Calling on Kochi

As the art fraternity gears up for the ominous-sounding Kochi-Muziris Biennale opening date of 12.12.12 in the port city of Kerala, the multiple venues are bustling with a frenetic urgency. Amid commissioned artwork by nearly 90 artists from 24 countries, there are two projects who have their respective artists labouring away for months. With works of well-known Indian artists Sudarshan Shetty, Subodh Gupta and LN Tallur towering around them, the biennale will witness two international artists, Jonas Staal and Joseph Semah. While one is known for creating controversy inducing works, the latter's works imbibes from his self-imposed exile. It's through their installations and performances that the week will open.

"In the hysterical media-ridden era that we live in today, an era of representation and images, we as artists should have something more to say," says 31-year-old Staal, adding, "Art cannot be of any social importance if it does not acknowledge the influences of these domains. In that sense, art is a political force in itself." In 2005, Staal created a series of public memorials in his hometown Rotterdam, The Netherlands — complete with photo collages, framed portraits, roses, candles and even teddy bears. The person in the photographs was Geert Wilders, a right-wing political leader who was often issued death threats due to his radical views. The striking feature of this installation, however, was that it was a direct semblage of Wilders' self-portrayal as a "living martyr". As public opinion grew, Wilders interpreted them as real death threats. Staal was subsequently arrested and tried in 2007-08. But the artist fed the controversy when he announced the trials to be a continuation of his installation, a play called The Geert Wilders Works—A Trial I-II.

Staal, whose artisthood was shaped by his days in the poor areas of The Netherlands amid ethnic and cultural tensions in the early 2000s, and the founder of New World Summit, an arts and political organisation, has an elaborate plan for Kochi. Under construction for six months, his "performance" includes a pavilion which will act as "conference" with speakers (who are yet to be announced) from "banned" Indian organisations.

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