On 12-12-12, India's first biennale flags off in Kerala's spice town – it's already figuring in global lists of top events to attend this year.

As dates go, it can't get catchier than this. On 12-12-12, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), the much talked about ambitious Rs 75-crore arts project – will kick off in Kerala's spice city, and continue for three months.

It's India's first tryst with a Biennale, a platform for contemporary art held every once in a year, where one gets to see paintings, films, sculptures, installations, new media and performances by local and international artists – some of them existing works, many of them created on the ground during the event.

“A Biennale performs the interim function of a museum,” explains Riyas Komu, Director of Programmes, and one of KMB's two co-founders. Komu along with fellow artist Bose Krishnamachari had conceived the idea of this project a while ago. In 2010, the two set up the Kochi Biennale Foundation, a charitable trust to organise the event, and since then they have been working relentlessly to get it off the ground.

They researched Biennales around the world, studying various models, and have since been scurrying around getting support, funds, bringing on board government officials as well as corporates and creative professionals (including Sunil V., creative director of Wieden+Kennedy), laying the base for it – and, of course, promoting the event so that they can get the masses to attend.

It speaks volumes that even before the dates of the Biennale were officially announced last week in Delhi, the event had already earned a place for itself in the “must attend in 2012' lists of global publications such as The New York Times and Forbes. And like all new projects, it had also earned its share of notoriety with all kinds of allegations flying about. Given that there are over 200 biennales the world over, the fact that the Kochi one – without even still unveiling the full list of attending artists – is attracting such press globally is rather amazing.

Much of it is, of course, due to the unrelenting buzz on the event kept up on Internet through Twitter, Facebook and art blogs, not to mention conversations in art galleries, studios and cafés giving constant updates on what's happening in Kochi.

So what exactly has been happening there?

Getting the Sites Ready

The Biennale action, says Bose, will happen across historic sites such as Fort Kochi and Muziris, a fabled ancient port located near Kodungallur from where spices were sent to Rome and Greece. It will unfold in warehouses, houseboats, restored halls such as the 19th century Durbar Hall and various other heritage buildings that are getting a facelift.

“Twelve large warehouses are already in our custody,” says Komu, describing how over the last few months, the Foundation has been acquiring the use of ginger and pepper processing warehouses – some of them as large as 60,000 sq. ft., with a character and history of their own, and will no doubt prove to be a spicy inspiration for the artists in residence.

“We are studying the history of these spice godowns so that we can acquaint the artists with it,” says Komu.

The owners of boutique hotels in Fort Kochi have been drafted in and accommodation is being finalised. “A lot of international artists have in the past quietly come and stayed in Kochi and done art projects – it's just that we have never documented their stay the way you would see in Venice or Rome where hotels have signs saying so and so artist was here, “ says Bose.

That would all change now, and a rigorous documentation of such stints be put in practice, starting perhaps with the visit of Ernesto Neto, contemporary visual artist from Brazil known for his abstract minimalism who is going to soon set up residency in Kochi.

The intention, as Bose explains, is to create architectural space for the creation and showcasing of art and sustain it for future use.

Twenty-six artists have already confirmed, he says, reeling off names such as Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Mexico-based Gabriel Orozco, Indonesian artist Fiona Tan and African artist Wangechi Mutu. In all there will be 70 artists.

Funds are still being sewn up. The Kerala government has committed Rs 5 crore to the project. The BMW group is getting associated. Other corporate sponsorships and grants are being solicited.

As a first step, the Foundation has also spent time restoring the Durbar Hall, the erstwhile royal courtyard of the Maharaja of Kochi. It was thrown open to the public in November 2011. As Bose says with quiet pride, it can rank among Asia's finest art galleries. Very soon, it will play host to the German modern artist Eberhard Havekost's exhibition “Sightseeing Trip” held in collaboration with Dresden State Art Collections.

The Biennale Culture

So what does the Kochi Biennale, which cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote calls the newest flag in the atlas of biennale culture, propose to achieve? More importantly, are we as a nation ready for it?

In the past, India has experimented with a Triennale, founded as far back as 1968, but it floundered in red tape, and tapered off. Attempts have been made to set up Biennales in Delhi, but to no avail.

But perhaps, the time is now right. After all, last year, for the very first time, India was given a pavilion at the historic Venice Biennale (one of the most prestigious platforms). Also, given the success of the India Art Fair, which attracted over a lakh visitors, both Komu and Bose believe that we as a nation are now more aware of art.

Each biennale, as Riyas Komu says, has its distinctive voice, and is born out of a need. According to him, the Biennale of Johannesburg in South Africa commemmorated the country ridding itself of apartheid, Gwangju in South Korea was a celebration of freedom. “In the Indian context, you could say we felt the need because we are in a transient state,” he says.

The outcomes that Bose and Komu are looking for is to start an active art dialogue and unlock the contemporary and traditional stories. For host state Kerala, it could very well also mean a flock of cultural tourists arriving in God's Own Country.

(This article was published on February 1, 2012)
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