In the blink of an eye: Chitra Ganesh speaks about her influences and works at Kochi Biennale 2018
Chitra Ganesh, the multi-disciplinary artist and native New Yorker, whose paintings and video work can be seen as a part of the fourth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, spoke to a public audience at the Biennale Pavilion about her practice, from early works to ongoing projects.
The artist discussed the aesthetic and conceptual influences that informed her work, the most obvious being Amar Chitra Katha comics, which she grew up reading during her summer breaks in India.
Ganesh re-interprets and subverts the representational language used in comics by using queer, multispecies and surrealist imagery, and also opens up traditional narratives of the books by isolating frames, and introducing written poetics to the images that range from eerie, to humourous, to wildly abstract, to poignant. The artist took time off to write about her time at the festival.
The larger role of art
The works at the Kochi Biennale, taken as a whole in their polymorphous power, converge in a few key ways. First, the collection of installations, interventions, and bodies of work presented, including realms of performance and food, follow a thread that investigates how artists think, create, question and find common ground within an increasingly alienated and polarised contemporary climate.
I would characterise this moment as framed by a global shift towards autocratic rule that seeks to uphold a dramatic increase in income inequality, support state-based surveillance mechanisms such as corporate internet data mining and biometric data collection, values corporate interests over ecological harmony human life, and in turn, is facing a growing resistance to old-school patriarchal and caste-based norms among others.
The Biennale, as a whole, also takes artists who have had growing visibility in shaping current ideas of the cannon such as of William Kentridge, The Guerilla Girls, Jitish Kallat and Nilima Sheikh, with younger artists, local artists and collectives to present a new formulation of what we would understand as a working artistic cannon that is more inclusive and diverse.
Themes, topics of interest
I was looking forward to seeing works that explore and express feminist critiques, that offer counter narratives and alternative ways of seeing that are often bypassed. The festival’s theme, 'Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life', summed it up perfectly for me — an acknowledgment of the political fraught times we live in, and an articulation of many possible paths forward that reinvest in the politics behind sociality, and the power of friendship.
It was also wonderful to see such a dynamic presence of historical works by senior artists — engaging such a robust display of KP Krishnakumar’s ink drawings, Chittaprosad’s drawings and archival materials, and Mrinalini Mukerjee’s water-colours, prints and sculptures together at Durbar Hall — was a personal highlight.
It was also a pleasure to consider works that used elements of material culture in installations, engaged with issues that are both local, and with wider global implications.
These included Marzia Farhana’s installation using materials scavenged from the Kochi floods, Aryakrishnan’s Sweet Maria Monument, a testament to the strength and power of queer and trans communities in Kerala, and sculptor Shambavi Singh’s reflections on farming and land.
Multiple art streams
Something I really enjoyed about the Biennale is how artists who tend to be categorised in fairly rigid terms in mainstream and largely market-based art contexts — via classifications like emerging/established, contemporary/modern, tribal/folk, North/South, art/craft, and so on — artists from all these categories were seamlessly juxtaposed and interwoven throughout the exhibition spaces.
The multiplicity of visual languages, paired with interpretive wall labels in both languages, gave audiences new ways to understand the formal and political constraints in which artists make their work.
This includes positioning artists who work in very different ways, and inhabit different categories, to be seen within the framework of contemporary art, including Santha KV Bapi Das and whose works were among my favourites.
There were some beautiful juxtapositions, such as the proximity of works by Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh documenting layered queer experience and the juxtaposition of works by Santu Mokofeng and Sunil Janah — both incredible photographers, who employ a documentary frame to great affective ends — communicating a deep sense of joy, sorrow, and love of the land, within the backdrop of racial and caste hierarchies that frame South Africa’s and India’s post-independence realities, respectively.
The strong presence of women and queer artists in the exhibition was also wonderful — seeing the works of Madhavi Parekh and Mrinalini Mukerjee along with Zanele Mulhole and Valie Export.
Personal time at the fest
My own visit to the Biennial was a couple of weeks after the opening, giving me the chance to meander through and really see the art with friends, away from the hectic atmosphere of a vernissage.
While I wasn’t in attendance for the opening festivities per se, I found the atmosphere, audience and programming to be dynamic, buzzing with engagement, and diverse.
I met loads of colleagues over the course of my visit, including Subhash Singh Vyam, whose collaborative installation with Durgabai Vyam was amazing. I also gave an artist talk at the Biennial Pavilion, an amazing architectural commission at Cabral Yard, which serves as both a performance space and a platform for discourse, events and gatherings related to the Biennial.
I loved this space, as it allows for spontaneity and additional textured programming - for example, I really wish I was going to be there at the end of this month for Priya Sen's screening of her latest film, Yeh Freedom Life.
Regarding my own projects, I hope that the various layers and stories in both my animations and my suite of comic-based prints draw audiences in, and offer a window into a different sense of time, one which is almost dream-like — where the dream narrative is densely layered and textured, populated by shapeshifting characters and sudden shifts in time and space, when so much can happen in the blink of a eye.
It was great to see the suite of animations I had originally created in a much different context, at the Rubin Museum in New York, come to life in a whole new way as an immersive surround-sound installation.
On political, activistic art
All art is political in a certain sense — even taking a stance of being apolitical or disengaged is itself an intentional position — and historically, maintaining silence often ends up supporting dominant ways of expressing power and exerting control. I think social media and tech platforms are changing the way art is engaged and produced to be sure.
In a certain way, the camera phone simply offers a new mode of interacting with the artwork — not just artworks, but religious monuments, national parks and treasures, and a wide range of public aesthetic experiences.
I saw this at the Biennale as well as in Bellur, and have noticed this mode of engagement via technology around the world.
Perhaps, people have a shorter attention span as a result of constantly being on technology or media, but I do think that most people are still very curious about and interested in engaging with art, be it a young student from the local vicinity or a wealthy art collector.
The art itself can invite viewers to spend that extra minute — by presenting multiple layers of engagement — whether through colour, light, sound, story, message or medium — you name it.
As long as the work allows audiences, in its own unique way, a point of entry, a moment to step out of one’s own life and head for a second, to reconsider any aspect of history, daily life, time and so on, it has made a greater impact.
Art can offer alternate modes of interaction in unexpected ways — for example, the sociality encouraged in the food centred such as Edible Archives featuring caterer Prima Kurien and Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar and Vipin Dhanurdharan’s anti-caste inspired communal dining project was one such exploration.
Chitra Ganesh’s works are on display at Aspinwall House.