Bob Gramsma turns archaeologist with dig into site, history

Site-specific work by KMB 2016 artist at Aspinwall House given context by troubled construction

Kochi, Feb 09: The title of Bob Gramsma’s installation ‘riff off OI#16238’ comes from music, where the term means: to improvise on a recognisable, established piece. What the Swiss artist went through to put up his work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was nothing if not operatic.

The first act, of excavating earth from the site at Aspinwall House – likened to “borrowing both the soil and the compressed culture”, was always going to be difficult. Drawing line markers let him see what and how big it could be, but Gramsma said, “Once you start digging, you lose control and the picture of the sculpture because you go into the hollowness of the form.”

“That's a tricky thing because it's not something that you can see happening,” he added. When peeling away layers of dirt and the histories imprinted therein – a metre of soil takes centuries to form naturally, “visualising the space” becomes especially important. The history Gramsma was particularly interested in digging up and building over with his “hyper-local” work was the lost port town of Muziris, to which Kochi shares an umbilical connection.

Into the vacuum of absent earth, he intended to put in a steel-reinforced concrete cast. About 110 tonnes of wet concrete was mixed and rolled, wooden planks had been lined up against the cavity to prevent slippage and the palm trees at the site were pulled apart to bring in the mixer.

“Everything was settled and the hole was finished and everybody was prepared. The moment we started pouring in the concrete, the sky opened up and water started falling into the hole. But by that point, we could not afford to stop even though the machine pouring in the concrete was blocked-up several times. The plans did not account for this,” Gramsma said.

The incessant evening storm threatened to flood his sculpture, like Muziris. Then, “something happened” as a small army worked all night under the cover of a stretched tarpaulin – to protect both themselves and the concrete from the pelting rain – and saw the job through.

“It continued to rain and work continued to go on. We could not speak each other’s languages but we all made contact step by step, communicated and understood what we had to do. That night, different cultures speaking different languages came together to work very hard and in the end we succeeded together,” Gramsma said.

The third act involved using the concrete slab’s own weight to lift it up from the cavity and positioning it at a roughly 170-180 degree angle to the site as a sculptural mirror image of its previous resting place in the void below. The intent was to make the installation a commentary on the various forces and state of flux inherent to all spaces over time.

“We brought in a crane – not to lift up the slab, but to lend its weight and use its jacks to secure the sculpture. Then we returned the dug-up earth to the other end of the sculpture to help it rise up under the weight. After hours of work and worry, we saw a little gap,” Gramsma said.

It was slow going, but the team realised “it wasn't going to work until it did”. As the gap grew bigger, one of the four wires attached to support the slab snapped. By then however, a 160-degree inclination had been achieved.

“It is a few degrees less than we planned for, but I think that in these conditions, we were very lucky,” said Gramsma, who has left the sculpture exposed to be reclaimed by the elements and time. Just at this moment, however, it is one of the most talked-about works at the Biennale.


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