I was imprisoned for eleven years. In my cell, I saw the moonlight but not the moon… We aspire towards a freedom that will lead us towards creating an art without fetters. This unfettered art will be our moonlight. — Zarganar, artist from Myanmar, 2012
It is early March. Pouring sweat, we — art aficionados — walk through Jew Town to a background score of waves lashing the rocks. After three days across 3 lakh sq ft of mainly site-specific art by more than 80 artists from 24 countries at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), due to conclude on March 13, we need time out.
Our encounters with art deconstructed, then reconstructed in terms of ideation and execution, have been soul-deep, even searing, at the first Indian biennale’s 14 locations across Kochi, Mattancherry, Ernakulam, and the legendary port of Muziris. At saturation point, mere sculptures and paintings seem almost passé. We freeze when we chance upon KMB’s logo metres away from the 16th century Paradesi Synagogue.
But we emerge from Mandalay Hall in Jew Town electrified by a video loop of Zarganar, Myanmar’s most famous comedian, sharing his life behind bars. Close by, a taped note invites us to type ‘Justice’ on a rickety Corona typewriter. The result on paper reads: ‘O-u-t-r-a-g-e.’ We feel inextricably altered, connected to a global network of art, as protest, as politics.
The biennale impacted individuals as deeply as the host city of Kochi, with its cosmopolitan, multicultural history as focus. From December 12, 2012, the mega-show redefined disused colonial warehouses and bungalows, never open to the public before, as sites of artistic exploration. Alongside, it celebrated current excavations at Muziris, the ancient port buried by a 14th century flood. Today, Kochi — declared a Biennale City by its mayor — is no longer a dot on the Spice Route, or the Indian gateway to Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Galvanised by the KMB’s three lakh footfalls by February 28, the Kerala Government has pledged to build 100 galleries in 100 panchayats. Is an art revolution under way?
KMB’s artistic director/ co-curator Bose Krishnamachari points out, “Biennales democratise art, taking it from the confines of galleries, and mixing it with people and places, removing the elitist tag… Recent studies have proved their soft power and economic contribution to the host city.”
The biennale venues throng with designers from Montreal and Chennai, artists from Vadodara and Bengaluru, curators from Mumbai and Kolkata, in addition to anthropologists from New Delhi. In Kochi, even idiappam vendors and fisherfolk refer to the KMB today. A middle-class family with adult children recently took a train to the biennale from south Kerala on the recommendation of their barber. Hotel bookings have soared by 80 per cent. Like us, most entered the biennale as sceptics, but left as converts.
Artist Riyas Komu, co-curator of the biennale, notes, “Anything that happens in Kerala gets discussed, equally by a professor or a barber. So, Kochi is the perfect venue for an Indian biennale.”
However, this artist-led initiative met major obstacles en route, raising troubling questions: Why does India have an art market infrastructure, but inadequate museums? Why was the government-sponsored Triennale-India, founded in 1968, last held in 2005?
The Kerala Government’s initial Rs 5 crore allocation was mired in media mayhem. Local trade unions had to be mollified to unload artwork. Miffed local artists vandalised art, including installations by South African artist Clifford Charles.
But the Kochi Biennale Foundation trustees deftly transformed protest into pride. Through theatre sketches in rural Kerala. Through outreach programmes at schools. Through a campaign with shopkeepers, auto-rickshaw drivers, even pedestrians… each holding a poster in Malayalam: “It’s my Biennale.” Pushed to the wall, the foundation raised the requisite Rs 13.5 crore through corporate donors, embassies, and the art community.
The community includes feted Indian artist Subodh Gupta. His boatload of found objects at the 1.6 lakh sq ft trading compound of Aspinwall House reflects socio-economic transformations that mesh into Kochi’s stories. “For the artist, his boat is the universe that floats leisurely upon the waters of destruction to reach the land of regeneration,” writes Gupta on the wall.
Buoyantly afloat, the biennale leaves behind upgraded pan-Indian art-handling and shipping facilities, all shipshape for 2014. And a network of supportive mentor-curators, including Sarat Maharaj (South Africa), Thierry Raspail (France), Adriano Pedrosa (Brazil) and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, UK). Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern gallery, London, frames the KMB against the globe’s 150-plus similar expositions: “This is probably a biennale which is able to redefine and revaluate the life of biennials in general.”
Was the compliment justified? We felt it was. For Krishnamachari and Komu aligned art and locations impeccably, ensuring about 50 per cent pan-Indian representation. For instance, Atul Dodiya’s photo-installation ‘Celebration in the Laboratory’ is spread out amidst peeling plaster, chipped tiles and random railways signs. His subjective portrait gallery embraces the who’s who of contemporary Indian art, including M.F. Husain, K.G. Subramanyan, and Nilima Sheikh, shoulder-to-shoulder with critics, curators and gallerists.
Outdoors at Aspinwall, amongst swaying palms, giggling, pigtailed schoolgirls in blue tunics clamber up gunny-bags to peer into Srinivasa Prasad’s outsize, suspended ‘cocoon’ of thorny bamboo, binding wire and steel cable. As they whisper in wonder, demystified art becomes a desirable experience. For, to Prasad, Kochi was “the perfect template to create beautiful artwork.”
A ferry-ride away, we gawk at Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa’s tapestries at the renovated century-old Durban Hall, his videos melding the weaves with revolutionary squares in his faraway land. Within the black drapes at Rose Street Bungalow, we watch Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s documentaries of dissent.
Seated on the wooden floor at Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, a former coir godown, we tune in to Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s ‘Citizen’s Band’, a four-channel video installation of extraordinary adaptations of traditional music to new environments — such as Cameroon-born Lois Geraldine Zongo’s akutuk or water percussion in a Paris swimming pool; or Mongolian Bukhu Ganburged playing his morin khur or horsehead fiddle while throat-singing in downtown Sydney. Over 21 minutes, geographies collapse. Transiting cultures sans visas, we are in tears.
KMB’s spice-inspired olfactory work reaches its acme with Brazilian Ernesto Neto’s udder-like cotton installation at Moidu’s, overlooking the Arabian Sea. We can smell, touch and almost see aromatic turmeric, cumin and cloves through the yoking of the global and the local as he perfects the genius of simplicity.
At Dutch-style Pepper House, Nairobi-born, Amsterdam-based Ibrahim Quraishi salutes the 1960s Fluxus anti-commerce movement with his installation of white ‘Islamic Violins’. Crafted in Pakistan, perfected in the Netherlands, they are accompanied by video in Kochi.
How does one gauge the impact of this Kochi Biennale? Perhaps by this story doing the rounds in Kerala… Of two children overheard at dusk at Edapally... One says to the other, ‘Let’s play now. I am Bose. You are Riyas Komu…”
As for Krishnamachari and Komu, they are already immersed in a grand dream of a Rs 72 crore edition in 2014. At Aspinwall, Krishnamachari frenetically paints a donated Tato Nano in his unmistakable style, to be auctioned at a fund-raiser.
Coming up? Perhaps a commissioned, borderless curator in tune with the cultural sensitivity of Kochi, which still hosts 13 communities. Perhaps 15 public sculptures on the road from the airport to Fort Kochi.
Post-biennale, the world views Kochi both as a historical mother-lode and a site of infinite possibilities. If, like Zarganar’s moonlit art, this mega-show does not define India as a global contemporary art port-of-call, nothing ever will.