LEAP | Kochi Muziris Biennale
India's first biennial
India's first biennale is a fact. In the southern Indian city of Kochi, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened it’s doors on 12-12-2012. The picturesque old colonial town in the state of Kerala, or as the locals call it: ‘God's own country’, has already welcomed over 150.000 visitors in the first month. Many works of the 94 participating artists are made on location and are obviously inspired and influenced by the rich cultural past of this tropical, historical port town and the ancient mythical past of Muziris, India’s answer to Atlantis. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a significant, exciting marker of the growing importance of Indian art and the cultural and socio-political changes in India itself. A better place and time for India’s first biennale is hardly possible. At least for those able to look beyond the flaws.
Over the past few decades India’s art scene has been gradually transforming. Especially internationally Indian artists, galleries and curators are highly renowned. A great example was India’s national pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, for the first time in it’s 116 year existence. But inside India contemporary art still has a long way to go. In a country inhabited by more then 1 billion people, there’s very limited support from the government and only one contemporary art museum (NGMA). The contemporary art scene has to be seen against the background of a relatively short history of modern art and a strong traditional craft culture.
Therefore it may not come as a surprise that India’s first biennale is the ambitious initiative of two Keralan-born artists, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. The two artists, part of the so called ‘Bombay Boys’, had the wish to establish a contemporary art platform in India. Which was lacking until now, although there have been the pretty unsuccessful attempts of the India-Triennial in Delhi from 1968 till 2005. Of which critics said it had been to in-crowd and not open enough for the public. Something the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is trying to avoid from the first start. Conscious decisions were made to host the first biennale not in one of the cultural centers of India, such as Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. Art lovers would have been reached more easily, but the organization was hitting on a broader audience. An audience that is not familiar with modern art. Kochi was the perfect option. A sleepy but popular holiday resort, for both Indian and foreign tourists, with empty warehouses and a rich cultural history.
The old colonial disused warehouses for cloves, pepper, coconut fiber and cardamom are no longer empty. In the historical center of Fort Kochi and Ernakulam a variety of 14 different venues have been rebuild and turned into exhibition spaces. From the Arabian sea-facing, colonial, main venue Aspinwall House, to café-meets-gallery hotspot Kashi. It delivers exotic locations, wonderful stories of a forgotten past and perilous situations. Houses between collapse and renovation and you have to step over the sleeping dogs and cows before you can enter. Venues where I’m kindly invited to stand somewhere else ‘so the ceiling won’t collapse'. At Moidu’s Heritage Plaza I’m led up the termite infected stairs with candlelight by one of the helpful biennale volunteers, because all power is lost. The sight of handwritten a4’s accompanying an artwork, half installed works and empty crates became a familiar view.
This seemingly unprofessionalism is the biggest strength of this biennale. The work in progress approach is an integral part of the biennale. The messy and fascinating surroundings are a great inspiration for the many artists who have developed their work on location in Kochi, and also for the two curators who’ve tried to give maximum freedom to the artists. Making the biennale into one large open studio, where artists we’re collaborating together and with local craftsman. The merging of the cosmopolitan of Kochi and mythical Muziris past are always present —be it in narrative, memory or material. For example the work from the Australian artist Dylan Martorell who collected sounds from Kochi, during his stay there. He put local spices on a rotating speaker playing his recordings, filling the small rooms fragrance and Indian noise. 'Sovereign Forest' (2010-ongoing) from Amar Kanwar was one of the highlights at the Documenta in Kassel last year. Comprised out of books, films and over 200 types of rice. The first days of the bienniale Kanwar stayed with his work, as there was no security yet. The work dealing with the political and social impact of the mining industry in the little town of Orissa in India was heavily debated among the visitors. As we’re the lenticular images from Maya Arulpragasam, better known by her stage name M.I.A., a bit further down the hall. The beautifully custom framed mirror mosaics of the images were build by local craftsman. Local sculptors from Kerala also made three sculptures for Dutch artist Gert Jan Kocken, who’s work can be seen at the Pepper House, a bit further down the street. Kocken asked them to create the prefect man, according to the rules describing the face of Christ of the 18th century Swiss scientist Lavatar. But that only became clear when the board with accompanying texts was placed last week, months after the opening.
The involvement in the city is great. In December, on the day of the opening, all schools were closed. The coconut vendor where I buy my 15 cents coconut every morning is proud. "I had never seen anything like this, like modern art. I prefer the traditional kathakali dancing but some things are very nice. As the stones that I forgot, but that remind me of my youth." The stones he’s talking about are 117 old spice grinders Sheela Gowda and Christopher Storz collected. The grinders were built in every decent kitchen floor in India for grinding spices. With the come of cheap electric grinders, the stones were unnecessary and they were aimlessly left on to the streets. Now the floors in and outside the building, towards the water edge, are filled with grinders. By bringing the 170 stones back to Kochi, the centre for spice trade, the artists made the grinders and their history visible again.
The commitment was also evident when big charcoal drawings on the market square by Australian artist Daniel Cornnell were demolished with coconut shells, just days after the opening. The reasons and perpetrators are still unclear. It would’ve been other artists from Kerala, not included in the biennial or extreme leftist groups in the area who are fighting against Westernization and the biennial, accusing it of corruption and abuse of money. It caused a lot of commotion but Cornnell received a lot of support. A dozen protesters from the city sat for days with signs: 'Do not attack art’.
It’s an illustration of the ongoing changes in the attitude towards contemporary art in India. Who is able to look behind the flaws sees an ambitious and powerful biennial, in a country where the infrastructure for art still largely has to be constructed. An art event on this scale was missing so far in India and it opened up a broader conversation about the role of contemporary art in a changing Indian society. But the withdrawal of funding promised by the Government of Kerala and the ongoing funding problems are making a next edition in two years undetermined. Let’s hope the biennale will have it’s own Kochi-effect, being as effective for Indian contemporary art as the so-called Bilbao-effect. Before the Guggenheim museum was build no one connected the sleepy Spanish town with top end art, now it emerged as one of Europe’s cultural hubs. The organization wanted a biennial that was about art itself and not the art market. The enormous ambitious scale and diversity of works of India’s first biennale is something to be praised.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale - Kochi, Kerala, India
From: 12/12/2012 to 13/03/2013
More info: www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org
This article was first published in LEAP #20