What I do remember…

 It is a simple test, but a pertinent one after visiting any exhibition – but it was profound after the Kochi-Muziris International Biennale

The fact that I remembered anything at all was surprising. I avoid most contemporary art, especially conceptual art, a category for which I have a strong opinion that is hard for me to circumvent with age. When young and insecure, I might have pretended to have liked such objects and to have understood their accompanying intellectualized descriptive texts. Today, I am much more comfortable with my taste and even more confident to denounce when both object and text failed to communicate anything. I’ve walked away from such exhibitions empty, remembering nothing, gaining nothing more than an appreciation for artists who at least try to employ at least a little seduction when wanting others’ attention.  As I wrote in the Stuccadore Peon, I find it difficult to take artists seriously when they rely on words to explain concepts that they fail to transmit visually by proficiently creating with their hands. I had always felt that such artists had the wrong medium: Why don’t they just write instead? Will their really be no pursuit of beauty? Would it not be better to commission a great painter, sculptor, or illustrator to bring their ideas to life? Lord knows there are so many that need the work.

Leave it to India to make me unpack and rethink everything: the Kochi-Muziris International Biennale was probably the most incredible art exhibitions I have ever seen. A panorama of contemporary artists from around the world and South Asia came together under the expert curatorship of concise language that explained both relevance and meaning of the works precisely – devoid of what I call pseudo-intellectual deceit – to create an ensemble for a vision of our times. I admit I still ignored most video installations (one’s taste has limits!), but there were several poignant installations that captivated me, awakening me to consider some contemporary social issues of which I was inattentive.

A tire hanging from the ceiling was exactly the kind of art that I would ignore and forget, but the social and political comment of Mr. Sun (Slow Violence) by E.B. Itso from Denmark about the irony of development and industry, particularly the rubber industry of Kerala, a land under great development pressures from construction and tourism, was haunting:



It would hard to discuss contemporary issues without covering discrimination. It took on a new dimension for me when seeing Vinu VV’s multi-media sculpture installation made from the wood of the suicide tree to bring voice to those who have been marginalized in his native Keralan society:


Bringing people together, sitting down with them in their homes and sharing food with them might seem like too easy of a fairy-tale solution to much of the estrangement between people in our contemporary world. It might— except you would have to get up and do it. Vipin Dhanurdharan did, and what he created was an astoundingly beautiful effort to understand one’s own neighbors, the people with whom one shares an immediate world:



A reinterpretation of folklore and traditional art will always catch my attention. The Infra-Project, inspired by the Gond school of painting to tell mythology using the traditional pigments was quite a welcome to the exhibition:


Mónica Mayer stole the show for me. And it is not only due to my bias for the culture of Mexico. The Mexican artist brought her work to Kochi with an installation made of pure words, adapting her usual investigation of sexual harassment in The Clothesline to ask not only what individuals lost but also what they gained from the tragedies of the Mexico City earthquake and the recent local devastation during the Keralan floods. Each card was placed on clothes lines, hung like dirty laundry that had now been washed and hung out to dry in the sun for everyone to see. It was art made of words, the voices of people who faced great tragedy. Some answers were simple, frank and material. Others were profoundly haunting, making me teary-eyed as I saw how individuals realized there is no loss without gain, and vice-versa. Then I saw the panel referring to the Mexican earthquake in their original Spanish words and I lost it: I heard much more clearly the voices of Mexico and how simple people are able to express themselves with such incomparable poetry in Spanish that I started crying. I looked across at the Malayalam panels with a burning wish to be able to read the language of beautiful squiggles and hear firsthand their reflections without the English translations.

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So there I was – at a moment just before the end of the year – thinking about what is lost and gained when a transformation occurs, whether tragic or not, and then words of a great poet came to mind: Y diversa de mi misma, entre vuestras plumas ando.

“What does that mean?” I was asked.

I’m a translator, but not of poetry: “I will slaughter it, but l will try: ‘released from myself, it is among your feathers I fly’. They are the words of one of Mexico’s greatest poets, a woman, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. She was a nun.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like a sannyasi. She had renounced life and was devoted to God.”

“But what does the verse mean?”

“For me, she is talking about letting go. Releasing the ego. When it is no longer important to get what you want and things be the way that you want. You accept them and things the way they are. You go with that which is carrying you in life. You don’t fight it. All these people on that Clothesline had to learn a little of that, one way or another, whether they like it or not.”

“I feel this Mexico must be very similar to our India”

“Much more than you know,” I smirked.

As I have always said: no one leaves Mexico or India unscathed. 

So for 2019, I wish that everyone runs as fast as they can to Kochi to see the Biennale and that everyone remember the Clothesline: that happiness can only be found in the knowledge that even in the greatest of your tragedies there is something to be gained and that nothing can be taken away from you without your gaining something new, and that there is nothing to be gained without letting go – of something, even if it is not a thing.

That’s what I remember.

More from the Kochi-Muziris Biennale:


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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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