Highlights from the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014

During December 2014, the small fishing town of Kochi in South India’s state of Kerala, was besieged by the international art crowd as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 (KMB) opened its second edition. India’s first and currently only biennale of contemporary art, the first edition saw a total of 400,000 visitors (just 60,000 less than the Venice Biennale) over its three month run, giving this hotly awaited second edition a lot to aspire to. Unveiling a multi-venue exhibition of 100 works by 94 artists from 30 countries, not including the numerous collateral projects initiated by independents, KMB’s second edition began with a very promising start.

Conceived in 2010 by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, it was of little surprise that KMB’s organisation committee maintained the biennale’s artist led roots by appointing artist Jitish Kallat as curator and artistic director for the second edition. An internationally acclaimed artist with an extensive knowledge of contemporary art, Kallat looked to Kochi’s history as a hub of discovery to devise this year’s theme Whorled Explorations; a platform for the artistic exploration of our planet’s past, present and future.

Set within Fort Kochi’s visually appealing former spice warehouses and other crumbling relics of the town’s industrial past, it’s impossible to ignore the breath-taking views or spectacular colonial architecture, particularly in KMB’s main hub, Aspinwall House. Keen for Kochi to be the ‘viewing device and not the vista’, Kallat’s cautious approach to his curatorial duty has somehow merged the work with its surroundings. Anish Kapoor’s Descension, a ‘water vortex’ sunk into the floor of Aspinwall House is not hindered by, but acts in harmony with the striking sea view, making the installation seem more permanent fixture than temporary installation.

Kallat’s meticulous and experimental approach is visible throughout the exhibition. On entering Aspinwall House, the very first work to greet visitors is Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic 1977 film, Powers of Ten. A seemingly odd choice for a biennale of contemporary art, Kallat has used several historic works as a narrative ‘path-finders’ to assist the visitor through what many may feel to be a deeply complicated multi-layered theme. Another sneaky narration device is the occasional short film from poet-philosopher Michael Stevens’s YouTube channel Vsauce, which explains amazing facts about our world in a skilful and compelling manner.

As with the first edition, the inclusion of emerging artists has been an important addition. This year showcases hot new graduate Unnikrishnan C’s Untitled installation of over 300 individually painted bricks inspired by the artist’s interactions in Kochi, while Sahej Rahal’s epic site- specific installation Harbinger engulfs Aspinwall’s old laboratory with fantastical creatures and quasi-architectural elements. Adjacent to this emerging talent is fresh new work by established artists, including Mithu Sen’s video installation I have only one language; it is not mine which examines the idea of radical hospitality through her alter-identity ‘Mago’. Sprinkled with a selection of international talent, the result is a mix of work which justly reflects the current global art scene and the place of Indian contemporary art within it.

Plagued (as the first edition was) with numerous logistical and funding complications, the still in progress exhibition build on KMB’s opening weekend gave the impression that lessons of previous mistakes had not been learnt, but during BMW Culture’s art talk Contemporary Indian Art at Home and Abroad: Making a Difference, Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern summed up the issue perfectly; “Maybe that’s the essence of this biennale; we keep working on it … art is never ready, because when it’s ready it’s up for sale.”

Although Dercon has a point, as Bose Krishnamachari, KMB’s founder and Director explains; “KMB is a project in appreciation of, and education about, artistic expression and its relationship with society.” This is KMB’s core aim; an aim which will ensure this biennale’s continued survival and something which makes the issue of a delayed exhibition build one of great insignificance.

With persistent logistical complications and funding issues, that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale has managed to deliver a second edition is testament to the commitment of the artists and arts professionals involved. A fresh, vibrant alternative to the standardised and stale format of our unnervingly westernised biennials, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a platform which generates wider conversations about the value and role of the visual arts within India and its society, something which makes this a true people’s biennale.

Emma Sumner

Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, until 29 March, various venues around Fort Kochi. For more information visit www.kochimuzirisbiennale.org

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1. Image courtesy of Kochi Biennale Foundation.