The influential Indian artist Sudarshan Shetty is named curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The celebrated Kochi-Muziris Biennale is continuing its tradition of being curated by renowned Indian artists. Following in the footsteps of former curators Ranjit Hoskote and Jitish Kallat, the 2016 iteration sees the appointment of yet another ‘great’ from the Indian contemporary art scene.

Sudarshan Shetty. Image courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

Sudarshan Shetty. Image courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

On 15 July 2015, the Minister for Culture Shri K C Joseph, on behalf of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, announced Sudarshan Shetty as the curator of the next Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) in 2016. The unanimous decision was reached after a month-long period of deliberations by a panel of artists and prominent figures in the art world.

As Shetty said in the press release:

Through just two biennales, the KMB has acquired the role of one of the most important exhibitions globally. It is a privilege to be declared curator. This is early stages and my thoughts will undergo several changes, but I will be looking to the future while considering the past, in putting together the exhibition in 2016.

The official announcement of the curator for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. Image courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

The official announcement of the curator for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. Image courtesy Kochi Biennale Foundation.

Sudarshan Shetty and the creation of meaning

Sudarshan Shetty (b. 1961, Mangalore) is an influential Indian artist. His appointment as Curator of the Biennale continues the tradition of the exhibition as being one curated by artists for artists. Shetty lives and works in the vibrant city of Mumbai, where he received his BFA in Painting at the Sir J. J. School of Art in the 1980s. Although he was trained to work in two dimensions, Shetty’s practice expanded into three-dimensional work such as sculpture and installation.

Today, Shetty is known for his multimedia works encompassing large sculptural installations, video and performance, and characterised by his experimentation with different materials and media. His oeuvre employs assemblages of quotidian objects that suggest new possibilities of meaning and perception, through diverse approaches that have included mechanical and kinetic elements.

Sudarshan Shetty, 'History of Loss', 2008, view at the Vancouver Biennale, 2010. © Alfred Shum/Flickr

Sudarshan Shetty, ‘History of Loss’, 2008, view at the Vancouver Biennale, 2010. © Alfred Shum/Flickr

Shetty has exhibited extensively at home and abroad, including in solo shows at GallerySKE, New Delhi (2014), Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna (2012) and Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris (2011), as well as in major group exhibitions at Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin (2015), the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012), Centre Pompidou, Paris (2011), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2010) and in the travelling exhibition “Indian Highway” (2009-2012). In 2010, Shetty’s House of Shades, commissioned by Louis Vuitton, was unveiled at the shopping mall Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. In 2012, Shetty showcased The Flying Bus, a public artwork at Maker Maxity, Mumbai, a significant public work in the country.

In a review for his 2014 exhibition at GallerySKE in New Delhi, India Today wrote that even before climbing the stairs to the gallery, Shetty’s “macabre, magical and unmissable” work was already audible:

[…] And then, over these nostalgic notes, comes the sound of an electric drill climactically ending with the crash of china smashing to smithereens. You have just experienced a Sudarshan Shetty work subliminally even before you have encountered it in person. […] Shetty has been celebrated for combining the fantastic with the macabre on a larger-than-life scale with a good dose of humour and wit thrown in. Mumbai-based cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote has called Shetty’s gigantic-and many a time rather grotesque-moving installations ‘toys’ that play out the “deadly game of life and death”.

Sheela Godwa and Christoph Storz showed their installation 'Stopover', 2012, at the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Image courtesy the artists and Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Sheela Godwa and Christoph Storz showed their installation ‘Stopover’, 2012, at the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. Image courtesy the artists and Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale: a challenging yet beneficial endeavour 

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale launched its first edition in 2012 and was founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. Held in the city of Kochi in Kerala state, the Biennale has contributed to the development of tourism in the region, as well as to the ‘democratisation’ of contemporary art, making it more accessible to the public.

But not without obstacles; since its inception, the Biennale has had a variety of problems, which resulted as the Financial Times reported, in a hole in the balance sheet that saw co-founders Komu and Krishnamachari shoulder a debt of Rs12m (GBP124,000) for the first edition in 2012. Other problems were presented by the lack of infrastructure in Kerala compared to New Delhi or Mumbai, which meant artists had to struggle with issues ranging from customs regulations to a lack of technicians – problems that are still ongoing today, in addition to issues of corruption and financial aid.

Quoted in an article on Gulf News, Ranjit Hoskote, the 2012 Biennale curator, said:

[…] Kochi-Muziris has turned the ‘Biennale under construction’ into an existential condition.

The 2014 edition also suffered, mainly due to delayed funding from the Kerala government, the main financial supporter of the Biennale. The government promised Rs90 million, but only Rs20 million arrived and the Biennale had to launch a crowdfunding campaign in mid-November to raise funds. Lack of money would result in the inability to run full collateral programmes such as talks. At the time, the Financial Times quoted Shwetal Patel, the exhibition co-ordinator, as saying:

The foundation is confident the government support will be received in due course. [We are] in talks with a major Indian company for long-term funding and are also receiving large donations from new patrons and philanthropists.

In the same article, Jitish Kallat, the curator of the 2014 edition, was quoted as saying that Kochi’s “fragility is its strength”. Indeed, not only making waves around the world for its innovative and experimental nature, Kochi-Muziris was also the first biennale to be archived by the Google Art Project.

Julian Charriere, 'We Are All Astronauts', 2013, installation view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2013. © Babitha George/Flickr

Julian Charriere, ‘We Are All Astronauts’, 2013, installation view at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2013. © Babitha George/Flickr

NDTV reported in March 2015 that a group of eminent personalities led by renowned film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan had expressed disappointment over the exclusion of financial support for the Biennale in the Kerala state budget for 2015-2016. They were quoted as saying:

We are deeply disappointed that an event of such magnitude and cultural relevance has not been included in the State budget of 2015-16. […] We believe that this exceptional achievement of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale deserves generous support from the Government. Any withdrawal or slowdown in Government support will hamper the effective and timely running of the Biennale.

The group also said, pointing out the strengths of the Biennale:

We understand that the social reality in which we operate is marked by contradictions and can be studied only by the comprehension of these contradictions. Biennials have a public nature. They move outside galleries and museums into larger and complex public spaces and bring art to the public – provoking in society new questions and new sensibilities.

It would only be natural to expect more government funding and support for an event that is beneficial not only to its immediate art environment, but also to the development of the regional economic situation. The Minister for Culture praised the Biennale and promised “full support”, as quoted in the announcement press release for the 2016 edition curator:

KMB has contributed to Kerala’s culture, tourism and hospitality industries and renewed India’s cultural position in the world. We will extend full support to the programme in the coming years. The new curator will be vital to furthering this site of art.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


Related Topics: Indian artists, biennales, curators, biennials, events in India, news

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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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