Visitors who pause to enjoy the cool sea breeze on the landing atop a flight of stairs leading to Lantian Xie’s installation at Aspinwall House are often startled by an angry bark. Only there’s no dog and no follow-up barking.
The sound is part of the artwork titled Ceiling Fans, stray dog barking, Burj Ali created by the Bahrain-born Chinese artist participating in the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2016 here. The sudden bark forces the visitor to turn around to seek the source of the commotion and come face to face with the drawing of the Burj Ali, an old farmhouse in the town of Phagwara, Punjab, which somewhat resembles Dubai’s iconic Burj al Arab tower.
Through his installation, Xie attempts to create a metaphysical, even magical, environment without the use of sophisticated technology or trippy colours. The installation includes 16 ceiling fans whirling simultaneously, automated speakers that play the recorded dog bark after visitors set off the motion detector, plus a crayon painting of the Burj Ali on the facing wall.
“All the three representations in my installation are recreating the presence of something nonexistent in that particular space. The ghost of air through the wind from fans, the ghost of sound through the dog’s bark from speakers, and the ghost of an existing physical structure through the crayon drawing,” Xie said.
“My idea of ‘ghosts’ lies in these kind imitations or representations of a physically present entity. An emigrant’s life is a world clouded with such ghostly representations,” he added.
The curiosity over ghostly representations and shadows partly stem Xie’s doubts about the fluidic nature of his situation. As a Chinese citizen born in Manama and living in Dubai, he said he feels as though he is “carrying the invisible presence of another country with my passport”.
“In my life as an emigrant, the memory of places gives a feel of its real physical presence. Like in Dubai, the place gives you the sense of being a cosmopolitan citizen, but also creates and sustains a doubt about whether I actually belong there,” he said.
Real-world threats to the Burj Ali’s existence by the original’s developers make for parallels to his own transitory existence. Xie added that several of his friends too share this “strange sense of alienation”. As does his practice, which often seeks a language to describe his experience of simultaneously being, but not belonging.
“My Gulf experiences has influenced my perspectives and thought process significantly,” said Xie, who is also interested in the cultural and economic ties between Kochi and the UAE. His work attempts to survey the historic and contemporary linkages through material exchanges like goods and labour but also fleeting concepts like ideas.
Xie, a visitor at both previous editions of the Biennale, is fairly well-versed in Kerala. “This is my fifth visit here. I have a few friends from Kerala and I watch Malayalam movies. Lal Jose’s Arabikatha is my favourite Malayalam film,” the 29-year-old artist said.
Appreciating the Biennale for presenting the concept of magical realism in its true sense, Xie said magic is anything that forces your inner vision to see ordinary things. “The Biennale has proved magical realism does not necessarily need blazing sounds or fancy colours,” he said.