As Kerala gets ready to host the country’s first biennale - Kochi-Muziris on December 12, and the pressure to deliver a successful show is high, perhaps we should look at the example of a city like Sydney, which has become a significant global arts hub over the past two decades.
By mounting compelling exhibitions annually, including the largest, free-to-the-public outdoor sculpture show — Sculpture by the Sea — set against the jaw-dropping vistas of Bondi Beach, Sydney has earned a place for itself on the international art circuit. If the forces behind Kochi-Muziris pursue a similar vision, there’s nothing to prevent the biennale from emulating comparable success.
Started in 1997 with a limited budget of A$11,000, most of which went towards prizes for artists, Sculpture by the Sea is attended by more than half-a-million people over a three-week period, including many families with children. The show now includes more cities such as Perth in Australia and Aarhus in Denmark, where too more than half-a-million people visit over a month, and artists from around the world participate.
Yes, the works showcased are sometimes criticised as too “low brow” or a mixed bag, but I think the critics are missing the entire point of such a show — public engagement with art. As Australian journalist John McDonald wrote, “It allows everyone to be an art critic for a day… It would be good to believe that out of this mass scrutiny a new appreciation of sculpture is gradually emerging.”
This year, young and old were fascinated by works as varied as Ghost Net Australia’s Ghost Net Crocodile 2011, an enormous crocodile made of bamboo, rattan, wire, rope and old fishing nets, or Jane Gillings’s Midden, which beautifully laid out used and discarded plastic picnic cutlery along the walking stretch of a cliff, and design collective Cave Urban’s interactive, wind-driven bamboo sculpture, Mengenang (memory), made with 222 bamboo ‘bird scarers’ tuned to D-minor to evoke the 222 lives lost in the 2002 Bali bombings.
Among the Indian artists were Subodh Kerkar, a former doctor, who constructed The Chilly — an enormous red chilli made of fibreglass and used tyre trucks, and Gangadhar Mahato, whose fibreglass figure of a naked pregnant woman, Mother 2011, was his second showing at Sculpture by the Sea.
More recently, an indoor sculpture show was also included because, as David Handley, the founder of the show said, “The Sydney public thought that all sculpture had to be big, so the indoor show was to educate them that sculpture could be small but just as powerful.” In fact, a strong education component underlines the event, with school groups from across Sydney coming to learn about art and sculpture. Prizes are given out, including, among others, the prestigious Balnaves Foundation prize of A$70,000, the Allen’s People’s Choice prize (in which the public votes for the best sculpture) of A$5,000, and the Kid’s Choice prize (voted for by children visiting the show) of A$3,000. A number of subsidies and mentorships for artists are also associated with Sculpture by the Sea. This year’s Balnaves prize went to American Peter Lundberg, for his Barrel Roll — a sort of morphed double helix made of cast concrete and steel.
Kochi-Muziris could achieve comparable, if not greater levels of attendance, given that it too benefits from a beautiful setting on a tourist route. But for that to happen, you need organisational dedication and tireless champions. One of the reasons Sculpture by the Sea took off was because of Handley, whose persistence and effervescence helped propel the sculpture park to glory. He is backed by an army of volunteers
On the other hand, Handley revealed that some of the challenges he faced included being rained out, and having to scrounge for funds. “I set this up as the antithesis to the commercial world,” he said. He was loath to have any works sold at Sculpture by the Sea, but eventually gave way to pragmatism. In fact, it was only after last year’s change in government in New South Wales that a four-year annual funding commitment of A$300,000 has been realised from public sources — amounting to 15 per cent of the overall budget. This enables each participating artist to receive A$2,000 towards costs.
In contrast, the organisers of Kochi-Muziris have the luxury of support from the Kerala government from the get-go. With the right kind of institutional support and processes in place, not to mention dynamic leadership with a vision towards the future, India’s biennale could help the country become a contemporary global arts destination.