Festival report: Discovering an art route at Kochi-Muziris Biennale

(Click here to read it on THE WEEK website.)

A few thousand years ago, at a small stretch of land in Kerala that opened into the Arabian Sea, arrived huge vessels from Rome, Greece, China and Persia. They came for a sniff of the spices that thrived here and took vast wealth home. The land, referred to as Muziris in the writings of ancient travellers, thus, became the landing point for religion and culture from West Asia, the Mediterranean, East Africa and farther away. But one fine day, Muziris mysteriously disappeared. Some say it was lost to the great Periyar floods; some say there was a tsunami. And the city of Kochi is believed to have emerged from that deluge.

This is the heritage that India’s first biennale, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012 (KMB), celebrates. Inaugurated on 12/12/12, the biennale showcases the works of more than 80 artists from 24 countries, across a variety of mediums like painting, sculpture, installation, new media, film and performance art. The event, which is spread over 14 venues, most of them in the heritage town of Fort Kochi, has recorded a footfall of more than 1,70,000 in just a month.

Walking through the main venue, Aspinwall House, the headquarters of a 19th century British trading company, one doesn’t feel the sort of claustrophobic formality that is felt in galleries with boring white walls. The sea-facing property is littered generously with wild, overgrown shrubs, the buildings look dilapidated, the doors creak and some walls have cracks. But there is a palpable sense of energy in the air. As children make the most of the rope swings that hang from the huge trees, a few elders sit under its shade looking on as artist Valsan Koorma Kolleri captures a dark, bare-chested man on paper.

The informal setting has helped the event in a big way, says artist Atul Dodiya. “It has triggered the imagination of the artists in a different way,” he says. “For example, I was confused as it was my first photographic installation. But I came to the abandoned laboratory here and I knew how exactly to put my work.”

This location gives people a chance to experience art in a new context, says Samir Johrey, artist and writer from Mumbai. Dodiya’s daughter, Biraaj, 19, a student of art herself, is in Kochi for two days to catch a glimpse of her father’s work, Celebration In The Laboratory. “It makes sense to host such an event in this kind of a space,” she says. “It puts across the message that art is for everyone.”

And yes, you find yourself agreeing with Biraaj when you take a quick look around the venue. From schoolchildren to priests, rikshaw wallahs, foreign tourists, filmmakers and curators, everyone seems to take home something from the biennale. While for 10-year-old Ranjit, it is the fun in touching and making music from Australian artist Dylan Martorell’s interactive installation Soundtracks-Kochi, for others like Dr Kunjunjamma George, 55, it is the joy of spending a holiday with her family. And some are completely oblivious to it, like Sebastian, who runs a grocery shop right across the street from Aspinwall. When asked about the event, he says with a smirk in Kochi’s sing-song Malayalam: “Oh! Enthaani [what’s this] biennale?”

People’s participation is definitely what keeps the biennale going, says Bose Krishnamachari, artistic director and co-curator of KMB. “I feel great that the event has transformed into a people’s biennale,” he says. The project is the outcome of the single-minded effort put in by the whole biennale team, the trustees, the biennale supporters’ forum, the artists and the government, adds Riyas Komu, co-curator and programme director. “I feel we have sown the seed of the biennale in the most fertile soil of Kochi, which has the capacity to heal, consume and sustain,” says Komu.
Art is bound to be political, and so were the reactions to the biennale. There was an initial hue and cry blaming the organisers for misusing public funds and not allowing “poor artists” to exhibit their works at the event. “A poor artist is not one who doesn’t make money, but one who doesn’t have an audience,” says Komu. “The biennale is doing a service to such artists by equipping the public to be a more receptive audience.”

A whole day is not enough to have a good look at all the works of art displayed here. As I leave the sprawling Aspinwall premises, Marlyn Monroe’s voice, emanating from Italian artist Giuseppe Stampone’s installation The Perfect World, bids me goodbye. “Bye bye baby,” she sings, but I think I will be coming back for more.

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