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A Biennale in the Making Braving brickbats, crisis and criticism, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale furthers a cultural consciousness.

Tehelka.com, December 21, 2012, Issue 52 Volume 9

MULK RAJ ANAND would have been pleased, had he been soaring in astral form over Kochi during the last week. The novelist, editor and art critic founded the first “biennale from the global South”, Triennale India, in 1968, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale carries that impulse forward. Conceived and curated by Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, two courageous Mumbai artists who have nurtured a close association with their native Kerala, the Biennale builds off a millennia-old tradition of cosmopolitanism in Kochi. The artists, who have assembled here this month, working in demanding conditions to set up their installations, video works, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and suites of drawings, are wildly diverse in their idioms, inspirations and strategies. They follow in the footsteps and landfalls of the merchants, scholars, soldiers and religiosi — whether Roman, Jewish, Arab or Persian — who have arrived in these parts over the centuries, making it their home, infusing it with their cultural contributions.

The Aspinwall House once belonged to a British company that traded in pepper, ginger, turmeric and coconut oil, as well as coffee, tea and rubber. It has been closed for many years, and now belongs to the DLF group. It may well reincarnate itself as a resort in time to come. Today, though, this sprawling, half-ruined estate forms the chaotic yet celebratory hub of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Walking through its corridors, or along its overgrown waterfronts, or while exploring the neighbouring sites of Pepper House and Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, we are seized by a primal sensory experience, before vision, before touch. This is, overwhelmingly, an olfactory biennale.

Dylan Martorell’s spices wheel on a rotating speaker while chants echo around it. Anant Joshi’s incense wafts from anti-mosquito burners to impregnate the air in a closed space. And every venue is heavy with the dank, musty smells of houses between collapse and regeneration — long-closed warehouses, homes from which families have migrated across the seas, yards piled with refuse like middens, and circling around the biennale, the always proximate, ferry-ridden waters of the Arabian Sea.

The term ‘heritage property’ so quickly makes the transition from a hint of public legacy to an emphasis on exclusive privilege. The spectral presence of ‘development’ is all around us, as we remain uneasily aware that these spaces, through which thousands of eager, curious visitors now hurtle, may well become private enclaves in a few years. Within the first three days, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale already registered 10,000 visitors — among them many from elsewhere in India and overseas, artists, critics, curators, gallerists, collectors, museum and biennial professionals; but, overwhelmingly, people from Kochi and elsewhere in Kerala, that local audience which every biennale wishes to reach out to, and which has here embraced the new festival that is taking shape in its midst.

The tense is exactly right. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has not already taken shape. It is under construction. International biennale folklore is full of stories of paint still wet at the opening, videos not yet running, photographs still wrapped and technicians fiddling with projectors as the first visitors stream in. But Kochi-Muziris has turned the “biennale under construction” into an existential condition. It is a heroic effort that deserves our support. Buffeted by a sustained campaign of criticism that sank to unacceptable levels of uncivility, affected by the withdrawal of funding promised by the Government of Kerala, perhaps also challenged by the capacious physical scale of its own ambition, this newborn biennale has been firefighting when it should have been celebrating. In the opening week, the visitors became part of a pageant that was partly festive, partly desperate, rather like the ambient society.

Many of us have been in this situation before, in India, so this is no criticism, but rather, an expression of empathy. Only about 45 of the more than 80 artistic positions invited are actually on view. Technical issues, especially those related to video works, are being sorted out on the fly, both artists and technicians learning as they go. As those of us who have organised large-scale international exhibitions know, the portability of video may simplify freight — a DVD by FedEx — but installing it, synchronising multiple channels, matching video to other facets of a multimedia work, is killing. Local technicians, schooled in domestic and festival events, are uncomprehending; artists face language issues; all the while, the meter on the rental ticks away.

Its detractors want to know why Kochi needs the biennale. The simple answer is that a city that hosts major festivals of cinema, theatre and music can certainly do with an inspiring new international biennale of the visual arts. It would create a productive interface with the local art scene, open up unforeseen contacts and collaborations and occasions of mutual learning. It would expand horizons of experience and consciousness for all its participants, overseas and local. Recall that Bose and Riyas have emphasised local participation. As my colleague Paul Domela, programme director of the Liverpool Biennial, observed in a private conversation, there is an “invisible army of nearly 1,300 other artists”, in theatre, dance, classical music and film, which are features of the biennale not immediately visible to the visual-arts audience, and which will, we hope, anchor it firmly to the ongoing forms of cultural expression in Kochi.

There is, amazingly, plenty to celebrate. There’s Atul Dodiya’s eccentric, fantastic art history through images — a memoir of a life in the art world told through photographs from across India, of friends and colleagues leaping out of long-ago pictures. There’s Vivan Sundaram’s at once melancholy and inspiring field of shards borrowed from the archaeological site of Muziris, speaking of the cycles of creation and dissolution. There’s Joseph Semah’s evocation of the secure place of Jews in Malabar through shadow drawings and pierced copper testaments. There’s CAMP’s video meditation on the work cycles of a harbour, KP Reji’s painting of a folk hero, Chathan, Ratheesh T’s complex and magnificent neo-mythological paintings and Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz’s installation of grinding stones at the water’s edge. At Mandalay House in Jew Town, a collateral event presented by the Clark House Initiative, Mumbai, reminds us of the political and cultural struggles in neighbouring Myanmar.

It is at Moidu’s Heritage Plaza, after we have climbed up a termite-infested staircase, following signage printed on A4s and nailed to plywood sheets propped up among pieces of asbestos and corrugated metal, that we find one of the finest epiphanies of the biennale. The Australian artist Angelica Mesiti’s magical four-screen video Citizens’ Band transports you into a space of lyrical beauty, deep plangency, a reminder of how utterly alone yet astonishingly resourceful the individual is. Across four screens, Mesiti invites us to consider a swimmer making music from strokes in a pool, a busker playing a stringed instrument in a Chinese-speaking city, a cabbie whistling in pre-dawn solitude, and a blind musician performing on a train as it courses through the subway. If the Kochi-Muziris Biennale needs a symbol of triumph in the face of adverse circumstances, Mesiti’s citizen-musicians provide it.