Kochi-Muziris Biennale

‘What do you think of the biennale?’
‘Biennale? It’s like “tsunami”, no one knew what a tsunami was, but then we had one, and now everyone knows what a tsunami is.’ (Moosa Bava, rickshaw driver and part-time caretaker for the Kochi–Muziris Biennale)

Biennales have become quite commonplace, which is especially strange when one considers their history: to begin with, how an event in Venice in 1895, aimed at stimulating the contemporary art market through a focus on the decorative arts, quickly became politicised by the early twentieth century by inviting economically powerful countries to install nationalist pavilions. By the nineteen-thirties the fascist government had taken control of the Biennale from the local council and quickly established parallel festivals of music, film and theatre. Remaining under fascist control until 1942, the Biennale became a major instrument for propaganda, transforming the exhibition into a national celebratory event. It is perhaps little wonder that in the last sixty years, countries on the so-called margins have begun initiating their own biennales, usually with the aim of challenging this model, such as Dakar, Istanbul, Gwangju, São Paulo, Sharjah, Taipei, and now Kochi-Muziris.

Curated by two locally born artists, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened in December 2012. Spread over fourteen venues and featuring works by over ninety artists, the event was marketed as the first of its kind in the country. This of course meant overlooking the now defunct Triennale-India, first organized in 1968 by the novelist and art critic Mulk Raj Anand, not to mention initiatives along the lines of the Delhi Biennale, undertaken by noted art critic Geeta Kapur and artist Vivan Sundaram, and planned for 2005. This event never came to pass, due to a lack of support referred to by Kapur as a matter of government apathy.

Krishnamachari and Komu succeeded where other efforts had failed by securing funds from ‘the politically progressive state of Kerala’ (http://johnyml.blogspot.nl/2012/01/fault-lines-in-geeta-kapurs-support-for.html). Describing their biennale model as an ‘artists’ biennale’, and making a clear link to the city’s colonial history and the real or mythical cosmopolitan past of Kochi’s predecessor, the ancient port of Muziris, it aimed to reconnect art and society through politically engaged artistic practices and provide an enduring platform for art in the region.

The aims of KMB were certainly worthy, even noble, but can the biennale model, even an artists’ one, ever be capable of countering or overturning a one hundred year old tradition? Strangely the KMB didn’t hide from this history, but instead proudly announced it was modelled on the Venice Biennale, which was perhaps only attractive to the much-needed investors. The reality of Kochi, however, with its dilapidated colonial buildings and layers of Arab, British, Chinese, Dutch, Greek, Jewish, Roman, and Portuguese histories, created a visible confrontation between the Venice concept and the day to day reality of the Kochi people. Coupled with the do-it-yourself ethic towards curating, the event presented something very different from the polished, best of the best line regrettably propagated internationally. In addition, a fortnight before the biennale opened, the Kerala government withdrew a substantial portion of the funding. This was largely due to a protest campaign initiated by local artists, led by sculptor Kanayi Kunhiraman and art teacher C.L. Porinchukutty, who called for more transparency in KMB’s use of funds. The organisers suddenly found themselves in a desperate fight to keep the biennale afloat by seeking out new investors, while simultaneously trying to quell the dispute. To their credit, with mounting costs, the hard working team led by Krishnamachari and Komu persevered, and later even managed to overturn the government decision.

Though it undoubtedly put undue pressure on a group of organisers who had already taken on a momentous task to realise an extraordinary event, I found the protests to be an important aspect of the biennale – an event that aimed, after all, to connect art and society. Unquestionably it created a space for critical reflection, perhaps otherwise missing from Kochi-Muziris: in fact, giving such criticality a louder voice within the biennale could help inform future editions.

One of the KMB’s key aims, as presented in its press release, was to stimulate cultural tourism, revitalising the local economy, which in turn would make it more attractive to investors. This perhaps points to what is really at stake in contemporary biennales: not so much the art (was it ever primarily about the art?) as the effect on diplomatic and international relations and the plans for urban regeneration, going on in the backrooms of the corridors of power. Art and associated criticism can sometimes act as a smokescreen for what is really at stake – that is: new infrastructures not just for art but for housing; urban planning; and jobs – all of which are very important for Kochi, which is avidly seeking new companies and investors. As an inter-state comparison published in The Hindu (February 27 2013) showed, the unemployment rate for Kerala was one of the highest in the country.

During my time in Kochi I was quite surprised at how many people I met who were there for purely political purposes: an environmental group, for instance, who used the international scope of the biennale to gain the attention of politicians, directing it towards local issues, in particular to the pollution levels generated mainly by the various multinational companies in Kochi’s industrial sector. It is by no means a small matter—in 2012 Kochi was also rated among the most heavily polluted cities across India (The Hindu, August 20 2012). It seemed fitting that in the Pepper House, one of the buildings next to the main biennale complexes and overlooking the waterfront where goods were once unloaded, local artist K P Reji decided to paint a mural entitled ‘Thumbingal Chathan’, based upon a folklore protagonist popular in the state of Kerala. The legend speaks of a local boy who falls in love with a member of the ruling class. The rulers, enraged, kill him and bury his body inside a dyke. Of this KP Reji says, ‘the good old tale surrounding him seeks to portray Chathan as a tragic victim. In my work, he is a hero.’ For Reji, Chathan positions his own body in the dyke so as to avert the disaster of a flood.