Kochi at the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first biennale for contemporary art, founded in 2011. It was my first visit, both to the city and the event. Whilst I could only be there for a short period of time, I was determined to see as much art as possible. I came prepared to take on the venues from opening to closing time. Yet the physical landscape of the city, the sea and the event made me reconsider my approach. Instead of trying to cover everything, the landscape encouraged me to slow down, absorb what I was faced with, and explore the relationship between my surroundings, the art and my internal self.

Whilst the contemporary art scene in India is up and coming and making a global impact, in many cases it continues to be a function of caste and class privilege, particularly within the space of the four walls of the white cube gallery, driven by complex theoretical frameworks. Coming from an art historical background, I acknowledge and appreciate the scholarly insights that are emerging from the subcontinent, however in addition to those suggest that in order to engage with a broader community, the curatorial framework must allow for an engagement on multiple levels.

The following is a reflection on how physical landscape and architecture can facilitate an accessible and community based viewing experience for contemporary art.

Slow looking in three parts: the city, the swing, the sea

Part I: The City

They say, walking is the best way to really get to know a place. Perhaps for that reason I prefer to go to cities and towns that allow for walking. I don’t necessarily see the lure of famous-tourist attractions, but spend my time wandering around, hoping to chance upon lesser known local haunts, a cafe, a food shack, and an uncemented pathway. Walking allows for time and agency, elements of surprise, soaking in the city through the ordinary moments of everyday life.

Fort Kochi, despite its harsh and sunny afternoons, allowed for walking if picked at the correct time. Early mornings and early evenings were ideal because the weather was pleasant enough and the light, soft. In the morning, the city awoke slowly, rocking itself out of its slumber with the rising sun. But no one seemed to be rushing. Fishermen flocked the riverside at the crack of dawn, getting their nets ready, as the crows began cawing and various vessels made their way onto the waters edge. The tea and coffee shacks opened at their own pace, some announcing their arrival with the sound of the local radio, others setting up their mobile lottery ticket stalls. The morning exercisers, streamed in partaking in forms of running, stretching, conversing, around the water. The cats and dogs were almost in tune with these rhythms as they too emerged from the corners they’d occupied for the night, stretching out, curling in, getting their own morning activity in.

By the time noon hit, the sun began to get sharper, streaming through the canopy of trees. The colour palette was an amalgam of bright greens, sky blues, and stark whites, representation of the trees, skies, waters and traditional attire. People watching was more interesting, particularly due to the local fashion where white dominated. The landscape had elements of familiarity but at the same time, manifested itself in unfamiliar ways, evoking an uncanny viewing experience. A family of four sandwiched tightly on a two wheel vehicle, vendors selling coconut water and bananas by the roadside, tracts of green plantations. The signs of capitalist encroachment were equally apparent, visible and omnipresent, fast food chains and commercial giants making the local landscape appear homogeneous, much like any other city in the country. Within the veil of hoardings advertising commercial giants and chain stores, I looked for elements that belonged to the landscape, an attempt to experience even in fragments a past that I had not been privy to.

I devoured and soaked in the city, even before I reached the art on display. The city attuned me to using my eyes, being aware of the sounds I was hearing, and feeling the weather on my skin. The city activated senses that reminded me of the need for slowness, the need to take time with the landscape I was in.

How deeply do externally circumstances govern your internal state of mind? What do you derive wonder from, in your immediate physical surroundings? What kinds of spaces put you at ease, which ones make your body tense up? Are you aware of how the space you’re in outside, changes you from the inside?

Part II: The Swings

The Aspinwall House, situated on River Road in Fort Kochi, is one of the largest venues for the Kochi Biennale and has been since the event's first iteration. It was named after British merchant John H. Aspinwall and used for the trade of spices, tea and coffee and even boat-making during British colonial rule. The space is divided into multiple warehouses that architecturally combine local and colonial styles, manifesting themselves in the form of white washed buildings with wooden doorways, wooden staircases, many of the roofs covered in mangalore terracotta tiles. One side opens out onto the bustling and busy Fort Kochi street, and the other onto the Vembanad Lake, the backwaters that are the confluence of the Periyar River and the Arabian Sea. The buildings are peppered across the venue in a quadrangle form. The central courtyard is home to a variety of local trees of all sizes, from amaltas to gulmohar, and peepal to banyan. The trees provide a shelter from the blistering heat with their canopies and a space for the community to come together collectively but also spend time alone.

The most striking feature of the central courtyard remains the swings. Simple, functional, integrated with their surroundings, constructed with strong jute ropes and repurposed wooden slabs of slightly different shapes and sizes. The swing in all its forms is something I associated with childhood, playgrounds and laughter. The school playground, the swing set in the park, or the one in my friends' front yard, one that overlooked the sea, swings of all shapes and sizes that I have been acquainted with, flash in front of my eyes. It was always my favourite part of a playground, perhaps because of the feelings of liberation and freedom that it harbored. It made you feel invincible, even if that was for a short moment in time, as if you were flying.

Watching different people occupy the swings in the courtyard lead to a number of observations about human beings and the way we engage with recreation. Some were hesitant at first, peering around to see if anyone was watching, before getting on their toes to shuffle onto the thin seat. Even as they began to hoist themselves in the air, they looked around, almost wary to indulge in this simple act of surrender. Most of these more hesitant participants were adults. A middle aged woman in a pink kurta and black slacks. A man, who seemed to be her husband, in a matching pink-checkered shirt and gray trousers. A group of college going students with their camera gear in tow. Others, particularly younger children, didn't think twice before hauling themselves on. Two young girls, twins, in polka-dotted white and red dresses, pleaded with their mum to let them stay longer. A pre-adolescent boy, who was being pushed by his father as the two of them burst into laughter, louder and louder as the swing went higher. I could spend the whole day standing under the shade of the tree, braving the afternoon heat just to watch the way people interacted with the swings. The way their faces contorted when they considered spending a moment to occupy them, the way their lips turned upwards when they were up in the air, teeth appearing, as the sound of the laughter escaped, eyelids resting, head tilting back. The visual manifestation of joy, when a simple physical gesture results in a flood of sensations, emotions, memories.

I too, tried my luck, at first just slightly self-conscious of occupying the space for longer than I should, but eventually as the breeze caught onto my hair, caressing my cheeks and the adrenaline rushed to the pit of my stomach I was able to let go. I almost felt like the woman in the 18th century French Rococo painting, ‘The Swing’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (housed in the Wallace Collection in London). The image lives rent-free in my brain, due to its playful, magical construction of joy, and love. The maiden, dressed in a frilly baby pink dress, kicks her shoe off, stretching her toes out to the sky. Whilst my surroundings were not exactly the same as her, and my outfit was slightly more suited to the tropical climate of the city, the affective resonance of the adrenaline rush of being on the swing most definitely mirrored the reflection in the painting.

When was the last time you sat on a swing? Do you remember? Perhaps, it is a distant memory from when you were a young child. Maybe on a school playground, or in a public park, or maybe you remember having a swing in your own backyard. Try to recall the last time you sat on a swing and kicked your legs back and forth to let the wind and momentum take you higher and higher. Why do we stop finding joy in the little things as adults? Should play be restricted to childhood?

Part III: The Sea

Kochi is a port city, and no matter where you may be situated within it, the sounds and smells of the sea never leave you. They are more prominent, your body responds more strongly, if you’re not from a seaside location yourself The intensity varies depending on your physical distance from the coast.

When I went to Pepper House, a cafe and art space, another Biennale venue, I spent longer engaging with the water. It was difficult not to. The building is a restored Dutch warehouse that was associated with the spice trade and hence much like Aspinwall, looks onto the lake. A two-storeyed white washed building, with a green courtyard in the center. I was enamoured the moment I walked in, with the architecture, the colour and texture of the walls, the way visitors sat on the benches in the corridors, sipping their iced coolants leisurely, no signs of rush, no tensing of bodies. The sounds of the waterside that flooded every room however, held my attention and the longer I listened to them, the more I was able to hear. The waves told stories, stories that I had previously not known.

From the windows on the second floor I gazed out watching the construction works that were being carried out by the water side. The sounds of the sea fused with the sounds of the machinery, and verbal signals shouted by those occupying the construction site. Indoors, the ceiling fan produced a rhythmic base echo. The cacophony was chaotic, simultaneously enabling me to zone out of the space I was occupying, and focus on the visual of the sea, tuning my brain and vision to a different frequency. I thought more about the surface of the water, and what lay underneath. The lake didn’t appear to be suitable for swimming. But even if it would have been, I can’t swim very well, so I wouldn’t have tried anyway. But standing there, with my eyes trained on the movement, back and forth, back and forth, the ripples taking shape and flattening out, occupying space, moving and changing every moment, the water drew me in, completely. I went down the wooden staircase at the end of the corridor, and escaped out through the arched doorway onto the waterside, standing on the cemented barrier looking out at sea.

Water is a vessel of contradictions and multiplicities. But watching water can be a therapeutic sensory experience that activates ways of seeing, thinking, listening and feeling. Since we live in a world where our phones have become our constant source of stimuli, we are lulling ourselves into a dangerous sleep that is ignorant of the happenings of the surrounding environment. The natural world has the ability to bring us back, to look within.

A moment by the water, captured at Aspinwall, Fort Kochi

The Kochi Biennale, brings together some of the most globally renowned modern and contemporary artists to a seaside port city in India. The selection of works has been tastefully curated. And whilst it is a joy to witness and view the work, what makes the event standout is its intertwining of local and global contexts, and its landscape that encourages a different approach to art viewing and art for the community. The Biennale is a ‘Peoples’ Biennale’ due to its accessible ticket prices, and spaces that depart from the restrictive and often intimidating environment of the white cube. The Biennale reminds you to stop, slow down, pause, think and listen. Whether that is by hopping onto a swing and kicking your feet back and forth, or by sitting under the shape of a gulmohar tree on a stone platform, or by watching the waves of the backwaters, go back and forth. The views, sounds, smells of the landscape of the city are integrated within the art viewing experience. You can choose to spend as much or as little time as you want with the works, or merely use the space to reflect on your own thoughts. We need more spaces like this within the country, spaces that allow common people to engage with art to reclaim their time and their senses. Art shouldn’t be complicated, we shouldn’t always feel the need to present it as complicated, engagement with art can and should take place on multiple levels and it is perhaps then, that we will truly be able to look at art as an element of everyday life, rather than something niche that is merely a function of class privilege. Art doesn’t save the world in the same way as perhaps medicine or science does, but art can be a saviour and bring us back to ourselves, heightening our senses, our awareness of ourselves and the world around us.

Art can make a change, if we allow it to.

A selection of some of the works on display across the various venues of the Kochi Biennale 2022-23.

Ananya Jain is a writer and visual storyteller based between New Delhi and London. She explores non-linear narratives around art, history, and human experience of the quotidian, through her words and images. She is currently pursuing her MA in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and previously completed her BA in English and Art History from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is the founder of SHOR and hopes to use this platform to bring together trans-cultures creative perspectives on noise.



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