It is only coincidental that a Kochi-Muziris Biennale installation on Kerala’s famed spices is housed in a venue that gives a glorious and panoramic view to the sea, as if suggesting the historical link the stuff has had with the shipping route.
Climb up a steep wooden staircase leading to the top floor of Moidu’s Heritage Plaza in Fort Kochi, and the visitor is greeted by a strong but pleasant smell of dried herbs, leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds and bark.
A couple of windows on the western side of the Raj-era building gives view to a bluish expanse of water, as if suggesting the ancient route of the merchandise that left the Malabar Coast to add flavour and colour to dishes prepared in countries and cultures in the west and east alike.
Surely, Ernesto Neto wouldn’t have thought of such a dimension to his final work at the contemporary art show when he sought to give shape to a curious link he noticed between two things on a visit to this south Indian city.
The 48-year-old Brazilian was walking along the Ernakulam market late last year when he began to sense that the fabrics along the crowded alleyways merited an aesthetically presented relation with the spices. The result is a cotton-cloth installation titled ‘Life Is A River’.
The work, which a critic says “is situated somewhere between sculpture and installation”, lies in a state of gravity even as it simultaneously gives the impression of floating on the roof space. “I want to link my art to the cultural environment I found in India,” says Neto, sporting curly pepper-and-salt hair.
The nucleolus body is made on blue skin polyamide textile. The choice of that colour did not come from his vision about the oceans. “Rather, the inspiration came from Hindu gods,” shrugs the resident of Rio de Janeiro. “Especially Shiva and Krishna, who have this state of being or becoming blue.”
As an artist who has been doing solos for a quarter century now, Neto has used the textile as skin - and as a metaphor: as the place of relationship in life, the limit and passageway from the figure to the background.
“The images of Shiva and Krishna on blue open the possibility of every one of us to have the skin on blue, or to become blue. This metaphoric possibility brings me a lot of freedom and joy, makes me longing to taste it,” adds the Latin American, who is the heir to Neo-Concreto, an art movement that places the spectator at the centre of the creative action, thereby converting physical interaction into a key aspect of his work. But then the project here is also striking with its orange fabric frame around the blue polyamide skin. “Oh, that comes from the block print fabrics I found in Ernakulam,” says Neto. “They bring to me a spirit of India - and a spirit of a slow surface on the passage of our eyes.”
As for the spices, Neto says they have two genders: hard is male and soft is female. So, why did he choose the particular room at Moidu’s Heritage, which once used to be a coir tradition establishment called Allepey Company? “Er… I had this knowledge that its interior would be very hot. So, while my work would be sweating its spice soul, we would be sweating water soul,” smiles Neto, who has been working internationally since 1995.
“Between us and the world around, art is the boat and life is the river,” he adds.
Neto works with abstract installations which often take up the whole expositional space, according to a spokesperson with the Kochi Biennale Foundation. “There fine membranes - stretched taught and fixed at various points - create spatial labyrinths,” the official observes.