88 artists from 24 countries came together for India’s very first biennale.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first biennale, opened on 12 December 2012 to great expectations. Despite funding woes, chaotic installation, delays, vandalism and one potential national security threat, critics and journalists were impressed by the exhibition and optimistic for future editions.

Sheela Gowda and Christoph Storz, 'Stopover', 2012, installation.

Artists scramble to finish works

Commentators on hand for the opening of the event noted the general chaos, with many artists still installing their works. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, writing for ArtForum, said of the biennale’s first few days,

By the time the inauguration rolled around, things were not going well. Barely half installed, the exhibition was a wreck, a treasure hunt with no map and potentially no treasure either. The day before, when I arrived for an ostensible press preview, the situation had been even worse, tilting toward despair in a wincing vision of shipping crates, stalled labor, discarded tools, half-cleared piles of trash and thoroughly despondent artists. Not only that, but the dainty streets of touristy Fort Kochi – where most of the biennial’s venues are strung together, like distressed architectural jewels, in crumbling dockside warehouses, seventeenth-century bungalows, and a nineteenth-century clubhouse for colonial-era gentlemen – were awash with posters, graffiti and an elaborately painted mural depicting the biennial as a resource-sucking labyrinth of misappropriated funds, manipulative marketing, corruption and corporate intrigue.

The Financial Times reported that a number of bureaucratic and customs-related issues also held up artists. For example, Iranian-born artist Hossein Valamanesh reported that because he had itemised light bulbs as “globes” when importing materials for his installation piece, customs officials thought that he was trying to import “geographical globes” and the materials were detained so that they could check that the India-Pakistan border had been correctly represented.

Interior view of Durbar Hall, a newly renovated exhibition venue for the biennale.

The Daily Beast reported that the grand reception for the biennale had to be cancelled at the last minute, and many artists who were still working on their installations were constantly vexed by members of the public walking through their workspace. Famed Indian art critic and curator Geeta Kapur told the magazine that she felt the chaos should be excused, especially for a first-time event like Kochi. She said,

India doesn’t have a ready-made infrastructure to host something like this…. At least they gave artists a chance to think big. It happens even at major events like the Shanghai Biennale, but the spirit is very good.

Ernesto Neto, 'Life Is a River', 2012, mixed media installation

Cut funding

According to the event organisers, artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the difficulties in the run-up to the fair were largely due to the slashed funding from a state government hostile to their enterprises. In an interview with culture360, they said,

Everything boils down to funds, especially when it comes to organising a large-scale event like a biennale. From the very beginning we have faced funding issues and it has affected many levels of operation. Remember, it is the first biennale in India, and even though we have been to many biennales, it has been a learning curve for us as organisers of a biennale. There are so many logistical nuances which could hold up things. If there were enough funds, everything could have [been] overcome on time. Yes, some of the projects did drag beyond the opening day, but now things have fallen into place and it looks a lot tidier.

In 2010, the state government of Kerala, then ruled by India’s Communist parties, gave event organisers INR50,000,000 (USD910,000) as a starting budget for the biennale as well as informally pledging IND730,000,000 (USD13,330,000) for the whole programme. Then, after the Communist government was ousted in 2011, the new state leaders immediately suspended all financial support for the biennale and launched an investigation into a possible misappropriation of funds. The event organisers eventually reached out to private donors, with a final price tag of INR250,000,000 (USD4,570,000).  The biennale continues to petition for further financial assistance, though they have met strong resistance from local government officials.

Clifford Charles, 'Five Rooms of Clouds: Room 5, Profound Profanities', 2012, mixed media, site-specific installation.

Artworks defaced, censored

Art attacked

In addition to funding and scheduling issues, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale also faced several major scandals involving artworks at the exhibition. Within a week of the biennale’s opening, a man splashed paint on South African artist Clifford Charles’ wall artwork, while unidentified vandals defaced a large charcoal mural from Australian artist Daniel Connell.

Authorities have yet to discover a motive for the vandalism. Connell first suspected that his work was targeted because the man depicted in the mural, a local tea vendor named Achu, is Muslim. Kochi residents quickly dismissed this theory, as the city is actually renowned for its diversity and tolerance. Other theories propose that the attack was perpetrated by local artists and art professionals excluded from the event or leftist groups opposing Western influence. Such groups are already organising a poster campaign against the biennale.

The vandalism prompted widespread public outcry in support of the artists, with students organising a sit in in front of Connell’s work carrying signs that read, “Don’t attack art.” Despite the damage, the artists were optimistic about the biennale and the influence of their work on Indian society. ARTINFO quoted Connell as saying,

People are engaging with my relatively accessible work and then going to see the quite difficult but beautiful work in the venues, which have until today been free of charge. This Biennale is shaping up as one of the most democratic, inclusive, anarchic and ambitious biennales the world has seen, which I think will leave a legacy of deep and caring personal relationships with art.

View of Jonas Staal's 'New World Summit', 2012, installation.

Terrorist summit censored

Dutch artist Jonas Staal quickly raised the attention of authorities, however, for his installation piece dealing with terrorist organisations and other banned international outfits. For his New World Summit project, Staal installed 45 billboards depicting the flags of outlawed non-governmental groups. His Kochi work will culminate in the third ‘History according to resistance movements’ summit in March 2013, for which Staal will invite members of each organisation to air their views and ideologies.

Staal is interested in groups that have been excluded from democracy and the current international order. He insists that the summit is legal under Indian law. Indian officials are investigating these claims. After the initial uproar, the flags of the 24 organisations banned in India were blackened out. Police have also registered a case against the Biennale under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and are considering legal action against Staal.

Not all bad: Positive reviews

Despite all of its problems, most critics and journalists were impressed and even charmed by the biennale’s young, DIY ethos. Ranjit Hoskote, writing for Tehelka.com, declared that the exhibition contained “plenty to celebrate”, and noted the electric atmosphere of a biennale in development. He said,

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.

Participating artists were among the most optimistic voices, noting the potential for Kochi to develop into an event distinct from all other biennales.

Usually biennales are oriented by western notions. This is outside that sphere, and the possibilities are amazing. Here it is less about the market and more about relationships. It is very relaxed.

Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto, participant
in the 2013 Kochi-Muziris Biennale

You have to see the madness and passion of these artists, who are working with such little infrastructure. Issues such as ecology, memory, history and a sense of community are being expressed here, with fresh and young voices.

Sundaram, Indian artist

ArtForum‘s Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, though upset that there were only six women artists in the biennale, was ultimately won over. After describing the show’s chaotic opening, she said,

Was that the worst of it? Probably. From that point on, though, the biennial worked its charm on all of us. Hour by hour, installations came together, problems were solved and artworks that had been stuck for ages due to power cuts, customs issues, technical difficulties, diva drama or plain doubt began to emerge as concrete things to see and surrender to.

Rachel Spence of the Financial Times gave a more mixed review. She praised many of the artworks, though noting that “at times, the quality dips”. She also castigated the biennale’s lack of women artists while applauding the decision to include street art. She was ultimately optimistic and expressed her hope for a more polished second edition, saying,

There’s no question that for 2014, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale must sharpen up its act. Aside from the works that weren’t ready, the absence of labels, maps and a catalogue will not be forgiven a second year running. … For all its problems, however, this Biennale is a refreshing antidote to an art world often contaminated by too much money and not enough taste. And that may be a lesson for our times.


Related Topics: Asia expands, biennales and biennials, art in India

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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