Don’t all Biennales compete with the cities they are sited in? It’s certainly true of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, a state located on the south-western coast of India. Set largely in the increasingly gentrified Fort Kochi, the biennale also takes on the additional name of a first A.D. port identified in Greco-Roman and Tamil historical sources as Muziris, going further back in time, way past the British Raj, that excuse for so many costume dramas.
The trade routes that shaped the ancient coastal cities of this part of India continue as the modern state of Kerala’s growth is fuelled in large part by remittances from the Gulf states, situated across the Arabian Sea. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Money Order’ state, modern Kerala’s unique demographic mix, with an almost equal proportion of Hindu, Christian and Muslim populations, makes it a model for the challenges of intercultural understanding and living.
“In 2010, we chose to locate the biennale in Fort Kochi because it carries a history of multiculturalism,” said Riyas Komu, the founder of the biennale (Frontline), invoking a modern concept which cannot adequately be read back into history. Whether his statement was a gesture against the rising tide of intolerance nationally or not, what’s very likely is that the economic growth of the area underscores this choice.
I visited the third edition of the biennale – with the esoteric sounding theme, “Forming in the Pupil of an Eye” – which started in the cool month of December 2016 and is coming to a conclusion as the climate slowly starts to boil towards the end of March this year.
A large array of artists, 97 in all, from 30 countries, were placed at 10 venues centered mostly at Fort Kochi, with two venues in the bustling city of Ernakulam, a short ferry ride away. The offering was far too generous for me to consume on my short trip, with many works, especially films, demanding a lot of time. Along with the featured works were other activities, for instance a colloquium on “Good Government – A Philosophical Quest” or “Cinema and Visual Politics in the Age of ‘Hollowgrams'”. Will all this establish the 3-month long festival in the life of the city?
Ernakulam is in a gaudy embrace of global capital and its goodies, which includes the super-sized Lulu Mall and a metro system, soon to be completed, which weaves its way from the city centre to the town of Aluva, my maternal grandmother’s ancestral home. One wonders if a greater engagement with this madding city might have framed the biennale more clearly within the economic and cultural forces that envelope the production and distribution of contemporary art.
Its elegant alter-ego, Fort Kochi, however, has many advantages as a staging post for the festival, not only an abundance of buildings recalling complex histories of trade and politics, but also a human scale that makes the festival a walking tour. Here works competed with, or were complemented by, spaces with perhaps far too much character, with light and sound streaming in through cracks. I secretly wished for a white cube at times, so I could focus my attention on the works but these distractions were mostly minor.
Venues like Aspinwall House – the largest of the venues, housing over 70 exhibits – had, as it were, ‘something for everyone’ but was a mind-aching smorgasbord of works if you were trying to capture the totality of the event. A task best left to curators and art critics. Taken piecemeal, however, and at a leisurely pace, most venues such as Pepper House and Cabral Yard, a pavilion built for performances, provided art at your doorstep for those staying at Fort Kochi. This speaks volumes to the ambitions of the area to be a tourist destination.
To attest to the quaint character of the area, a three-part BBC TV series, “The Real Marigold”, was set here to explore the idea of ‘retirement’, with a cast of older celebrities staying a month at “Le Colonial”, a hotel established in 1506, and whose lives revolved around cooking lessons, yoga classes and Ayurveda, a traditional form of healing.
The lives of the superannuated aside, themes such as migration, decay, or the focus on feeling whether through sound and sensation, does build up to quite a show. Artworks on the quotidian dimension of life like Abir Karmakar’s “Home”, photo-realist interiors of a small house, or Dia Mehta Bhopal’s “Bathroom Set”, a model public lavatory made entirely from rolled up pages of magazines, were as delightful to the eye, as Raul Zurita’s “The Sea of Pain” was heart-wrenching or Wu Tien-Chang’s video installation “Farewell, Spring and Autumn Pavilions” was a crowd pleaser.
A delight to the ears was Miller Puckette’s “Four Sound Portraits”, a pedagogical work on contemporary music, as well as Camille Norment’s “Prime”, where benches vibrated with an African-American “Church practice of moaning”, while allowing one a view of the ships plying Kochi’s waterways.
Also on offer was an exhibition of modern visual polemicist, Brij Mohan Anand, with his striking scratchboards and sketches, articulating a stridently anti-capitalist worldview. His works are now preserved by a foundation but it does raise tricky questions about the re-appropriation of protest.
Yardena Kurulkar’s “Kenosis”, a disintegrating terracotta replica of her own heart, Degradation Movement Manifesto group’s “Shell Mycelium” installation, AES+F’s “Defile” of cadavers in high fashion, and Liu Wei’s fantastical scaled down animal-edible architectural replicas in meltdown, all point to the truism of a world in flux – cities expand but also decay, trade routes flourish but also disappear, buildings go up and fall into disrepair, and our bodies start with the divisions of cells, sometimes mutate, but always degenerate.
And on Valentine’s Day, a concert of Hindustani and Carnatic love songs by Shahabaz Aman – who started singing as a muezzin at a Kerala mosque – played to a packed audience at the pavilion. What’s notable about this tradition of love songs is that the lyrics often involve a double move where a smile raises questions of tears, the pain of loss is welcomed if only to experience the presence of loved one. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale perhaps also turns on a double move, looking back historically while having an eye firmly on the future.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 held in Kochi, Kerala, India, commenced on 12 December 2016 and is set to conclude on 29 March 2017.