THE END AS THE BEGINNING
In the monsoon, the walls of Cabral Yard are mottled with moss. Raindrops seep through the piles of withered leaves, and the dense networks of brushwood overwhelm any sign of concrete. The barks of old trees intertwine over and above the crumbling walls– the image is that of ruins, of historical time outrun by overgrowth. It is difficult to imagine that, just a little over a year before, this land had hosted a large structure that was conceived as a “space for encounters,” along with an immersive bamboo and thatch structure. The same trees gave shade to groups of visitors, as long lines trudged towards an indoor shamiana made of old saris. This plot of land, in essence, is a particular kind of model– it shifts, morphs, and transforms in cyclical ways, like the strong seasonal wind that sweeps the landscape.
The Cabral Yard, in Fort Kochi (Kerala) is named after an adventurous Portuguese sailor, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who made his way to India in the early 16th century. It is believed that his charming demeanour (and likely sharp business acumen) was welcomed by the King of Kochi, and he ended up heralding the beginning of Kochi’s colonial relationship with the Portuguese. Later taken over by the Dutch, and consequently the English, the land was acquired as a property by Aspinwall & Co. in 1904, and on it they constructed a hydraulic press for coir yarn.
As part of the last three editions of Kochi Biennale, the historical site of Cabral Yard has undergone experimental transformations in the name of sculpture, installation, and a structure that houses conversations and performances. Artists and architects have thought of models that, from the very onset, are aware of their own temporality, that blend back into the earth. Keeping in mind ecological concerns, but also the danger of placing our own mortality at the centre of narratives of the future, these explorations in the space provide alternative ways of conceiving the future. As one of the artists, Amanullah Mojadidi said himself, the idea is to apprehend and perceive not in terms of “fixed realities,” but “fluid imaginings.”
Contemporary artists extended and explored their own practice in context of the site. In 2012, Sudarshan Shetty created, I Know Nothing of the End, an installation in wood. The rust-coloured earth of Cabral Yard was dug up into shallow, empty pools, and surrounded by bare concrete walls– incomplete, in transit. Wooden stairs led to intricate wooden structures that were reminiscent of memorial monuments and cenotaphs. The entire work played on the artificiality of these architectural “monuments”, on the ways in which states of emotion become part of choreographed rituals. On the one hand is what Shetty calls the “collective act of mourning,” but on the other is the artist’s consistent rapture with the nakli, or the fake versus the absolute and concrete. The lightness of a material like wood is crucial.
In the same year, Amanullah Mojadidi delved into the soil in the space. In What Histories Lay Beneath Our Feet, the artist created a site of archaeological excavation– a bamboo structure with maps and tools that overlooked the dug up plot of land. In shaping the space as thus, he attempted to disturb and disrupt the idea of dominant narratives, and by unearthing in a literal sense, he wanted to show the mixed layers that compose a history. By channeling a highly politicized discipline like archaeology, Mojadidi also revealed the sense of temporality in which a sphere of knowledge-making marks a history of “facts”.
In 2014, sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri engaged with this strip of land (ridden with human activity), and reconfigured it into “a tactile experiential landscape of our collective memory.” While Mojadidi’s work had been a material enactment of the act of excavation, Kolleri’s excavations were a material exploration of time. As is central to his practice, Kolleri’s initial reconnaissance was into the locally available elements that characterized this site– laterite stones, mud and clay. With these found materials, he ventured into creating a variety of sculptures with the assistance the masons of ‘Shilpapaddiam’, the art school and studio that he established in Pattiam, and ‘Clayclub,’ a collective of young architects based in Ahmedabad. Calling this collective expedition How Goes The Enemy, Kolleri created figures and objects all around the yard. Over the course of the Biennale, these sculptures were subjected to the tempestuous weather of Kerala – the lashing rains and blistering heat– eventually succumbing to their entropic demise. He participated in the chaos of the land, but then he let it be.
In 2016, Cabral Yard became a space of encounters– inviting immersion, participation and discussion. Latvian artists Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis drew inspiration from conversations with the local populace and indigenous, sustainable construction techniques for their artwork Will-o-the-Wisp. Using tethered bamboo sticks and dried palm leaves, they constructed a dark interior space with video projections. The videos were recordings of discussions they had with a variety of people about “miracles” in their lives. The allure for the artists lay in the concept of Chir Batti or ghostly lights popular Indian lore- lights that you can never reach, that elude touch but remain in the imagination. The visitors navigated the dimly lit interiors as they listened to a legion of “very different, strange stories.” They experienced the space and atmosphere inside, and heard about the miracles, briefly, like the chir batti you see but never quite catch a hold of.
The yard also became a site for critique. French artists Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe constructed a steel installation, La Vénale de Bionise which took the “illusory form of a playground attraction.” On entering, the spectator was subject to spinning cylinders that would put them into a psychedelic state– a reference to the altered ways in which Vincent Van Gogh and Antonin Artaud viewed the world. This sculpture stood “somewhere between fantasy and reality”, distinct from the landscape, and yet it combined the image of the science laboratory with the temporary circus– a space for disorder and delirium.
The most ambitious project in this yard (perhaps we should leave colonial ambition out of this) was Tony Joseph’s pavilion in the same year. Known for innovation, the architect-artist created a facade which housed three hundred people at a time. The structure, conceived at the level of scale, was air-conditioned, and 4,157 square feet in circumference. The idea was to make (like the art works in the Biennale) a structure that would only be in use for three months. Thus, it was put together using recycled rubble and discarded materials from the area. With a tinted roof woven together with old fabric (saris, T-shirts and the like), the interior evoked an intimacy, even as it looked like a bucolic time capsule from the outside. In the Pavilion, a number of events were staged, from intense discussions and pensive lectures to ringing music and swirling dance. And then, at the first signs of April heat, it was dismantled– as if it was never there. Its conception as a structure that was temporal from the very beginning completely turned around the idea of sustainability. In this vein, sustainability is not about how things can last, or how they can dig into the ground, but about how they can circulate, and the way in which they open themselves out to the core condition of materiality– the future is ephemeral.
This foray into the micro-history of Cabral Yard, in itself, is an attempt at tying knots in threads that will either dissipate, dissolve or transform. The experience of this sliver of land is telling, it has passed between a number of hands, businesses and (ad)ventures, and yet every monsoon the crickets and bull-frogs dim any memory of human presence. The story of this plot, of course, remains to be told and added to, in ways that will (hopefully) move beyond language as we know it. However, the allure in the slippery stories reveal the ravages of time, and an understanding that all of history is temporary – something that the artists channel in their formal interactions with the actual tangible foundations of the land. In many ways, the question of the future goes out of the window. All that we are left with in a world riddled with climate change and anthropocentric paranoia are these pop-ups that activate and immerse, that belong but for a brief moment, that are aware of their own transience. As the illustrious architect B.V. Doshi stated in praise of Tony Joseph’s pavilion – “How can you get that, you know? You start with nothing, and go back to nothing.”
Remnants, Cabral Yard
Cover image caption: Remnants, Cabral Yard
All images courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation
Samira Bose is currently the Communications Assistant at Kochi Biennale Foundation, and based out of Fort Kochi. She completed her MA in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and BA in History from St. Stephen’s College. She was student curator for Odds & Ends, GALLERYSKE, Bangalore (2017), and worked as part of the Communications team at Oddbird Theatre & Foundation. She is interested in the intersections of contemporary art, media, and design.