François Mazabraud unveils Kochi’s hidden truths and fictions at Biennale

KMB 2016 participating artist confronts viewers with 
altered realities to force them to rethink the familiar

Kochi, Feb 16: From the first time François Mazabraud laid eyes on Aspinwall House, he felt the pull of something familiar. As he sat on a balcony looking out over the sea, watching the fisher folk and water lilies, it came to him.

“This place brought me somewhere else, as though it was a space between, not inside, the building. A place to dream and to escape attention, like my grandfather’s house and something else, something exotic I had seen only in movies from a different time,” said Mazabruad, a French participating artist at the ongoing third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The balcony now houses his artwork, ‘Hidden Skylines’ – both a ‘monument’ to Kochi’s history and an escape hatch into this ‘between space’. In the guise of a perched observation telescope, the work seemingly presents a landscape view of Kochi. Only, there’s something slightly ‘off’. Gaze across the panorama well enough and one can discern a blending of fact and fiction. A blurry graphic effect of a Portuguese ship, the ‘Mare a Portugal’, pulling into dock, the ‘Tower of London’ rising above Marine Drive and containers and signage in Dutch.

“To create this effect, I travelled to the cities of Amsterdam, London, and Lisbon – all ports in nations that colonised Kochi – to grab details to be injected into the Kochi landscape. So, when you move the telescope in a direction, you move inside the landscape in the same direction as though it were true. Then you see a tourist boat on the Thames or a bin from Amsterdam,” said Mazabraud, who intends, through these re-workings, for his audience to doubt what they see.

Through this doubt, comes insight. Confronted by altered images of the city, the visitor has to look closer to catch the little, subtle variations and, thus, are forced to rethink the familiar. As they become aware of the illusion in which they have become unwitting participants, “in this weird instant they reconsider what a spectator should be”. They are driven, as Mazabraud was, to “question the exoticism, the history, the tourism and the meaning of a place like Fort Kochi”.

“What if I could see deep inside a direction? If I could look far, far, behind the skyline, could I see European countries? By crossing the different skylines from the European ports with the skylines from Kochi, I wanted to mix the present with the past, putting monuments in these capitals alongside the monuments of colonisation you see in the city,” Mazabraud said.

He accomplishes this “alternative way of looking” through specially developed interactive software contained in a tablet to which the telescopes – there is another in Fort Kochi beach – are attached. Inside each telescope, a hidden screen displays the landscape as it is. This true-to-life quality forces the observer to “travel into the landscape to discover the trick”.

“For this, the telescope needed to be located in a place from where you can see the landscape over the top of the scope. This allows me to play with blurred distance – which comes from having such a fine balance between the near and the far that spectators can't really be sure of what they see through the lens and have to verify by looking outside,” said Mazabraud, adding that the height of the balcony in Aspinwall made it “ideal for creating the effect of reality and deception in a continuous blend” and thus “avoid the tired logic of viewing spectacles”.

The hidden insertion of fiction into fact plays on two different levels: the exhibit’s space and the form and content of the work. “That is why the telescopes and graphics need to look real to get people to look at them as though they were public devices, not artworks. That is also why the telescopes are in different places because I wanted at least one of the telescopes to be outside the Biennale space. I chose the beach because it offers a really clear skyline, where sometimes there is nothing between the sky and the sea,” Mazabraud said.

In this, the artist added, he had failed – because he had not expected crowds to turn out the way they have for the Biennale. “When I first came for a site visit in Kochi, it was the off-season. There were no tourists and it was so quiet. When I was making the project, I didn't imagine that people would wait in line to see inside a telescope!” Mazabraud said.  


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