Why you must visit the Kochi Muziris Biennale
The fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale has had plenty of challenges — from the floods to a #MeToo controversy. But with government support and a strong community spirit as its cornerstones, India’s biggest international art exhibition has us rooting for it
It is just 11 days for the fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB). And the thundering North Easterlies are not making preparations easy. As production teams navigate muddy puddles at Cabral Yard — where Delhi-based Anagram Architects is putting up the Biennale Pavilion — and rain streams down freshly-graffitied walls, work is proceeding at a war footing, so much so that the 150-strong workforce often do not know “whether it’s day or night”. But everyone is pitching in, from auto drivers ferrying people and supplies around to locals putting up small eateries to service the workers and volunteers.
Since its inception in 2012, KMB has organically grown as ‘the people’s biennale’ (the last edition saw over five lakh visitors). Sprouting up in the heart of bustling Fort Kochi, India’s largest international art exhibition — with works showcased in everyday locales, from cafes and old warehouses to heritage properties like Aspinwall — has democratised what has long been thought of as an elite interest.
“The first year, people didn’t know what a biennale was, let alone how to pronounce it,” says V Sunil, Secretary, Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF). “I remember locals gathering around [artist] Subodh Gupta as he set up his boat installation [What does the vessel contain, that the river does not]. It really connected with them, perhaps because they’ve seen the fishermen’s struggle in real life and in various Malayalam films. That year, the words ‘installation’ and ‘biennale’ entered the average Malayali’s vocabulary.”
Point of contact
- Cabral Yard, with its Biennale Pavilion, is being planned as the social hub of the event. Dube calls it a give-and-take space, where, “through the freedom that is made available by the Internet, people can come and share their stories”. Panel discussions, performances, impromptu jamming sessions, film screenings, lectures and music are being planned, and, according to V Sunil, special programmes will be organised to coincide with events like the India Art Fair in Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival. “One day of the IBA conference will also take place here, and it will be open to the public,” he adds.
KMB has drawn critical attention from the art world for its unique expression: conceived, ideated and executed by artists, for artists. If every edition has been different — with each curator taking the show down a different path — so have the challenges. The rains are not the first hiccup 2018 has thrown up. In March, Manju Sara Rajan stepped down as CEO. Later, allegations of financial mismanagement at the KBF came to light. In August, the Kerala floods wrecked havoc, and most recently, the shadow of #MeToo loomed large, with artist and KMB co-founder Riyas Komu stepping down. The KBF issued a strong statement of “zero tolerance” towards unethical work practices. “Many types of controversies can affect a company, from #MeToo to financial. Look at Nissan after Carlos Ghosn, or what is happening with Dolce & Gabbana in China. What you need is a crisis management process, and leadership that takes charge of the situation,” says Priya Paul, hotelier and KMB patron.
Meanwhile, the State Government has been steadfast through it all. Even when it cancelled other cultural projects — to divert resources towards rebuilding after the floods — the Biennale did not face even a “reduction of [its ₹7 crore] funds”. As V Venu, Principal Secretary, Tourism Department, puts it, “The government knows this to be a significant investment for the rejuvenation of the tourism sector; it’s one of the truly global project that we’ve developed.”
Art minus alienation
While the fourth edition will go down as one with many firsts, what I am most excited about is KMB’s first female curator, Delhi-based Anita Dube, and the fact that over 50% of participating artists are women, making it the majoritarian voice. The first time I had seen Dube’s work was at the 2012 Biennale; ‘Splitting the Subject’ had made me laugh. I remember climbing up one of the ladders and, Meerkat-like, popping my head out of a hole, only to see other heads sticking out, curious eyes meeting mine. One of the ideas the installation had posited — in a simple, profound and witty way — was of inclusive space, which, today, has ballooned into 2018’s theme, Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life.
It is hard to get her for an interview; the 60-year-old is constantly on the move on her blue-and-black scooter, keeping tabs on the work. “The process of constructing the Biennale was driven by wonderful conversations with artists whose work I’ve admired for long, whom I encountered during my travels with my curatorial team,” she tells me, pointing to how the exhibition will host several unheard and unseen names. “A vast array of artistic projects have been brought into the conversation, the threads and narratives running across, connecting artists with vastly different practices and backgrounds. The polyphony of theme is teased out like the unfolding of a musical score.”The scale of her symphony — 90-plus artists in 10 venues — ranges from individuals to groups, anonymous to the famous, exhibiting in art, music and performance. For the first time, she is also bringing on board curated ‘Infra Projects’ (see box) within her larger definition.
“From its inception, the Biennale has tried to reach out to marginalised artists, those working in remote areas and conditions,” says Gautam Das, Assistant Director Programmes. Dube travelled to 32 countries to select this year’s work, seeking out people in regions hitherto neglected by the mainstream art world, like Latin America and Africa. Some of the headliners are Austrian artist Valie Export with her radical body art, South African Marlene Dumas — currently exhibiting her retrospective at Tate Modern, London — with her portraits of the marginalised, and Cuban performance artist, Tania Bruguera. Indian women artists include Nilima Sheikh, Chitra Ganesh and Annu Palukunath Mathew.
The spirit of community
Amid the chaos that always precedes an event of such scale, what is heartening to note is how, despite the strain of the floods, the art world has rallied to boost the show. The Indo-German Chamber of Commerce is hosting their conference in Kochi on December 11-12, keeping the Biennale in mind. The IBA (International Biennale Association, a gathering of world biennale directors) also shifted its annual conference to the city (December 15,16, 17) in a bid to support the event. Many more similar initiatives are scheduled on its three-month calendar.
Co-founder Bose Krishnamachari points to the profusion of public support the Biennale has garnered, citing heart-warming examples of philanthropy coming from the least expected quarters — like carpenters and electricians forgoing their dues to relieve the monetary stress. “Individuals have offered up their spaces, and homestay owners and small shopkeepers have chipped in,” he adds. Even artists like Dumas, whose works command high prices, contributed in her own way — by reducing insurance amounts and providing exclusive works.In return for the generosity shown by the locals, the KBF has plans to raise funds for flood victims. In March, materials from the Biennale Pavilion will be reused to build 12 houses. ARK (Art Rises For Kerala), a live auction scheduled for January 18 at the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty — with works by over 38 artists, such as Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta and Anish Kapoor, going under the hammer — will raise money, too, with all proceeds going to the CM’s Distress Fund.
“This is the People’s Biennale. Kochi has become everyone’s cultural space. Though still in its infancy, KMB has got so much critical attention. We have erased the elitism attached with art; here everyone is a VIP. So when we open at 12 pm on December 12, all are welcome,” concludes Krishnamachari.