Rosalyn D’Mello on how The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is remaking India’s links to the global artworld

from the Spring 2015 issue of Artreview Asia

Nikhil Chopra, La Perle Noire: Le Marais, 2014, 52-hour performance. Courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

In the coastal state of Kerala, doubt is grist to the evangelical mill; a proposition subtly evoked through mossy twin sculptures on the banks of the River Periyar, within the periphery of Kodungalloor, where Thomas, one of Jesus’s chosen 12 apostles, is believed to have arrived back in 52 AD. This region could have been the destination of the ship he would have journeyed in, sailing along the Spice Route via Syria with the singular mission of bringing the gospel of the risen Christ to the community of Jewish settlers residing in the ancient port of Muziris. The Mar Thoma Orthodox Church, in whose parochial compound these two statues exist, is purportedly one of seven-and-a-half churches constructed by Thomas, supposedly a builder by profession before he heeded Christ’s call. There are no remnants of the original church. The ‘fact’ of its existence is hinged solely on faith – and a skeletal fragment of Thomas’s mortal remains that was gifted to this church in 1952 as a gesture commemorating 19 centuries since Thomas’s alleged arrival. The river-facing statues represent a prostrate Thomas whose fingers reach into the risen Christ’s heart. ‘My Lord and My God’, the inscription reads, a phrase that serves as an architectural motif across Syrian Christian sites in Kerala; a textual reminder of the apostle’s sceptical nature that earned him the monicker ‘Doubting Thomas’; a visual attestation of Christ’s reprimand, recorded in John 20:29, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’

Muziris was drowned in the great flood of 1341, historians believe. Its coordinates remain a subject of contestation. Proofs of its existence are present, though, in ancient maps and literature. However, until the 2005 excavation in Pattanam, there was little archaeological evidence to support these documents. When artists Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari accepted the leftist state-government’s invitation to conceptualise a biennial in Kerala, they consciously adopted the now nonexistent harbour as the imaginary, hyphenated appendage to Kochi, a port that emerged after Muziris drowned. Under the aegis of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) was the first biennial to be realised in India (others have been imagined, but never more than that). In fact, it can also be seen as a long-overdue corrective measure against India’s continual nonparticipation in the prestigious Venice Biennale, other than the sole state-funded pavilion in 2011, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, and the now obsolete Triennale-India, founded by Mulk Raj Anand in 1968, when he was the chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, the autonomous arts institution set up in New Delhi in 1954 by the Indian Government. ‘

By linking the biennial event to the real/ mythical site of Muziris… this Biennale claims a cosmopolitanism of past and present civilizations and thereby gives avant-garde art a historical scope,’ Kapur wrote in a letter of support published in the national weekly, India Today, in 2012. Locating the country’s biggest art event in penninsular India, rather than in its throbbing metropoli, has destabilised any easy notions of centre and periphery, and even how the path of contemporary art in India will be plotted in the future.

Komu and Krishnamachari envisioned the KMB as a site rife with evangelical possibilities. “The new convert is the art lover… Biennales are about people and places more than theorising and practice"

Komu and Krishnamachari envisioned the KMB as a site rife with evangelical possibilities. “The new convert is the art lover… Biennales are about people and places more than theorising and practice,” Komu said during a seminar held soon after the sucessful inaugural edition in 2012, which had about 400,000 visitors, of which at least 30,000 were schoolchildren, and even won the Kerala Government’s Ministry of Tourism award for Most Innovative and Unique Tourism Project in the Country. “Where religious.fundamentalism raises its ugly head, the Biennale offers a balm to the present society’s many wounds; art can give voice to many questions silenced over the years.” The accomplishment both he and Krishnamachari felt was about India now having its own Biennale “to criticise, think over”, while conceiving of “different innovative ways to make it better”. It was not conceited arrogance that had led them through the 90-day duration of the KMB. There were “lessons learnt in humility” after suffering through the “stones of accusation, criticism, wide-spread pessimism”, and bearing the brunt of an ambiguous opposition bloc that he then believed was “still out there to malign us”.

Two years later, the opposition has mysteriously vanished. Doubts about the KMB’s ability to sustain itself and even establish continuity through a second edition have given way to a thriving optimism about the immense possibilities ingrained within its very structure. The fervour with which artists, gallerists and even collectors are evangelising the cause of art and reaching out to members of the non-artworld is unprecendented. “People taught them,” Bose Krishnamachari stated when I interviewed him about this. “We didn’t respond to the opposition, we thought there’d be debate, but we never expected an imaginative criticism of funds,” he continued, referring to the controversial charges that he and Komu had been slapped with of misappropriation of funds when a new government came into power. They were both eventually exonerated, but the charges left the KMB in a state of financial duress as the money that the state had alotted was held back for several months.

While the new government has promised to cover 63 percent of the projected Rs260m budget to finance the 108-day a«air that will feature site-specific installations by 94 artists from 30 countries, artist Jitish Kallat, artistic director of the second edition, which kicked o« on 12 December, decided to start a first-of-its-kind crowdfunding campaign to meet a portion of the deficit and ‘raise the profile of the Biennale worldwide’. The real agenda, however, is to ‘make it participatory, allow people to take ownership of it and feel proud of it’, according to Komu. The tagline for the campaign, ‘Art Needs You Need Art’, confronts the viewer, positioning her as the key link in the nexus between the production and exhibition of art. With 68 days of the 90-day fundraising period left, only 0.35 percent of the targeted Rs50m corpus had been achieved, and purely through anonymous donations, notwithstanding the unprecedented amounts privately pledged by artists, film directors and other patrons (Geeta Kapur and her artist husband, Vivan Sundaram, recently donated Rs4m). The paucity of funds led to a strain on resources, definitely derailing Kallat’s plans to have everything operational by the opening week.

Doubts about the KMB’s ability to sustain itself and even establish continuity through a second edition have given way to a thriving optimism about the immense possibilities ingrained within its very structure

Titled Whorled Explorations, the present edition, which is hoping to attract one million visitors, is curatorially premised on two key chronologically overlapping moments that are integral to Kochi’s historical position; the maritime chapter of the fifteenth-century ‘Age of Discovery’, an era that, according to Kallat’s curatorial note, ‘heralded an age of exchange, conquest, coercive trading, and colonialism, animating the early processes of globalisation’, and altered the cartography of the planet; and the period between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, during which the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics was making transformative propositions for understanding our planet and locating human existence within the wider cosmos.

The 100 artworks on display – created by 94 artists from 30 countries – manage to create a poignant and diverse narrative along this curatorial axis while meditating on the nature of time, the politics of cartography and the mediation of language and lost histories. Intensely poetic and sometimes ambitious in terms of scale, the installations at the main venue, Aspinwall House, which was once a warehouse for spices, do in fact realise Kallat’s initial promise of positioning the site as an observation deck. The very first work on display, Charles and Ray Eames’s hypnotic video Powers of Ten (1977), a nine-minute film that begins with an overhead shot of a couple lounging at a picnic and moves at a ten-second pace to zoom out by the power of ten, moving from one metre away to arrive at the boundaries of the known universe before zooming back to the couple and magnifying by the power of minus-ten to finally arrive at quarks in a single proton of a carbon atom embedded deep inside one of their hands, sets the tone for the guided journey on which the viewer is cajoled into embarking.

Anish Kapoor’s Descension (2014) feeds into this idea of the unbounded infinite. The watervortex whirlpools tempestously, resembling a black hole. Modelled on Descent into Limbo, his 1992 work for Documenta 9, this new work, poised inches away from the River Periyar, emits a cacophonous gurgling sound and a magnetic vibe that seems to lure the viewer into its openmouthed centre, the protective railing serving as a fence protecting her from being swallowed by this portal.

Running parallel to the KMB, which is itself spread across about eight venues, is the Student Biennale, a higher-education initiative offering a platform for students from government-run Indian art colleges to exhibit their work and cash in on the global nature of the KMB’s expected audience. A team of 15 young curators was chosen from some 75 applicants to spearhead this initiative under the direction of an advisory committee of artists, art-thinkers and educators. A Children’s Biennale is also underway and will include previsit and postvisit workshops in local schools, guided age-specific tours, as well as interactions with schools for differently abled children and web-hosted engagements for schools unable to visit the Biennale. A seminar series, titled ‘History Now’, and a range of partner projects have been designed to further extend the KMB’s mission to ‘invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences, and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public.’

The opening week, a frenetic a«air, saw at least 10,000 visitors and brought together artists from the local and international art community. Unlike the previous edition, at least 80 percent of the works had been installed in time for the opening, although problems with fluctuating electricity rendered several (including Descension) temporarily nonfunctional. While the atmosphere lacked the euphoria and naked exuberance that was elemental to the inaugural edition, there was a collective sense of quiet pride in what the second edition had achieved. No longer obligated to defend the Biennale against opposition, the art cognoscenti could immerse themselves in rigorous debate and conversation, with opinions and critiques being offered at will. While there is no longer any doubt about continuity, it is perhaps possible that between the two editions, the site-specific nature of most installations has been exhausted. It may be time for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale to look for inspiration outside its own historicity. 

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.