Something Old, Something New...
THE SPRAWLING mega-cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata have long been noted as artistic focal points, yet soon attention will turn further south, to quaint Kochi in Kerala, where a determined artistic march forward promises to not only deliver a new platform for art, but also to reignite an important historical legacy too. Following on from last year, when India debuted at the Venice Biennale with its own pavilion, the launch of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, on 12.12.12 this year, will begin a three- month festival celebrating film, installation, new media, painting, sculpture and performance art from international participants and Indian artists. Co-founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, and organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation, it will be the largest contemporary public art event in the country, and will see Kochi join the growing list of over 100 international art Biennales around the world, which include destinations as diverse as Dakar, Berlin, Havana, Marrakesh and Liverpool.
The allure of this all new biennale is multi-layered. Not only is it to be India’s first, but it is also the raison d’être behind the huge restoration projects of many of Kochi’s heritage buildings. Perhaps the most intriguing component of all though is the reintroduction of Kochi’s fabled precursor – the ancient seaport of Muziris, which lies around 30km from the coastal city. The port – which connected ancient Greece, Rome, China and Persia to India – was crucially the landing point for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, not to mention a whole host of world cultures. In 1341, disaster struck and the port was lost, seemingly forever, to the titanic floods, and was largely forgotten about. Archaeologists have recently sited Muziris and have started to excavate – a move that promises to draw even more attention, and tourists, to Kerala. The spirit and historic legacy of Muziris is central to the biennale, which hopes to celebrate this cosmopolitan, bygone era.
Of the heritage buildings – many of which are being restored especially for the event after laying disused for decades – Michelangelo Bendandi, Director of Communications for the event, says ‘all of the spaces are rich with different types of histories. Bastion Bungalow for example was once a watchtower and signal station where flags were hoisted and communication was made with approaching and departing ships.’ There is a degree of mystery and discovery to the dilapidated buildings too, the aforementioned bungalow, for example, is thought to have a network of secret tunnels underneath it. Some buildings need more work than others – the city’s beautiful 19th-century Durbar Hall has already become a proud symbol of the festival.
Kerala, and Kochi in particular, is home to a long artistic tradition. Mural paintings from the 9th to 12th centuries, depicting mythology and legends, drawn onto walls of temples and churches in South India, enjoyed Royal benefaction, and the state has long been noted, although not really celebrated, as a centre for fine art. Well known painters from the region include the classical artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) and the abstract painter K. C. S. Paniker (1911-1977). Nowadays, Kochi has a small but flourishing contemporary art scene with two outstanding venues: the 350-year old Dutch bungalow that houses the David Hall gallery; and the Kashi Art Café which highlights local artists and sells the best coffee in town. Both are set to benefit from the biennale and its artistic repositioning of Kochi.
With an event of this scale in India, there are of course uncertainties surrounding timetables, weather and most importantly the safe transfer of art across borders. The team is working hard to try to anticipate and fix any transport issues that may arise – this is a particular challenge as Kochi is only connected to the rest of the world by a handful of flights from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Bendandi says, ‘We are working toward partnering Indian transport companies with international art handling and shipping specialists to share knowledge and grow capacity. This will create a resource that will benefit the arts in India and an example of lasting infrastructure which will be part of the Biennale’s legacy’.
The challenge is manifold, with artists displaying their work in unchartered territory and an audience that is unsure what to expect. Co-founder and curator, Bose Krishnamachari says, ‘We are inviting many artists to create new work, site-specific installations – something that India and Kerala audiences have not yet experienced on this scale. Visitors would experience artwork that is not only contemporary but also steeped in the context of the place, hopefully offering new ways of seeing art in an Indian context’.
However, undeterred Krishna-machari is excited that this pioneering event is tackling ‘new territory.’ He adds: ‘It is difficult to speculate on who’s work or what kind of work will best resound with visitors but we are excited about finding out’. There is no denying the infectious spirit and resolve surrounding the project – already a steady buzz has started to build as the state prepares to slow down for the summer monsoon.
While there has been much debate about the festival – primarily surrounding funding – local artists are positive about the Biennale and openly welcome the opportunity to have Kerala recognised internationally as a centre for art. Co-founder and curator Riyas Komu says, ‘The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has prompted debate in Kerala and India about how society supports art but we have not yet experienced any negative responses to the notion of a festival of contemporary art in Kochi. Kerala is one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan and culturally rich regions in India. The Ministry of Culture Kerala and The Kochi Corporation have declared full support’.
Indian artists to exhibit include the much-admired Subodh Gupta (who is married to the artist Bharti Kher), New Delhi based artist Rohini Deveshar and the young award winning artist Shreyas Karle. International artists, who will make up around 50% of the participants, include Mexico-based Gabriel Orozco, who in 1998 was referred to as ‘one of the most influential artists of this decade, and probably the next one too’ by the curator Francesco Bonami, Alfredo Jaar, a Chilean-born artist, architect, and filmmaker who lives in New York, and New York-based African artist Wangechi Mutu. Many are working on new commissions for the biennale.
It will also be an opportunity to create an art circuit and to add another element to Kerala’s tourism portfolio. In many ways, Kochi is ‘India-lite’ and is just the setting for such an event – the roads and pavements are less crowded than elsewhere in India, there is a range of attractive heritage accommodation and a small but chic café scene. However, there is no denying that compared to many of the large cities that house major art, Kochi does feel provincial.
When asked if Kochi has the infrastructure in place to host an influx of upmarket and high-spending art visitors, right in the middle of Kerala’s peak season tourist rush, Bendandi says that the organisers are thinking long-term, ‘Kerala is a popular destination December to March but one of the aims of the biennale is to attract a new pilgrimage and create an art route which will stimulate the development of infrastructure to meet demand’. The shows will also fan out to surrounding islands such as Willington and Bolgatty, so the focus will not always be just in the city.
Understandably, the ambitions of the festival are wide-ranging as well as intrepid, and, fuelled by artistic spirit, they are also lofty and forward-thinking – there is a hope to converge communities, a will to create a symposium of artistic expression, a plan to re-ignite the glamour of Muziris, aims to stimulate tourism and to appeal to local residents as much as visitors and, most importantly, to leave a lasting legacy for future generations. As Riyas Komu says, ‘A prototype is being developed. A prototype that will be handed over to other curators, other directors and participants. Hopefully, soon India will boast many similar large-scale contemporary art events’.
One thing is for certain and that is that on the 12th of December this year, all eyes will be on Kochi. BY CAROLINE EDEN