Despite all the turmoil, why Kochi Biennale must go on

In 2010, when Bombay artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu were born in Kerala, they launched the idea art biennial it was received with enthusiasm in India. Indian artists have built an impressive reputation with their global success, but few have excelled on the domestic scene.

Visualized and built as one of the biggest art events in India, landmarks across Kochi were prepared for the inaugural edition and the streets of the coastal city came alive with color and graffiti. Although the mood that year was celebratory, there was an element of caution as all previous similar attempts in the country – including the famous Jawaharlal Nehru Triennale-India, started in 1968 – had failed.

Shubigi Rao, the Singaporean artist of Indian origin who is curating the latest edition, at the opening on Friday. (Source: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

While skepticism was belied by the well-received event that began on the palindromic 12/12/12, now, 10 years and four Biennales later, excitement has turned to deep concern as the Biennale grapples with many challenges.

When its fifth edition, curated by Singaporean Indian-origin artist Shubigi Rao, opened on December 23rd, it was 10 days later than the planned December 12th date. -hour delay, many pointed out that the event was four years in the making, postponed twice due to the pandemic — plenty of time for organizers to get their act together.

Conceived by Komu and Krishnamachari at the behest of the Kerala state government as an international platform for art in India, the Kochi Muziris Biennale was based on the much older and successful Biennales in Venice and Sao Paulo. But what made the Kochi version special was that it was intrinsically linked to its location – the cosmopolitan fort of Kochi, its sea waters and the ancient port city of Muziris.

Lending the charm of the Kochi Biennale were its major venues – from the 150-year-old Durbar Hall to David Hall, a Dutch bungalow, from the Pepper House, a historic Dutch-style mud-roofed spice to the majestic 19th century. Aspinwall House, located by the Arabian Sea.

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From artists to tourists, fishermen and students, the event is open to all. (Source: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

The Biennale managed to bring art beyond the White Cube as some of the world’s leading artists shared the platform with art students from across India.

“Until this biennale, we only had biennales and documentaries given to us by the West… Bose and Riyas have done something spectacular. I have participated in many biennales, but this is the only one I know where the idea of ​​art and culture spreads to society,” says artist Nalini Malani, who participated in the first year of the biennale.

“It was a guerrilla atmosphere… There were blackouts, video projectors didn’t come, things weren’t posted on the walls, but artists were working and things were coming together,” he recalls.

The very first edition of the biennale saw works by 90 artists from over 20 countries, with Subodh Gupta’s Kerala kettuvallam (houseboat) overflowing with crockery and Vivan Sundaram reimagining Muziris with discarded ancient sherds from an archaeological site in the installation Black Gold.

In front of the main exhibition grounds on December 12, the original opening date of this year’s event, were not only some of India’s most prominent artists, but also the audience that made this a truly ‘People’s Biennale’ – from tourists to taxi drivers, fishermen and students who had bunked classes , to view artworks or simply meet.

“I have participated in previous editions and the most exciting thing for me is the opportunity the Biennale gives us to meet the artists,” says Abha, a student from Palakkad who traveled over 150 km to Kochi for the event.

Disappointment and disbelief at the delay extended to the artists as well. In an open letter dated December 23, more than 50 participants called for a “radical transformation” of the biennial.

“As the artists arrived… we were plagued with many problems in the weeks and days leading up to the opening: shipments were delayed in transit and at customs after opening day; rain seeping into all exhibition spaces, affecting fixtures and artwork; lack of stable electricity; lack of equipment; and insufficient manpower in all production teams… Artists were drawn into daily battles with the management of the Biennale, whose organizational shortcomings and lack of transparency prevented a timely and graceful opening long before it was postponed,” they wrote.

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While Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), admitted “organizational responsibility” and stressed that it was “not the curator’s (Shubigi Rao) fault”, he blamed everything from delays in getting the main venue, Aspinwall House, to rain for the chaos.

Still, many artists said they saw it.

Delhi-based Asim Waqif, whose Improvise installation is one of the outdoor projects at Aspinwall House, described working for the biennale as one of his most “frustrating” experiences. “Three to four months ago, I could have predicted that there would be serious problems,” says Waqif. He recalls how when he approached the Biennale team a few months ago for help with his installation, which needed bamboo, coir and pandan leaves, he was informed of a staff shortage.

“Everything was delayed, from my site visit earlier this year to when the bamboo for my installation finally arrived in Fort Kochi,” says Waqif.

Other artists talk about pending payments and how they are still waiting for shipments. “I was waiting for things to be ready, but now I can only wait,” says the artist.

Krishnamachari said the delays were also due to “delayed measures, changes in customs policy and a longer and more costly bank guarantee process”.

Rao described working on the biennale as “one of the hardest things” she has done. “I’m always happy to put in more effort and work when resources are tight, but it was much worse because of the pain I saw others go through. I invited artists in good faith and did not expect it to be like this for them. This entire process was unnecessarily stressful for many,” said the curator.

However, the problems of the biennial preceded the last edition. In 2012, a group of artists led by sculptor Kanayi Kunhiraman accused the organizers of corruption and demanded an investigation into how the money allocated by the government was used. The Left Democratic Front government, which proposed the biennale, provided Rs 5 crore for the inaugural event in 2010. While the United Democratic Front government that came to power the following year promised support, all funds were suspended until the corruption charges were cleared, leading to major financial shortfalls.

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While the state remains its largest sponsor, the Biennale also generates funds through corporate sponsorships and private donations, with support provided by the artists themselves. However, the total demand corpus, estimated at Rs 25-30 crore, is low except for a few years.
But his woes go beyond his financial problems.

Some participants, working with limited resources, are also frustrated that they have no one to share their concerns with.

As recently as October, Biennale was still hiring its managers and production staff as many faces from the core team left, including Komu, who quit in 2018 amid allegations of sexual harassment. Although in the absence of an official complaint, the charges against him were dropped by the biennale’s internal complaints committee and he was reportedly invited to join, the artist declined.

While its ever-growing numbers — from 4 million in 2012-13 to 6.2 million in 2018-19 — are a testament to the biennale’s popularity, many say the popular event needs a real course correction.

Jitish Kallat, who curated the 2014-15 edition of the Biennale and is now a trustee of the foundation, agrees.

“The most important task will be to make radical reforms in terms of the functioning of the biennale, to balance its priorities and resort to an internal chain of responsibility – a renewed code of conduct within and outside the organization,” says the Mumbai-artist, adding that without this course correction, the future “of this incredibly valuable institution” in jeopardy.

On December 23, as Rao and Krishnamachari raised the Biennale flag on the Aspinwall campus and the public slowly trickled in, Malini hoped things would fall into place. “There are more expensive biennales, but Kochi is special and I look forward to its entire future,” said the Mumbai-based artist.


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