Kochi-Muziris Biennale: Inspiration from a port

The biennale has turned the entire city into one vast exhibition space

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale in its second edition has proved to be more than a bienniale. The “It’s Our Biennale" tagline has been miraculously embraced by communities of artists and volunteers throughout Kerala. Every auto-rickshaw driver I encountered knew about it, and was eager to charge a premium on routes to the main arenas of art around the old port city.

A large exhibition such as this needs the city to support it, so it’s logical that local art galleries and cultural institutions get in on the action. Artists and curators have taken up spaces for exhibitions and public art is being stimulated in a synergistic esprit de corps that is good for business and tourism. Such events that take place around the bienniale are normally referred to as collateral events, and are just as critical as the biennale. Dilip Narayanan, a local who runs Gallery OED in the Mantacheri district echoes this view and said that the bienniale has had a positive impact on his business. “The biennale has served as a catalyst that has exhilarated the expansion plans of my gallery," he said. Narayanan, who launched gallery OED earlier this year, will soon launch an Art café and is also in conversation with a foreign embassy regarding the launch of his new “OED International Artists Residency Program." He says that the bienniale has played an important role in increasing the exposure of his gallery amongst national and international art collectors, investors and activists.

Exhausted by the heat, worn down by battalions of mosquitoes and blisters underfoot, I soldiered on from venue to venue for three days, meeting and greeting art world colleagues at every juncture. I caught up briefly with N.S. Harsha, an artist from Mysore who is exhibiting a stunning new 80-foot long abstract painting of the cosmos as a never-ending loop and a bronze sculpture of a monkey reminiscent of the mythological Hanuman from Hindu scriptures over two locations at Aspinwall House and Pepper House. Megha Ralapati, director of residency and special projects from Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago was visiting, as was Murtaza Vali, an art critic and writer from New York. A contingent from the Sharjah Biennale was also spotted. The entire Christie’s India team from Mumbai and New York was present, chuffed from the success of their Mumbai auction the evening prior to the biennale’s opening. An express familial mood chased away lingering doubts about the biennale’s shaky economics and future to focus on the joy of art. “An entire symbiotic ecosystem has developed around the biennale and that has proved beneficial to everyone involved," said Narayan.

Australian artist Vicki McConville, who has spent significant time in Kochi and visited the first edition as well, returned this time to exhibit two ambitious installations at the collateral event at BC Gallery on Bazaar Road. McConville’s work is a series of installations titled “Reconnaissance" based on the trading of images and iconographies, especially related to Kochi and its links with world history. One of her installations features a suspended fishing boat draped in fishing nets upon which historical images related to trade and colonial methods of torture are juxtaposed to create beautiful patterns that belie the macabre elements. The work is accompanied by mirrors and a soundscape. “KMB is one of the most significant biennales in the world. Kochi brings all the best elements of other biennales and site-specific art events and locations together in one place." McConville who has travelled the world and been to other important biennales like Venice, Istanbul and Sydney compares Kochi to them in its remarkable physicality, multi-faith histories and as a centre of world history for trade and commerce “with forgotten stories that we need to know."

One of the most interesting aspects of this biennale has been the use of the city as a site. Apart from the gorgeously dilapidated structures that house ambitious art installations and city boundaries that have been turned into painted canvases, locations as unlikely as the beach have become sites for art. Kanchi Mehta, a curator from Goa, organized a trio of impressive installations on Fort Kochi Beach Front called ‘Edge Effect’ with artists Pallavi Paul, Rathin Burman and Mansoor Ali all of whom took the beach as inspiration to develop installations that use a variety of materials from coconut tree branches, construction iron and rubber tires. Mehta’s project was supported by the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, which is holding an arts festival itself in Goa. While she faced major logistical challenges of placing art on the beach, she feels generous towards the organizing team for their support. “Curating for a biennale is exhilarating," she says, pointing out that thousands of people will see her project daily. “The main challenge while working with the artists here was to produce works which would stand the test of time, public interaction and the environment," Mehta says.

Colourful street art graffiti by Kolkata’s Piyali Ghosh and Delhi’s Anpu Varkey also adorn walls, further turning the city into a canvas for storytelling. Both artists were thrilled to be part of the bonhomie art-for-art’s-sake attitude, revelling in the integration of their street projects with the ‘high art’ of the biennale. There was even some international flavour in the streets courtesy of Basque artist Jasone Miranda-Bilbao who developed special limited edition posters connecting the Basque and Tamil Nadu landscapes and stuck them in high visibility areas across Fort Kochi as an aesthetic intervention into the cityscape. Hemant Sareen, an artist and art writer from Delhi, however, pointed out the clash of cultures evident in the differing styles of graffiti in the city. “This and other exemplars of street art pale in comparison to the very real and strong political tone of the local graffiti that make Fort Kochi a place bristling with political energy," he says, referring to the socialist posters, painted epithets and likenesses of revolutionaries scattered around the city.

Certainly, the biennale’s fundraising drive in the final weeks leading up to the grand opening, witnessed unprecedented philanthropy from patrons of the arts, and created new ones. In a country where culture is tantamount to Bollywood, I certainly hope to see this endeavour overcome its short-term obstacles so we can have our spaces for art too. Chris Dercon, the director of London’s Tate Modern, while giving the opening BMW Talk extolled the quality of art he chanced on at the museums, galleries and alternative spaces he had seen in India. Meanwhile, Tate Modern plans to host an important exhibition of the late Bhupen Khakar’s work in 2016, revealing Dercon’s abiding interest in India. Let us hope the gargantuan exhibition underway at Kochi will withstand the rigours of time.

Sharmistha Ray is an artist, curator and art writer. This is the concluding post of her series on the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale, currently underway in the Kerala port city.

Close