The announcement of a new biennial inevitably prompts the question: Why? The art world is saturated with these large-scale recurring exhibitions, of which there are around 250 in operation in places as diverse as Dakar and Folkestone. A mass outbreak of biennials during the 1990s led to serious questioning of their significance as an exhibition form that has yet to subside. Too big; too uncomfortably Western; too many of the same artists and display methods: the biennial has long been labeled a stale proposition.
Which is why the Kochi-Muziris Biennale comes as a pleasant, and exciting, surprise. This new biennial (which ran from 12 December, 2012 to 17 March, 2013, following an extension by public demand) is India’s first. It represents a cultural milestone, not least because it comes on the heels of two projects that have respectively stuttered and failed: Delhi’s Triennale-India, launched in 1968, and the unrealised Delhi Biennale, spearheaded in 2005 by critic Geeta Kapur. The founding of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has been far from straightforward; dogged by media smear campaigns, public mistrust, and retraction of government funds, the Biennale was executed on 20% of its original budget, with artists using their own money to participate.
These obstacles left their mark (it was several days into the exhibition’s run before most works were in place), but in a largely positive way, giving the Biennale a grassroots feel in line with Kerala’s Communist-Marxist background. This is just one facet of Kochi’s complex cultural make-up, which renders it a highly charged site for a biennial. At their best, these exhibitions stage dialogue between art from different world cultures as a way of making sense of the state of contemporary art globally. Cosmopolitanism is their fulcrum, and so it is for Kochi, a port city that was for many centuries the centre of India’s spice trade, and home to the country’s first church, synagogue and mosque. Since it provided a channel for so many of the world’s first encounters with Indian culture, it seems appropriate that Kochi should host the country’s first biennial; an initiative that has finally taken India from being a curated nation to a curator.
So conscious of Kochi’s dynamic identity were the Biennale’s co-curators, Kerala-born artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu (both of whom work in Mumbai, which offers superior cultural infrastructure), that they decided the city itself should provide the exhibition’s theme; a concrete, unpretentious choice. Their decision to obtain extra funds by hitching the Biennale to an archaeological recovery of the lost port of Muziris, some 30 kilometres from Kochi, could have diluted this, but in practice it produced a convincing curatorial strategy that responded to the history of trade ingrained in both sites. 94 invited artists – some very well-established (Alfredo Jaar; Ai Weiwei; Subodh Gupta), many more emerging – presented works across multiple media in a string of aesthetically pleasing crumbling buildings (in many cases old spice warehouses) redolent of the region’s past. As many works were site-specific, they shared related concerns, weaving a web of interconnected statements and questions that spoke to Kochi’s local conditions. Tallur L.N.’s Veni, vidi, vici (2012), a monumental installation of an inverted roof covered with terracotta tiles made by Mangalore’s Basel Mission tile factory, loudly addressed the elephant-in-the-room issue of colonialism (the Biennale’s wall texts were provided in both English and Malayalam) while subtly playing with the architecture of the colonial-era spice warehouse; in a building nearby, Vivan Sundaram’s Black Gold (2012) used terracotta fragments recovered from digs at the site of Muziris to build an imaginary topography on the floor, conjuring associations with colonial mapping, nation-building, and national myth-making. Pre-existing works also chimed well with the setting: Wangechi Mutu’s Dutty Water (2007) used Kochi as a material, pumping untreated water from an outdoor well into the exhibition space, inviting viewers to attend to the city in its entirety, and Ai Weiwei’s Disturbing the Peace (2009) set off the region’s radical political stance. Far from stale, this biennial felt fresh; both its content and stance were gratifyingly provocative.
Biennials are, however, recurring events, and so much of the Biennale’s curatorial thrust was directed towards its inception that it is hard to envisage a second edition (and harder to know whether funding will be available). UBIK, a Keralan artist based in Dubai, picked up on this unsettling question through his text-based interventions in several public spaces. With Aspinwall House, the Biennale’s charmingly dilapidated hub, owned by India’s largest property developer, will this biennial evaporate into mere ‘residual traces’, as UBIK’s work suggests? This is one visitor, heartened by the Kochi-Muziris Biennale’s fighting spirit, and convinced of its potential to grow into an exhibition capable of renewing the biennial’s form, who fervently hopes that this is not the case.
1. UBIK, Residual Traces, 2012, found tiles in courtyard of Dutch Warehouse.
2. Wangechi Mutu. Dutty Water, 2007, cement, motor mechanism and water