By Giridhar Khasnis
The third edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) was flagged off on the appointed day, ie. 12/12/16. Spread across a dozen venues in Fort Kochi-Mattancherry and Ernakulam, the 108-event is set to conclude on March 29, 2017.
Looking back, it is clear that KMB has had an interesting time-line. In May 2010, Mumbai based contemporary artists of Kerala origin, Bose Krishnamachari and RiyasKomu, were reportedly approached by the then culture minister of Kerala, M A Baby to start an international art project in the state. The two artists proposed the idea of a Biennale as a large scale international exhibition in Kochi on the lines of the famed Venice Biennale.
On February 17, 2011, the official Declaration launch of the Biennale was held at Durbar Hall Ground, Kochi. During the ceremony, the Kochi Biennale Foundation (a registered Trust established in 2010) announced that the Biennale would, among others, a) celebrate India’s rich cultural and social heritage; b) showcase artwork created by some of the most engaging artists from India and abroad; and c) display artworks throughout Kochi and Muziris in existing exhibition sites, public spaces, heritage buildings and other non-traditional venues.
On 12/12/12, the First edition of KMB was inaugurated; subsequent editions followed the same magical date of December 12 in 2014 and 2016.
Arguably, the most striking aspect of KMB has been the choice of venues with their inherent historical significance. From the very first edition, structured exhibition space was created in nondescript waterfront buildings and abandoned godowns in the coastal township of Fort Kochi-Mattancherry. The dilapidated warehouses went on to house giant installations, paintings, sculptures and multimedia works of art. Adding to the celebratory mood were several collateral events and evocative street art covering even nooks and corners of the entire region.
The primary venue in all the three editions of KMB has been the six-acre heritage site of Aspinwall House (which was the base of a British company established in 1867 that traded in spices and commodities). Donated to the biennale foundation by the real estate company DLF, Aspinwall really became the gateway to KMB. “The premises of Aspinwall, now abandoned, redolent with memories of ancient wealth invoke the particular history of port cities in an age of maritime commerce past,” observed DilipMenon, Mellon Chair in Indian Studies and Professor of History at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. “There is something about Fort Kochi with the remains of European colonialism and the bustle of present-day commerce with the pungent smells of pepper and spices that is disorienting. The idea of locating the biennale in the former Aspinwall House was a masterstroke: crumbling facades, stagnant pools of water, the reek of damp and the installations that riffed on these.” Other venues including David Hall, Pepper House, Cabral House, and Durbar Hall also hosted significant artworks.
Many of the participating artists invested their time and effort in using the challenging ‘opportunities’ afforded by the buildings as well as the local environment to fashion and present their work. Site-specific installations, in particular, attracted both popular and critical attention. To name a few: Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Cloud for Kochi’ (2012, Neon, water, wooden walkway, dimensions variable); SheelaGowda and ChristophStorz’s ‘Stopover’ (170 grinding stones / 2012); VivanSundaram’s ‘Black Gold’ (made up of 2,000-year-old terracotta shards of pottery taken directly from the archaeological site in Muziris); AnishKapoor’s churning and frothing whirlpool (‘Descension’ / KMB 2014); and Raul Zurita’s poetic installation ‘The Sea of Pain’ (dedicated to Syrian refugees / 2016).
As a matter of principle, KMB has been lead by artists. "We are for artist-curators who understand the experimental potential of a biennale from a practising point of view," explained Komu.
The three editions have accordingly seen four well-known practitioners curating them. For the first edition, the founders of KBF – Bose and Riyas – wore the hat of curators as well. It is common knowledge that they faced major challenges in raising money; and braving controversy surrounding deployment of funds. Those apart, there were many organizational difficulties and infrastructural hurdles like unfriendly customs regulations; difficulty in transporting artworks; and lack of technicians to help set up installations. Finally, when the event was inaugurated, some reporters wrote about the chaos in some of the venues and wondered whether the organizers had bitten off more than they could chew.
In spite of all the question marks, the first edition with participation of 89 artists from 23 countries slowly but steadily gained acceptance; and began attracting national and international attention. The presence of some big names of the art world and their works won the admiration of local populace; national and international tourists; and other visitors. Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern in London, hailed KMB as a people’s biennale. “I had rarely seen a show of such originality and flair,” wrote another observer. More than 400,000 visitors came during its three-month run, just 60,000 less than the Venice Biennale, which lasted for twice the duration.
Things had considerably eased by the time JitishKallat took on as the curator of the second edition. The roll call of 94 artists from 30 countries included the likes of AnishKapoor, Francesco Clemente, Julian Charrière, K.G. Subramanyan, William Kentridge, Mona Hatoum and ValsonKolleri. The title of the Biennale was ‘Whorled Explorations’, chosen by Kallat as an expression of the city’s history as a crucible of discovery in the 15th century. “This time Kochi is not what we are looking at but what we are looking through,” he said.
The second edition too faced some teething troubles, but there were no major complaints. Dercon was among those who were impressed by the change. “This is a Biennale made by people,” he recorded. “Last time, people seemed to complain that the works were not ready; now they are not saying that anymore, because they are part of the progress…I feel privileged to watch the art of making; that is the reason why this Biennale is so different.” The second edition reportedly had an overall attendance of 500,000 visitors.
When SudarshanShetty came in as the curator for the third edition, he brought in his own views and ideas to the table. “My curatorial approach is shaped as a conversation between different streams and forms of art practice," he declared. "This Biennale is intended as a dialogue between multiple perspectives and possibilities as it evolves within the space and through the duration of the Biennale and beyond.”
Shetty, who called the exhibition as ‘Forming in the Pupil of an Eye’, seemed happy to grapple with poetic ideas and philosophical concepts rather than building a visual art spectacle. “There are so many practices in India—music, theatre, dance—which are all eminently contemporary in their resonances,” he said in an interview. “How does one bring all these into the world of art?" Coming from a person who believed that "one cannot create art, of any kind whatsoever, without rigour and poetry," it was unsurprising that the first artist named for the Biennale was the Chilean poet, Raul Zurita.
On preliminary feedback, many visitors seem to feel that this edition with 97 visual artists, poets, writers, dancers and performers from 31 countries is more subdued as compared to the previous ones; its focus being more on poetic and literary exploration, and inclusion of the diverse forms/approaches to art production rather than advancing a 'brick-and-mortar' model of artistic discourse. Shetty seems satisfied by the outcome of his efforts, but some critical voices have termed the event ‘lacklustre’ which seems to be a bit harsh on the curator and organizers.
There is no doubt that KMB is coming of age and is a very important event in Asia’s art calendar. The growing visitor turnout clearly indicates its popularity; the coverage in national and international media has been substantial.
Having witnessed the Biennale in the past three editions, one wonders what shape it could take in future. On the official front things seem to be quite well settled for now. Chief Minister of Kerala, PinarayiVijayan, while inaugurating the third edition, announced a hefty Rs 7.5 crore funding for the Biennale, the highest sum a state government in India had given an arts event. He also pledged his government’s support for a permanent venue that had been the key to the success of the Venice Biennale.
With different curators, the Biennale, as an observer put it, “continues to speak from many of the same spaces even as it articulates a different narrative.” When named as curator for the second edition, Kallat had said: “I feel the strength of this biennale is its fragility. Unlike several events in the art world that are heavily funded, institutionalised and sometimes over-administered, this one has arisen organically from the ground through the intent and imagination of artists. It has been a process of creatively befriending uncertainty and doing what we can with what we have.”
Now that the Biennale seems to be on a firm footing with the government assuring financial and infrastructural support, is it goodbye to the ‘fragility’ and ‘creative uncertainty’ of the previous editions? If yes, would that also directly or indirectly impact the scope and structure of future editions of Kochi-Muziris Biennale?