A biennale by any other name...

Tue, 29/08/2017 - 03:57 -- eyeline

Indian critic, writer, curator and academic Geeta Kapur wrote in the anthology accompanying the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art held in Brisbane,

The point for our purpose is that leading on from a politics of place, whether this be a fishing village, a regional capital, or an undeveloped nation, a potential historical avant-garde is on the agenda.
The avant-garde has come from metropolitan cultures like Paris, Berlin and New York, as it has come from developing countries like Mexico, Cuba or Chile; and equally from an alienated and vanguard intelligentsia as from organic intellectuals and artists’ cadres.1

In the twenty-four years since, Kapur’s salient point that an ‘alienated and vanguard intelligentsia’ and ‘organic intellectuals’ can emerge from many other elsewheres has been made apparent over and over again, as interest in art produced outside what she called the ‘metropolitan cultures’ has grown. Over that period, biennales have proliferated alongside a trend for harnessing international perspectives for explaining and containing art. The tendency to collectivise all those local and regional differences into the singular category of ‘the contemporary’ has spread like a contagion, even as evidence of the myriad ‘politics of place’ in each of these biennales unfolds. The Biennial Foundation lists approximately two hundred biennales and triennales worldwide. As Australian academic Christopher McAuliffe has noted, the fact that they are staged in forty-six different countries worldwide can make it ‘difficult to avoid them … almost a quarter of the world’s sovereign states offer one’.2 Yet despite the fact that many critical responses to these events collectivise biennales as a neat one-size-fits-all feature of the global cultural industry, much of the appeal of such events lies in the idiosyncratic differences their sites bring to the presentation, interpretation and reception of the work. The disjunctures between the will-to-be-global and the stubborn-reluctance-to-conform of places formed through the untidiness of material mistranslations of modernism offer gaps where new readings of art’s roles can breathe again. And so it is within the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB)—it is set in a site that refuses to be brought-to-heel, that declines the offer of playing bridesmaid to the art it hosts. And therein lies an appeal that makes the pilgrimage to ‘being-there’ worthwhile.

The brew of ‘rightness’ has taken some time to get right. India’s first attempt at an international event in Delhi manifested as Triennale-India, launched by the Nehru government’s Ministry of Cultures in 1968. But in spite of the ‘progressive and international outlook’ of the event, it was doomed by the weight of state control. A subsequent event in the nation’s capital and led by Geeta Kapur, also failed to thrive. But in 2016/17 this, the third iteration of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, provides the third round of evidence that the rich program of exhibitions, talks, seminars, screenings, music, workshops, publications, educational activities for school children and students, has grown roots and flourished as an exciting and challenging event at local, national and international levels.

The KMB is sited in Kochi, in the state of Kerala; and while it may be a bridge too far to describe Kochi as a ‘fishing village’ (even though it is famed for those touristy images of Chinese fishing nets silhouetted against the harbor), it is certainly a long way from being an international metropolis. Yet Kochi (and its hyphenated other, the ancient mythico /historical site of Muziris) has successfully drawn in audiences from across the subcontinent as well as from international destinations. And, importantly, it is recognised by the local community, for bad and good, as ‘theirs’.

Kochi’s centuries long role as the centre of the Indian spice trade attracted Greeks and Romans as well as Jews, Syrians, Arabs and Chinese to its bustling harbour. Traces of its more recent colonial history are equally cosmopolitan, and remain to this day in old structures clustering around the rims of its waterways. Many of these sites—the old go-downs and storage spaces built by the internationalising colonial powers of the past for the spice trade—have been harnessed by the KMB as exhibition spaces for the globalising cultural trading of the present. The history of such sites prompts the work displayed within them to resonate in particular ways––the richly patinaed surfaces, the shafts of light angling down from the high ceilings, the rhythmic slap of the water nearby, the fact that the entrance to them is often labyrinthine, intensify the sensory experience of the work. Add to this the weather conditions, the effects borne through the time of day you see particular works, the stifling claustrophobia of some spaces next to others that were run through by sea breezes, together with the amount of time you are prepared to give to viewing individual works, all underscore the powerful influences that ‘atmospheric attunements’ of ‘movements and actions, of reverberations and sounds, of space and air’3 make on the reception of the art—individually, and as part of the broader exhibition.

As a result, the intentional artifice of some of the ‘big names with big aims’ biennale-mill-predictables can start to unravel. While it may have been possible to accept AES+F’s life-size images of emaciated corpses dressed in high fashion garments (Defile 2000-2007) as cool black humor, the claims for the work, ‘By juxtaposing death with fashion, it shoulders part of the burden with death, and enables a way of dealing with the fear of death.’4 ring, at best, with a hollow disingenuousness. Other ‘big issue’ works harnessed the power of the old buildings together with the poignantly hopeful futility of art pilgrimages. Chilean poet Raúl Zurita reflected on the death of Syrian refugee child Alan Kurdi to ‘explore the meaning of meaninglessness’. In a work that used text and the enormous dark space of an empty room filled with ankle-deep water, the audience waded through, rather than looked at, a work where shallow immersion called on a yearning for deeper responses.

But a survey of individual works would do little to convey the lived experience of this exhibition event. The KMB’s adoption of the generic title ‘biennale’ masks its considerable departures from the expectations of such titles; ones that come through in tangible and intangible ways. It is important to know, for example, that it has remained an artist-lead initiative since 2010, when the former Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs for the Government of Kerala, M.A. Baby, invited artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu to initiate an international art project in the state. It is also important to know that Kerala is the first state in the world to have democratically elected a communist government in 1957, and that it was not until 2011 that that government was toppled. Evidence of the radical nature of this state’s history is peppered like graffiti buckshot between and under and over KMB’s cool, slick, street advertising, where images of Che, Lenin and the hammer and sickle remind even the most ill-informed FIFO cultural drop-in of the subversiveness of Kochi street culture. Some critics have decried the biennale’s claim to radicalism, pointing out that it falls far short of the radical street politics, the slogans which have long tattooed the walls of the colonial buildings that now house the international art event.5

Sudarshan Shetty, curator of the current Biennale, continues the legacy of an artist-directed program. Important to Shetty’s aim was a commitment to push the boundaries of how we think about the visual arts, and to this end, the ninety-seven artists he has drawn together from thirty-five countries include ‘musicians, performers, craftsmen, writers, poets, filmmakers, scientists, architects, designers, social thinkers and artists’.6 Central to the event is an educational programme that has been running in a spacious amphitheatre built by artist Tony Joseph, amidst the urban jungle overgrowth of Cabral Yard, using recycled materials and debris from Fort Kochi.

By the time I arrived the event had already been running for two months, yet the pace and energy of the talk sessions were undiminished. Similarly, the exhibitions had retained their freshness, with all the technological components working according to plan. Visitors’ needs had been anticipated with the installation of ample (free) fresh water outlets and affordable snack-sites, maps and a catalogue/guide with a clear and concise layout. Such are the ancillary considerations essential to any successful entertainment experience. And today, the exhibiting of art is part of the international entertainment industry. In 2011 India’s recognition of the alignment of international commerce with an international cultural presence was evident in its first ‘entry’ to the 54th Venice Biennale. Participation in these internationally focussed exhibitions is as good a tag to flag a contemporary, progressive, global outlook as any. But it is just that—a tag. Instead, the KMB has harnessed the biennale model to the needs of local, state and national objectives in ways that subvert and resist the homogenising effects of cultural globalism. Yet even now, in its third iteration, the KMB has not been supported by any national funding. The fact that it is artist-run, artist-lead, site-specific and that it breaks beyond the boundaries of institutions has, to this point, produced an exhibition event that challenges the very notion of the title it has adopted.

Raúl Zurita, The Sea of Pain, 2016. Immersive installation with text and seawater. Aspinwall House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016.

Alex Seton, Refuge, 2015. Bianca Carrara marble, eyelets, pallet, 110 x 120 x 170cm.

Ales Steger, The Pyramid of Exiled Poets, 2016. Architectural structure and installation with mixed media and recordings of poems by Publius Ovidius Naso, Dante Alighieri, Bertold Brecht, Czeslaw Milosz, Mahmoud Darwish, Yan Lian, Joseph Brodsky, Ivan Blatn and César Vallejo. Courtesy of the artist. This project is supported by KHUSHII.

Tony Joseph, The Pavilion, 2016. Architectural installation in Cabral Yard. Courtesy of the artist and Stapati, Calicut, Kochi and Bangalore.

notes: 

1. Geeta Kapur, ‘Contemporary Indian Art’, Tradition and Change: contemporary art of Asia and the Pacific, Caroline Turner (ed), University of
Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993, p.44. This anthology was published on the occasion of the first Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery.
2. Christopher McAuliffe, ‘Explainer: what is a biennale?’, The Conversation, 30 May, 2014. See https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-a-biennale-26516.
3. Hazra Abhishek, Forming in the pupil of an eye, ex. cat., Sudarshan Shetty (curator), Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2016, p.46.
4. Ibid, p.57.
5. Robert E. De Souza, ‘The Indian Biennale Effect, The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012’, Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, 2013. See http://culturalpolitics.dukejournals.org/content/9/3/296.full
6. Somak Ghoshal, ‘Breakfast with HuffPost’ ‘How To Bring Together The World’s Art: Sudarshan Shetty On The Kochi Biennale’, Huffington Post, 03/10/2016, updated 10/10/16. See http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/10/02/how-to-curate-indias-foremost-art-event-sudarshan-shetty-on-th

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was held at Kochi from 12 December 2016 to 29 March 2017. It was curated by Sudarshan Shetty.

Pat Hoffie is an artist and writer based in Brisbane.