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Family Portraits by Desmond Lazaro

The installation at the Biennale juxtaposes Lazaro’s personal journey tracing his family history and interests with social commentary using hanging cloth, cine films, polaroids, a film and a page from his grandfather’s passport woven together with intricate Pichvai paintings.

"I walked through the huge embroidered hanging cloths, feeling like I was flipping the pages of a history book or walking through layers of time."

Go Playces by Orijit Sen

The series of artworks at Kochi-Muziris Biennale took off as iterations from the gigantic mural that Sen conceived at Virasat-e-Khalsa in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab working alongside Amardeep Behl, and Sen’s other explorations.

But for Hyderabad the process was a little different. A long table awaited visitors as they gathered around to put the pieces of the puzzle together while the streets surrounding the Charminar adorned the wall with Sen’s elaborate artwork.

Ghost Keeping by István Csákány

The ghosts that represent failed ideas and utopic visions were made in collaboration with Hungarian fashion design company Je Suis Belle.

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Update 27 Mar 2017

Of Veiled Vision and Concrete Escapes at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2017

It was finally time to soak in the art after counting down days so I left all my gadgets behind (mostly) to explore the third edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale; an international exhibition of contemporary art held in Kochi, Kerala every two years. Here, I’ll take you through the conversations I had with three of my favourite artists to learn more about the making of their installations that saw thousands of visitors hoarding everyday.

I stepped into Kochi sheltering my eyes from the blazing sun, greeted by ARTOs decked in the colours of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. If you are wondering what ARTOs are, just like I was, welcome to Kochi, where everyone has a role to play in the biennale. The auto rickshaw drivers had turned into ARTO drivers to take visitors around the city’s art festivities, the walls were beautifully hand lettered with Argentinean writer Sergio Chefec’s work and swaying lush trees complemented the vibrant mood setting the tone for my days in Kochi.

Local street food sellers lined the streets selling spicy bhajjis (pakodas) and raw mangoes while visitors blissfully devoured them ignoring the sweltering heat. I made my way straight to Aspinwall HouseKochi-Muziris Biennale’s largest venue and a sea-facing property. The air was filled with the scent of spices from the old market and the walls were pasted with posters and signs, acting as omnipresent guides for directions. After wading through the long queue, I began walking through the venue, occasionally glimpsing the festival map, but mostly allowing the doors to guide me, with a tinge of wonderland nostalgia. 

Curated by Sudarshan Shetty, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 titled Forming in the Pupil of an Eye, a line from Sharmistha Mohanty’s work, seeks meaning in multiplicities. The exhibition is not about one reality, but about the layers that unravel as you keep the inner eye open. It is hard to make any sort of cumulative list for the Biennale that takes place across 12 venues and 108 days. With over 97 artists from across 31 countries, how does one choose? So I decided to speak to the three artists whose work at Aspinwall House meandered into the crannies of my brain even as I went along hopping from venue to venue. 

Family Portraits by Desmond Lazaro

Imaginary Homelands

When Desmond Lazaro arrived from England, in Baroda as a student, he was fascinated with the idea of miniature painting. But this interest wasn’t just a spark, as Lazaro spent the next 12 years learning the techniques of miniature painting from Jaipur master Banu Ved Pal Sharma, one of the few living experts in the ancient tradition. Pichvai painting is a lifestyle for Lazaro and continues to be central to his practice. From handmade pigments to sourcing paper and cloth from across the country, tradition dictates his craft while adding meaning in the form of contemporary messages. 

The installation at the Biennale juxtaposes Lazaro’s personal journey tracing his family history and interests with social commentary using hanging cloth, cine films, polaroids, a film and a page from his grandfather’s passport woven together with intricate Pichvai paintings. I walked through the huge embroidered hanging cloths, feeling like I was flipping the pages of a history book or walking through layers of time.

Family Portraits picks up the story where Incoming Passengers, Lazaro’s exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road halted, after charting his mother’s journey from Burma to England. It transfers the tales of the next 20 years from a series of cine film vignettes to 16 paintings that capture growing up in England and what it meant to be an immigrant.

Important to the technique involved in Pichvai and Lazaro’s process are the materials. “The first thing you learn how to make in Pichvai is colour,” Lazaro said, while explaining the differences between earthy, organic, chemical and semi-precious colours that arise out of different sources but are all handmade.

Paper and cloth are also key to the process of Pichvai; Lazaro’s paper comes from a family in Sanganer, Rajasthan, with whom he has been working for many years to source handmade, hand dipped paper. “The cloth is a special cotton-based close weave that ensures the colour sits on the surface rather than seeping in. I’ve been working with the family for 20 years now. I just tell them how many metres I want and it is delivered,” Lazaro said referring to a small shop located in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, home to Pichvai. 

Apart from the keen attention to details, the subject and the stories, walking through the long corridor with long embroidered layers of lace felt like a stroll through Desmond Lazaro’s life, but also anyone else’s, but more than the statistics that they are often reduced to. “I worked with Jean-Francois Lesage to bring the embroidery to life. I was also referencing the Pichvai tradition of lace work,” Lazaro said when I gushed about the beautiful textures that made the perfect canvas for multiple interpretations. His grandfather’s passport was embedded with a message to allow the bearer to pass freely. “I think we broke that promise today. It is fractured in our society and where we are now,” he said referring to the ongoing immigrant crisis. 

Go Playces by Orijit Sen

I played my way across the country through four interconnected rooms thanks to Orijit Sen’s ‘Go Playces.’ From the old flower market of Mapusa in Goa to the four streets around Charminar and then finally to Punjab’s Grand Trunk (GT) Road, I got the chance to experience colours, sights, conversations and people in these places. Sen’s love for places has always made its way into his work whether they are comics or illustrations.

But the series of artworks at Kochi-Muziris Biennale took off as iterations from the gigantic mural that Sen conceived at Virasat-e-Khalsa in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab working alongside Amardeep Behl, and Sen’s other explorations. Walking inside the room, I saw the artwork pasted from wall to wall. “So much has changed over time. I spoke to people to learn about how their memories had changed too. I wanted to explore the human connections that made history,” Sen elaborated on his process for Punjab’s BT Road. 

But for Hyderabad the process was a little different. A long table awaited visitors as they gathered around to put the pieces of the puzzle together while the streets surrounding the Charminar adorned the wall with Sen’s elaborate artwork. His interest in the old city arises from the same space being inhabited by different communities, adding their own stories and creating multiple realities. Strangers turned collaborators at the venue as everyone had one goal: to crack the puzzle and watch the Charminar light up. I remember walking into the room, pleasantly surprised that everyone was touching the artwork. After countless visits to galleries where strict ‘do not touch’ signs glared at me, I jumped into the fun before I could think twice. 

While his drawing process for these works was entirely digital, the production brought in a range of materials from wood to acrylics. After a series of trial and errors, Sen and his friend, a skilled woodworker from Goa settled on a few techniques that worked for them varying between water jet cutting, laser cutting, hand colouring and hand assembly traversing the roads between pixels and buckets of paint. “All the details of the Charminar are laser-cut from acrylic. We wanted it to be just as detailed and rich as it would be if you were standing in front of it,” Sen explained. 

Listening to excited murmurs from the next room, I had to make my way there to learn more about Goa’s Mapusa Market. I nudged my way around the room, closely packed with people, and walls filled with artworks above raised platforms, it felt much like walking through a market lined with vendors. Sen’s intentions were geared towards bringing the complex, integrated vastness to the room. Filled with textures and conversation bubbles, the artwork mapped out Mapusa Market visually while also creating tangible expressions of the cultural habits that were characteristic of the space. “Someone who knows Mapusa would be able to negotiate the space like they would in the market. You can meet the people, the products they sell and mark where they are sitting,” he stated.  

Orijijt started drawing as a child, like many of us, but he never stopped. After numerous field trips with his father who was a cartographer, Sen’s interest in maps began growing. “I saw landscapes turning into dotted lines on paper and since then I’ve always been excited by visual maps of time to tell stories,” he said. 

Ghost Keeping by István Csákány

I walked into a well-lit room away from the hustle bustle of the exterior to see a sewing factory. Haunting silence echoed from the wooden handcrafted machines neatly placed on tables and the headless mannequins decked in suits. At first, what might appear to be an empty factory turned out to be stacked with meaning as I walked through, looking at the details carved in wood. The realistic model seemed like a frozen moment in time that was perhaps once filled with rows of workers.

István Csákány had a shift of interest from painting to installations during his earlier years when he was still in school. “My family constantly built our home together in a typical Eastern-European way,” Csákány said talking about the long hours he spent learning about planning, construction and building materials while building his own home. Walking through the non-operational sewing unit is a reminder of a do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Csákány’s choices of materials too echo the simplicity of a DIY project: cheap construction wood. “It is really important to me that I use natural material for my work. I’m very particular about a visible process of aging,” Csákány said referring to a theme crucial to his work: memories and monuments that serve as tellers of time. Though the materials are not fussy, his attention to details required a lot of research. Csákány visited a real sewing factory and took a lot of photographs of everything; he wanted to have a range of sewing machines that would together be able to produce the suits that were also part of his installation. The process was tedious but was also part of Csákány’s larger message that intended to highlight the position of workers in the society. 

A year and a half after Csákány set out to build the factory with his assistant sculptors in his Hungary-based studio, the machines and factory pieces were done, ready for installation. But that is only part of the model. The ghosts that represent failed ideas and utopic visions were made in collaboration with Hungarian fashion design company Je Suis Belle. “The colour of the suits reminiscence elegant businessmen attire and worker clothes that were typically blue to hide the dirt,” Csákány explained. Sewn in typical 70s fashion, the ghosts appear distinct from the empty factory, much like the collision of class that was central to the Industrialization that Csákány consistently references. Even after I left the room the silence remained an eerie presence in my mind, while the factory continued to perform the act of ghost keeping. 

After spending long hours across the venues and eating three course meals filled with paint, poetry and film for a few days, I brimmed with excitement, curiosity and wonder. Every wall in the city was filled with art, text and patterns. With this edition of the Biennale the curatorial vision goes a step further marking the venues that the exhibitions are located in with a sense of multiplicity. A mix of large halls and warehouses, the venues span across Kochi including a Yard and the Kottapuram Fort: locations that break out of familiar spaces to view art-like museums. Tattered walls and concrete cubes are filled with art during the Biennale and often go back to being disused and empty after the Biennale while temporarily being injected with frames and colour.

The reservoir of visuals I collected, made their way across the roads and rivers to the scribbles in my journal back at home, which I finally wrapped up weeks later after long conversations that offered a deeper look into my favourite artworks. I’m savouring every bit of this edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, till the next one comes along.