India’s First Biennale
Durbar Hall, one of the venues for the inaugural Kochi-Muziris Biennale, following renovation by the Kochi Biennale Foundation. Photo by Dheeraj Thakur
Last year India participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time and the most recent edition of Delhi’s India Art Fair (2012), attracted 85,000 visitors; contemporary Indian art is being exhibited and sold all over the world. Later this year sees the launch of a new biennale and the first to ever occur in India, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which is co-curated by its founders, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. Opening on 12 December and running until 13 March, the biennale will welcome 80 artists from the MENASA regions and beyond. Riyas Komu, talked to Isabella Ellaheh Hughes.
IEH: How and when did the idea to start the Kochi-Muziris Biennale come about?
RK: In May 2010, Bose Krishnamachar and I were approached by then-culture minister, M.A. Baby to start an international art project in Kerala. Acknowledging the lack of an international platform for contemporary art in India, we proposed that a large-scale international exhibition in Kochi, in the form of a biennale, could spur development of arts infrastructure and initiate a national discourse about contemporary art.
IEH: There has been much debate in recent years on the function of biennales, with some critics feeling that there are too many biennales popping up each year. How would you respond to these thoughts?
RK: To some extent the political connotations make a biennale a more effective means of reviving a national discourse on art in India. The questioning of national identities, a legacy of enlightened thought, the scrutiny of a global spotlight, the repurposing of a city into stage and canvas and the geopolitical context that we hope will inspire a far-reaching cultural intervention. Also, the first hand experience of visual art embedded into a city on a large scale, which a biennale can offer, has never been seen before in India. We believe a biennale, broader in scope than art fairs or exhibitions, is the right approach by which to offer a personal artistic experience in a conceptual space, with local context.
One of the potential venues for the biennale, a former bank on the waterfront, Calvetti area of Kochi
IEH: What makes the Kochi – Muziris Biennale different to other biennales?
RK: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t an exercise in differentiation. It’s about bringing art to the Kochi and Muziris area and inviting people from all around India and the world to experience art here. It is about creating something new and beautiful in which Kerala and India will take great pride and joy. Kochi is a place like no other and is itself the framework of the concept behind the biennale.
IEH: While the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is international in its focus, how will the biennale support India’s rapidly developing contemporary art scene?
RK: Undergoing rapid economic, social and political transformation, India is indeed on the brink of cultural shift. As new forms of expression flourish from periphery, India must invest in an ecosystem that nurtures the development of a national contemporary art platform. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is central to that development. The purpose of the biennale is to serve as a catalyst for contemporary artistic expression in India; elevating contemporary art to a position of undisputed social and economic value and establishing a point of access for artistic engagement in this country.
IEH: Most of the action associated with the biennial is taking place in Kochi. What can visitors expect to find in Muziris, which has quite the mythic history?
RK: Muziris, located 30km from Kochi, was a world famous port in the 1st Century BCE. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is currently being excavated. Archaeological excavations are unearthing historical evidence confirming the location of Muziris, and the biennale will revive the spirit of this ancient trading port by establishing a new international route for art. The Biennale aims to reconnect the myth of Muziris with the modern Kochi metropolis where pre-colonial traditions of cultural pluralism continue to flourish. We are working to make the art of our time part of the region’s heritage.
IEH: How many Indian artists have been included in the show?
RK: Approximately 35 of the artists invited are from India.
IEH: What is the theme of the biennale?
RK: Kochi’s cosmopolitanism is one that has been worn by generations in Kerala as a badge of honour even as it led to a series of struggles, time and again, generating a curiosity about current realities, a complex one. It is one that is at the crux of the civilizational crisis – one that is economical, ideological and, thereby geo-political. The compendium of these complexities is what gives this biennale a context and its enquiry. It is a quest that brought the world to these shores and it is the allure of possibilities that inspired great thinkers and saints to embark on numerous adventures – of the body and the mind. The trails they have left behind needs treading upon at this juncture to make a provocative investigation into the conflicts that we see around the world. Conflicts that lend a modern explanation for the mutual distrust and misgivings that pervades not just in immediate society but also snapping at the delicate fabric of India’s assertion as a nation-state and the globe that is ironically celebrating its flat character at the same time.
IEH: India is a multicultural, rapidly globalizing country, balancing between tradition and contemporaneity. Are you faced with any censorship challenges due to the increasingly provocative nature of contemporary art?
RK: As we are still in the commissioning phase it is too early to say. We will have to wait and see.
IEH: What are some artistic highlights to look forward to?
RK: We are delighted to have started conversations about new projects with artists including Wangechi Mutu, Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Gitanjali Rao, Gabriel Orozco, Amar Kanwar, Shreyas Karle, Ranbir Kaleka, Kiran Subbaiah, Tallur L.N, Joseph Semah, Surendran Nair, Zakir Hussain, Srinivasa Prasad, Bani Abidi and Rohini Devasher.
IEH: When one thinks about contemporary art and India, Mumbai or Delhi tend to spring to mind. What is the current state of the contemporary art scene in Kochi–Muziris?
RK: Artists from the state of Kerala have been some of the strongest participants in the contemporary Indian art context. And the irony is the state doesn’t have infrastructure to support artists so most of them migrate to other cities. But in recent years Kochi has been emerging as one of the cities in India which has initiated new trends and because of this an emerging, highly confident young art community lives around it along with few important senior artists who has been living and working in this region since several years with great conviction. There are a few art institutions and galleries in Kochi that have made this possible and also few important shows, which travelled to the city in last 10 years. The biennale will definitely add a new political dimension to the scene.
IEH: What has been the most challenging part of putting together a new biennale?
RK: India lacks the arts infrastructure many other countries take for granted and this being the first international art event of this scale in the region, the necessary infrastructure and expertise is not yet well established. Logistical essentials like transport, storage, insurance, customs clearance all represent significant challenges. One of the defining challenges of creating an exhibition of this scale in Kochi is identifying and creating venues. We must adapt warehouses and disused structures for use as exhibition spaces, lease other sites and make them secure for visitors and artworks. In Kochi we are in the process of reanimating approximately 20 spaces – Indo-European Heritage properties, disused buildings, warehouses, open air and public spaces.