Kochi: The text-based light sculpture, “A Place Beyond Belief", by Scottish artist Nathan Coley, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2007, refers to 9/11. The expression, however, was used by a New York resident during a radio interview, wherein she said that 10 years after the attacks, the city had to find new ways to lead to “a place beyond belief".

Coley is among the 90-odd artists showcasing their work at the fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, which opens today.

Since its inception in 2012, India’s largest international art exhibition runs for three months every alternate year. The last edition saw over 500,000 visitors. This year, the biennale has its first female curator, with Delhi-based artist Anita Dube taking charge.

Dube says this might be the first large-scale biennale exhibition, internationally, to feature more women and queer artists than men. In her curatorial note, Dube adds that she was determined to be inclusive and was interested in a “politics of friendship", where “pleasure and pedagogy can sit together and have a drink".

What does it really mean to have an inclusive biennale? “Without inclusion, the road is very downhill. Exclusivities will multiply and we can get into tighter communities and pit each community against the other. We never had this in Delhi before, for instance,… with vehicles saying ‘I’m Jat’ and ‘Gujjar Boy’," Dube said in an interview.

Her vision seems idealistic in a year that the biennale has faced a series of challenges—from allegations of financial mismanagement to a logistical setback because of the Kerala floods to a #MeToo controversy about one of its co-founders, Riyas Komu, who subsequently had to step down.

“While Kochi was not physically damaged by the floods, our labour force was impacted and it pushed things back by a month," says Manoj Nair, editorial director of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), which produces the event.

But the state government remained steadfast in its support. “Even when it cancelled other projects to divert resources towards rebuilding after the floods, the biennale did not face a reduction of its 7 crore funds," says Bose Krishnamachari, president and biennale director. “We kept going forward at the same momentum. It was important for us to show confidence in art and culture, and inspire the people."

KBF now plans to raise funds for flood victims. In March, material from the biennale will be reused to build homes. A few exhibiting artists such as Bangaldesh’s Marzia Farhana have also expressed their willingness to help build the flood-ravaged state. In fact, Farhana’s multimedia installation, “Ecocide and the Rise of Free Fall", is an urgent call to rethink humankind’s relationship with the environment, and is built with material collected from the flood-affected areas.

The international headliners add to the inclusivity story. Several renowned feminist artists and collectives have been invited: Austrian artist Valie Export with her radical body art, South African artist Marlene Dumas and the anonymous group of American women artists, who wear Gorilla masks and call themselves the Guerrilla Girls.

Dube is an early member of the Radical Indian Painters and Sculptors Association and her curatorial theme “Possibilities of a non-alienated life" references the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord. The spirit of political defiance shows through in several works such as the striking black and white photographs by the Indian documentary photographer Sunil Janah, whose work centred around peasant and labour movements.

Bengaluru-based B.V. Suresh stages a dark dystopian mise-en-scène titled “Canes of Wrath", with red video projections and automated brooms and curtains swirling around the room to articulate his concerns leading up to the 2019 general elections in India.

The real highlight of this edition, however, does not concern the artists, but the audience. Dube has commissioned Delhi-based Anagram Architects to build a pavilion as a central space of dialogue that is open to all.

A web-integrated space will allow anyone to publicly display their personal work or online content from music, film and literature to viral videos.

Participants will also be able to speak and perform on open microphones, as well as write or draw on installed chalkboards.

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