India’s contemporary art landscape is both thriving and complex. In recent years, it has been galvanized by a growing number of committed gallerists and not-for-profit organizations, while educational institutes, museums and the state have provided limited and sporadic support. So it’s not surprising that the country’s first biennial is an ambitious, artist-led endeavour. Conceived in 2010 by the Keralan-born, Mumbai-based artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, its stated aim is to ‘establish a sustainable platform for contemporary art in India’. They managed to secure an unprecedented level of funding from the government of Kerala, the southern Indian state in which Kochi is situated, a region with strong traditions of literature and performance, as well as annual film and music festivals.
Side-stepping an over-arching theme, Krishnamachari and Komu looked to Kochi itself, and to its historical role as a port. The city’s legacy of cultural pluralism, paired with the ancient seaport of Muziris, provided the loose conceptual framework of appearance and disappearance. The biennial infiltrates the usually sleepy tourist town of Fort Kochi and its environs, where the work of more than 80 artists (both international and Indian) is spread across 14 venues in the historical areas of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, and Ernakulam in Kochi city. The exhibition occupies a variety of buildings and spaces: from the colonial sea-facing properties of Aspinwall House and Pepper House, open to the public for the first time in years, to the decaying, disused warehouses in Mattancherry – the hub of Kerala’s spice trade.
Ironically, the infrastructural and funding problems that the biennial was attempting to rise above were the very reasons that the exhibition was only partially installed in time for the opening, with art works held up in customs and materials not arriving on time. In the coming days, the sight of half-installed works, resting next to empty crates, and video projectors on standby became all too familiar. However, the exhibition as a visible work in progress – a literal site of production – came to be an integral part of the Kochi-Muziris experience.
The work installed during the biennial’s first week presented a rich cacophony of artists’ voices and responses. At the main venue, Aspinwall House, veteran Indian artist Vivan Sundaram showed Black Gold (2012), a field of terracotta shards taken directly from the archaeological site of Pattanam in Muziris. Sundaram’s work sits next to a large wooden boat by Subodh Gupta (Untitled, 2012), precariously tilted to reveal a plethora of domestic objects. Elsewhere, an installation by Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz, Stopover (2012), comprises dozens of large, cumbersome, pepper-grinding stones that cover the floor and spill outside the building towards the water edge. All three works speak of how the histories of trade, migration and development are manifested through our material culture.
Also in Aspinwall House, Amar Kanwar’s project The Sovereign Forest (2010–ongoing) explores the political and social impact of the mining industry on the local community of Orissa, India. A meditative and expansive installation, it comprises film, rice seeds and a series of books. In a quiet corner, the Delhi-based artist Roshini Devasher’s video installation Parts Unknown (2012) depicts the surreal desert landscape of Hanle in Ladakh, north India – the site of India’s largest astronomy observation centre. Across several small monitors, the artist’s layering of video footage with drawings and satellite images of earth, explores the idea of landscape as an imagined and intangible space, lying somewhere between fact and fiction.
Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, formerly a coconut fibre trading company, houses Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s hypnotic work, Citizens Band (2012). The four-channel video installation creates a musical score from the sounds of a swimmer in an indoor pool, a blind musician singing on a commuter train, a lone figure whistling in a car, and a busker on the street – a lyrical ode to the individual and the collective.
Amongst the exhibition’s numerous venues, David Hall – a historic Dutch bungalow and the grounds of a private members club – along with Parade Ground, a large outdoor open space, hosted a number of collateral events, including an opening-day concert by British musician M.I.A., which drew huge crowds of locals.
During the opening weekend, a two-day symposium titled ‘Site Imaginaries’ focused on the biennial’s place in India’s art history and discussed its relationship to its predecessor, Triennale-India, which was founded in 1968 in New Delhi and funded by the Lalit Kala Akademi (National Academy of Art). Its eventual demise in 2005, due to the lack of support of new and experimental contemporary art practices, serves as a pertinent reminder of the problematic and politics involved in institutional and state supported funding in India.
In its first week, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale welcomed some 10,000 visitors. Beyond these impressive figures, and the initial curiosity of its audiences, it is too soon to speculate about the longevity or continued legacy of this artist-led project. With the biennial facing ongoing funding problems, it’s questionable whether large-scale exhibitions are the only way in which sustainable international dialogues and platforms can and should be developed.
However, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was testament to the important and diverse work being produced by Indian artists, and represents the commitment and vision of its artists and arts professionals. In light of this, the most important outcome may well be the broader conversation that the biennial has opened up within India itself about the value and role of the visual arts in its cultural identity and wider society.