Very faint thoughts linger in mind only one week after religiously visiting Kochi Muziris Biennale. The 2018-19 edition, which opens with a curatorial title of Possibilities for Non-Alienated Life, boasted housing a never-before majority of female artists hailing from diverse demographics. This 4th edition, which lasts for three months, portrays itself across 14 venues and over 60 exhibition spaces in Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and the erstwhile Muziris area. Over 90 artists from 36 countries have been showcased including names like VALIE EXPORT, EB Itso and Adam Kraft, Rania Stephen, Cyrus Kabiru, Guerilla Girls, Shirin Neshat, The Otolith Group, etc and domestic artists like Kaustav Mukhopadhyay, Sonia Khurana, BV Suresh, Chitra Ganesh, etc.
Not all were recent works of course; many of them were archives nearly 20-30 years old, revived according to the site and purpose, like Santu Mofokeng’s photographic series Townships (1985-87) that captures the communities of black township in South Africa at the height of apartheid, Mónica Mayer’s participatory project The Clothesline (1983) for the heightened visibility of sexual harassment and Jun Nguyen’s 2001 film Towards the Complex-For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Coward that demonstrates the struggle of urban workers in Vietnam. Some works were revisions like Song Dong’s Touching my Father, Shilpa Gupta’s For, In Your Tongue, I Can Not Fit and Walid Raad’s Better be watching the clouds-Plate 0164. Few projects also documented live performances and artist journeys like Oorali and Rana Hamadeh’s Can You Make a Pet of him Like a Bird or Put him on a Leash for yours Girls? (2015).
The activities of the festival were divided primarily into two sections, the aforementioned exhibitions arena and the participatory section called Pavilion which hosted talk sessions, live workshops, movie screenings, community kitchen and open discussions. These were generally reserved for the latter half of the day, making Biennale experience an all-day experience. This hierarchy-free environment, according to Dube, would foster discourse on popular and pressing topics and encourage community mingling. Although very noble in its intent, the events were only visible on the Biennale’s Instagram stories and were majorly live music performances; by qawwali group Mehfilesamaa and Carnatic singer Sanjay Subrahmanyan.
Back in Aspinwall, a lot among the artworks required a deep knowledge of world history and politics; something that did not exist either among the visiting folks and the volunteers nor in the artist’s concept notes. These artworks were appreciated fundamentally for their aesthetic value and playfulness. Some that did, lacked conceptual resolution and hence failed to translate their intent into decipherable forms like Celia-Yunior’s Synesthesia. This was ironical to the motive of the Biennale as many people felt alienated to the artistic representations! Hence, in many ways Biennale’s attempt to celebrate cultural pluralism on a global context failed to resonate with its audience. The working staff and local folks in Fort Kochi seem oblivious to the language of the artworks which unconsciously speak to a very narrow margin of people.
The fact that one had to refer the curator’s note time and again prompts the question whether the artworks are an apt realisation of the artist’s concept (given the wishful consideration that their concept notes resonate with that of the curator’s). The curator, Anita Dube’s note starts off with the mention of Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacles, which speculates of a society riddled with alienation and commodity fetishism. She writes — "Virtual hyper-connectivity has paradoxically alienated us from the warm solidarities of the community; that place of embrace where we can enjoy our intelligence and beauty with others, where we can love; a place where we don’t need the 'other' as an enemy to feel connected." This idealist thought translates into the selection of work whose topic ranged from feminism, post-colonial sentiments, techno-utopia, queer movement, to representations of marginalised identities based on caste, class and colour.
Needless to say, this ideology paired with Dube’s politically critical views found grounds as artist expressions in Kerala which has a fairly literate population and a long history of Leftist activism. Among the notable works were ones by BV Suresh that pointed the rise of right-wing extremist groups in the country, Sonia Khurana and Guerilla Girls that voiced over the patriarchal hegemony of the Indian society, Cyrus Kabiru’s afro-futuristic C-Stunners, Sue Williamson’s post-colonial account of Indian slaves, and the fantastic work by William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, a video installation depicting black struggle across the global history.
The wide variety of work explored various mediums, political contexts and timelines, exhibited in heritage locations across the city. This requires investment from government and art patrons in the form of money, exhibition space, and other infrastructural facilities. But what remains unanswered is whether Biennale appropriately introduced contemporary art to its people or serves as a ground to politically stimulate its audience, and sensationalise sensitive topics. Also, how successful it was in doing either. Regardless, some works shined out, like the satirical text-based video installations by Korean group YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY Industries, namely Samsung means to Come and Art is A Lie That Just Won’t Die. Contrary to the seriousness looming around most of the artwork, YCHI’s content was funny, equally thought-provoking and engaged its audience in popular dialogue regarding the perception of art and technology in modern society. Also, Shilpa Gupta’s sound installation and William Kentridge’s 8-channel video projection were some the most moving art projects that housed the Aspinwall.
One obvious impact of Biennale in the life of the local population is the boost in tourism. KPMG reports for the previous edition shows a 4% increase in Kochi tourist footfall primarily for the purpose of visiting Biennale. This increases the local crafts and antique business, spices, coffee and restaurants as the circulating tourists are not confined just to the Kochi or state of Kerela. A 2016 report on Kochi Muziris Biennale revealed opinions that very few installations cater to the young population, especially children and lack the 'play' element in general. Song Dong’s Water Shrine was an expectation in retrospect, flocked by many school students and kids, who would paint with water brushes on foam glasses, only to watch their work evaporate and disappear in a matter of minutes. Such participatory installations were scarce though and highlighted the peculiar distinction between the motive of exhibitory fashion of artworks in Aspinwall and the Pavilion activities.
Also missing were experimentations in new media and sensor-based technology which, after talking to assistant curator John Xavier, turned out to be a deliberate curatorial decision. This gave Biennale a low-tech and detached feel where artist went as far as trying only traditional cinematic techniques of masking, layering, juxtaposition and superimposition, if any. As a new media designer, it was very disappointing to see technology solely bearing the burden of alienation in our society, and Biennale projecting itself as a 'detox experience' from it. A large number of artist tried to weave narratives around found objects, particularly Kerela floods in general; Veda Thozhur Kolleri depicting a morose take on the subject, whereas Marzia Farhana and others warning us of a bigger eco-catastrophe in the waxing. These project pointed an alienation that is not internal to the society, reemphasising the relationship of human beings with their environment.
A whole new story unfolds in the east bay of Fort Kochi, where over 150 student projects from art and craft colleges in J&K, Odisha, Kerela, Chennai, etc were exhibited without the restrictions of a prescribed theme and under proficient mentorships. The students brought with them the stories of their local environment which were alarming revelations of topics like gun violence, capital punishment, labour rights, fake news, eco-destruction and feminism. Many of these turned out to be hobby projects with no formal explanation of the concept while others, hilariously, had concept notes describing the college and curriculum of the individual. The largely socio-political themes that emerged out of the Student Biennale made it appear as an extended version of the main exhibition. These along with Vanessa Baird’s water-based abject paintings that were banned in her home town bore testimony that Kochi Biennale, or rather art, can become the voice of the minority, the ignored and the oppressed.
All said and done, the conveners of this edition of Biennale met a lot of hurdles for its inception. Kochi was still grieving the devastations of the recent Kerela floods that took place in July, only months before Biennale was to be inaugurated: an event that took over 400 lives, destroyed public and private property and crippled the economic backbone of the state. In October Riyaz Komu, secretary of Biennale Foundation was accused of sexual misconduct under the #Metoo campaign. Among these villainies and the dampened spirit of localites, the Biennale team found in itself the encouragement to go on and reinstate the festival to its finest glory. That, to me, is the most inspirational aspect of my visit and says much more about the city’s character than any artwork. In that sense, one can never forget the role that Kochi plays in the success of Biennale and hence is rightly called "The Biennale City of India".