The 12th December 2012 was an iconic date for India, as the sub-continent opened its first biennale. This international exhibition of contemporary art, displaying the work of 94 artists from 23 countries, was a three-month-long event. Held in venues across the port city of Kochi and its ancient neighbour Muziris, it exploited the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the two seaports. Positioned on the Malabar Coast.
Kochi is in the state of Kerala, a strip of emerald shores and moist forests near the southwest tip of India, once visited by traders from ancient China, Greece and Rome, and latterly by medieval Arabs and early modern Europeans, all drawn by the market in pepper. In addition Muziris, before a major flooding of the Periyar River ended its days as a harbour, was considered the gateway to India by three major religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps this history of global exchange explains why Kerala grew in the twentieth century into a national intellectual powerhouse, and a stronghold of the Communist Party. Modern day Kerala is one of the last bastions of communist thought and is renowned for its state libraries and impassioned ideological debates.
The main sites of the Biennale were in a part of the city known as Fort Kochi, a sprawl of antique warehouses normally off limits from the public. Visitors gathered at Aspinwall House to diffuse out among the remnants of colonial commerce, searching for galleries, guided tours and seminars. In the biennale model, the main venues are usually reserved for the seasoned and celebrity artists, and directors Riyas Komu and Krishnamachari Bose, both Kerala-born artists, did not depart from the classic form in this respect. Aspinwall House and Pepper House drew the crowds, there to see the works of the stars: Ai Weiwei, Santiago Sierra, Alfredo Jaar, Rigo 23, singer and artist M.I.A (Maya Arulpragasam). Indian contemporary art was strongly represented, with some of the most prominent display spaces given over to the work of the likes of Paris Vishwanadhan, Sheela Gowda, Anita Dube and Jyoti Basu, but more often than not the names were familiar and the work as might be expected. Special mention should be made of the refined, critical work of L.N. Tallur whose terracotta-tiled roofs recalled the trade between Kerala and Basel in Switzerland.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, apart from establishing India as a capable creative hotspot, gave Kerala a much-needed makeover, directing it towards a new internationalism that literally had to be excavated from the crumbling remains of past cultures. The Biennale team restored Durbar Hall, for instance, in the heart of the mainland area and built in the 1850s by the Maharaja of Cochin to host his Royal court, converting it into a modern white-cube gallery space. It chiefly housed contemporary paintings and photographs from Kerala: the temple-style figurines, polemical canvases and photographs of industrial wastelands seemed a long way from the spirit of Fort Kochi. The Clark House Initiative is a collaborative curatorial project led by two young curators. Focusing on practices from sparsely represented regions, they converted another ruined building into a survey of modern Burmese art, based around the nation-wide protest against military rule in 1988.
All in all, India’s first biennale had faced a deal of scepticism, but held its own in the international art circuit. The next outing in December 2014 is already being planned.