Is it ego that
Plac-es art apart from
Other human pursuits?
Is it ego that
Plac-es art apart from
Other human pursuits?
The Kochi Muziris Art Bienniale is back again. We have attended two of the three previous biennales, those in 2014 and 2016.
The biennales run from mid December to the end of the following March. A joy of this biannual exhibition is that artworks are displayed in many heritage buildings that are not normally accessible to the public. Visitors get a chance to view many fascinating buildings that form part of the history of the port of Cochin.
Today, we visited the main base of the Biennale, which is housed in the buildings of the former Aspinwall company compound.
Works by many artists are on display in the various spaces within the extensive compound. This year most of the works on display are either video installations and/or conceptual art. There are a few works that are otherwise. I was disappointed by this year’s showing as compared with what I saw in previous years’ biennales. The selection of artworks seems unexciting, tired.
However, one work in this year’s show at Aspinwall stands out way ahead of the rest. It is “More Sweetly Play the Dance” made in 2015 by the South African artist William Kentridge.
Moving images are projected onto eight large screens. These images are both drawn (as in cartoons) and photographic. A procession of figures, both drawn and photographed, move from one screen to the next, travelling through a drawn landscape that changes continuously in subtle ways. The motion projected on the screen is accompanied by a brilliant musical soundtrack that is inspired by African music. The result is a spectacular audio visual experience that is both joyous and slightly sinister. I felt that the ‘white’ Kentridge was portraying the experiences of South African Black people, both their joys and their tragedies. His work, on display in a large warehouse with a tiled ceiling at Aspinwall, is truly artistic at all levels of appeal, from the sensual and emotional to the intellectual. It is a positive contrast to much of the other art on display at Aspinwall, which requires explanation before it might possibly be enjoyed.
I look forward to visiting many of the other places connected with the Bienniale. I hope that I will be seeing art that grabs me emotionally as well as intellectually.
PS Since writing this, I have visited many other parts of the Biennale. Some of these, especially the places housing the works of current art students (The Students Biennale) and the artworks in the TKM Warehouse, are outstandingly good. If you are in Cochin for a limited time, skip Aspinwall and head for Mattancherry where the most exciting works are on display.
What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.
The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right. Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.
The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.
When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.
For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.
For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.
I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.
For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.