Storytelling and drama, dreams and tears, delays and comeback—the fifth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) has already experienced the high and low tides that wash over Kerala’s coast. The previous edition of India’s only biennale was held in 2018 at the same venues sprawled across Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, where bohemian charm meets local languor. Initially delayed due to the pandemic in 2020 and then again in 2021, the biennale’s highly anticipated return this year was marked with excitement and optimism. But unfortunately, when art lovers from across the globe descended on Fort Kochi for the opening on December 12, they were heartbroken by the last-minute news of a no-show. Finally, a fortnight later on December 23, the doors were opened to the public.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2022-23’s central exhibition, In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire, has been curated by Shubigi Rao, a Singaporean artist, filmmaker and writer who had participated in the biennale’s 2018 edition. The title, she tells us, is taken from a drawing in Pulp Volume II, one of her seminal polemics against censorship. KMB, whose tagline goes “it’s our biennale,” is a space designed to break away from the familiar white cube format and bring art closer to the public. Much like its predecessor, the prestigious Venice Biennale, KMB reflects the diversity of thought-provoking artistry and outsized ingenuity, told through the individual and collective efforts of artists, galleries, museums, foundations and institutions. This year’s edition brings together 88 artists from India and abroad.
Saunter into Aspinwall House, one of the most important and largest venues at the biennale and your eyes are immediately drawn to the New Delhi-based Asim Waqif’s Improvise. Oddly enough, this spiralling bamboo sculpture stands as a paragon of simplicity in sharp contrast to an event of this grandeur. But then again, appearances can be deceptive. Conceptually, Improvise is apparently as complex as it gets. Made of bamboo sourced from tea plantations in Kerala’s Kuttikkanam region, the sculpture can be best understood as a comment on urban design, architecture and nature. It is a metaphor for both brutality and benevolence, be it man-made or natural. Waqif—a trained architect turned full-time artist—tells me that he considers the traditional methods of bamboo and cane-weaving hugely inspiring, finding infinite potential in this humble material. He says, “Though parametric architecture is inspired by nature, most of it is being done using 3D printers and CAD. With Improvise, I wanted to use basket weaving to create a discourse between vernacular skills and new tech.”
In other rooms await other wonders. Sahil Naik’s immersive installation All Is Water and to Water We must Return mourns the loss of two villages, Curdi and Kurpem, in Goa that were submerged in the 1970s to make way for the Salaulim dam. Supported by Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery, Naik’s project is firmly rooted in his decade-long engagement with the displaced communities, which allowed him to get close to the native people and record their folk traditions and stories. The bitter irony, the Goa-born artist says, is that while the dam was built to solve his state’s water problems, “as things stand today, the residents of Curdi and Kurpem who sacrificed their land, personal belongings and memories themselves don’t have access to water.” An old Konkani saying reminds us; “Histories may die with people, but a song, like hope, survives time.” Naik has painstakingly recreated the lost landscape in dark, moody lighting with the Konkani music that he recorded with local singers adding an aural dimension to the experience.
Songs, poetry and sound also help consecrate the memories of home and identity in Amol K Patil’s The Politics of Skin and Movement (2022). Inspired by the infamous Uthapuram caste wall in Tamil Nadu, which was built to segregate the local Dalit community, Patil’s intervention invites viewers to enter the space and dares them to stare ‘caste politics’ in the eye. “In this installation, I have tried to stage a conversation between inside and outside spaces. An L-shaped wall almost acts like a theatrical stage and it prevents you from going over to the other side,” says the Mumbai-based artist. A key part of The Politics of Skin and Movement mimics a government office setting, symbolic of bureaucratic oppression that the lower-caste communities face.
The biennale’s most interesting works conjure a link between writing, reading, seeing and songs, reaffirming Shubigi Rao’s curatorial vision that explores the power of storytelling. The enigma of sound is once again encapsulated in Haegue Yang’s Sonic Droplets – Steel Buds (2022). As you walk around this South Korean artist’s sculpture of sonic fields the bells activate music, evoking sound typically found in ritualistic practices of Korean shamanism and European pagan traditions. Yang is one of the many heavyweight international artists in the spotlight at KMB this year. Others include Ali Cherri, winner of the Silver Lion Award at the recent Venice Biennale 2022, Chilean artist-poet Cecilia Vicuña whose work delves into language, memory, decolonisation and indigenous history, Singaporean artist Debbie Ding whose The Home Is Stealth Vehicle is a VR-powered fever dream and Turkish artist Alper Aydin who is showing The Drawings of Idea, consisting of 36 different drawings produced over a period of seven years.
At the TKM Warehouse, a short ride from Aspinwall House, the Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin of the Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts has installed Bhumi, a community art project initiated during the lockdown at Thakurgaon (a district in Bangladesh) in 2020. Supported by the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF), the project was conceived to provide financial assistance to local artisans and craftsmen who had lost their livelihood due to the pandemic. Elsewhere, the Egyptian artist Iman Issa’s Lexicon offers a range of 14 displays, in which she employs an unusual conceit — each piece is a sly take on an existing artwork, albeit one that looks nothing like the original. Neither does Issa attribute any meaning to the original object nor to its remake, leaving viewers to tease out their own interpretation. Explaining her work via an email exchange, Issa says, “Lexicon developed from the idea that it is exactly in a space such as that of fiction or an artwork that one can investigate the missing referent to a term. Let’s say, for example, you would like to speak to someone about a street market, so you take your camera and you set it up at a right angle, and snap a photograph at/of a street market only to realise that no, actually your photograph does not evoke a street market in a manner you recognise. So, you decide to try something else: to flip your camera upside down, or show an image of something entirely different. And in art, you can do exactly that. You can show someone a picture of a table and call it a chair and the viewer will entertain the possibility that this image might indeed be evoking a chair.”
Apart from shows in Aspinwall House, Pepper House, Anand Warehouse and TKM Warehouse, the biennale offers satellite exhibitions, sponsored events and public programmes dotting different parts of the city. One of them is the Students’ Biennale. For this edition, the Students’ Biennale invited seven curators to collaborate with emerging talent: Afrah Shafiq, Amshu Chukki, Anga Art Collective, Arushi Vats, Premjish Achari, Suvani Suri, Saviya Lopes and Yogesh Barve. The shows are spread across four sites. In one exhibition titled Deriving Memory in the Mundane, the curator duo of Saviya Lopes and Yogesh Barve have worked closely with participating students from Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. “The commonality in the students’ individual practices set forth lived experiences as archives of the mundane,” says Lopes, an artist herself, explaining that the exhibition navigates both personal and political narratives. Co-curator Yogesh Barve adds, “Beyond just giving us promising artists, the biennale helps bring out the best in students. In our view, all these works were developed without any constraints and have a certain rawness in them.” For instance, Muskan Parekh who’s currently pursuing her BFA at Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidyalaya in Khairagarh, Chhattisgarh, celebrates the richness of Bastar community culture through her art.
The giddy enthusiasm about art and its potential for creative disruption makes it easy to forget that the biennale got off to a bumpy start this year. When I visited Aspinwall House on December 12, the scheduled opening date, I encountered artworks swaddled in plastic sheets, while most other venues resembled a construction site, with volunteers, production managers and workers scrambling to meet long-past deadlines. There was much anger on the ground after the official launch was controversially postponed — a decision that was initially taken without her presence or input, claims curator Shubigi Rao. Though Rao is known for long-term projects this one tested her resolve: “The biennale has consumed four years of my life, but I got the opportunity to bring 88 artists together, to shape a community of sorts, with a clarity of purpose and intention, and a curatorial framework of conviction. That is a remarkable privilege, and I will also be grateful for their faith in the exhibition, in me, and in each other,” she says.
Rao says she tried to raise an alarm about the state of the venues and the pending work, as far back as 2021, and again in July, 2022. “It was a struggle to be heard,” she reveals, “as I was repeatedly reminded that this is just how things are, and that miracles are pulled off every time, and that I was unnecessarily concerned. This is even though conditions (including venues) were the worst they had ever been, and resources were at their scarcest, with a lack of previous experienced production personnel.”
On December 23, numerous artists came out in support of Rao, and they wrote an open letter to the organisers that provoked further backlash. In it, they urged the foundation to “move away from a system of accepted dysfunction, structural helplessness, and fear of failure, towards an environment of mutual respect, honesty, and care towards artists, curators, and all production workers.” Asim Waqif, one of the signatories of the letter, says that he had been dreaming of showing at Kochi-Muziris Biennale for almost a decade and was ecstatic when he was invited for this edition. However, he was unprepared for what awaited him. “Multiple emails and messages were unanswered. I realised a few months back that the process was not going to be in my control and I would have to improvise. Eventually, even though I have access to very skilled craftsmen, I was forced to train flooring tile workers to make a bamboo installation! I think an institution like the biennale is a platform where artists should get opportunities to expand their artistic practice beyond the studio and gallery spaces. But here what happened was that artistic exploration was limited by the inadequacies of the Kochi Biennale Foundation.”
Though Rao has now moved on to her ongoing long-term project—Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book — she feels the biennale needs some “serious stock taking”. Despite the difficult circumstances, she wishes nothing but the best for the biennale. “I believe in it because it’s a space of free expression and collaboration, more so than in many other parts of the world. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is special and I have a deep belief in its importance as a place of genuine discourse and openness, which is why I worked so hard on it despite everything, from the pandemic, multiple postponements, and the current state of affairs. It must endure and I hope the artists and artworks I have gathered here, in this edition, will be proof of its vital nature, and its possibility as a site of resistance.”
Open tried to contact Bose Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, but he remained unavailable for comment. Many other artists also did not wish to speak on record.
Meanwhile, the Indian art world appears to be clear about KMB’s place as a carnival worth championing. “It is an artist-led, artist-curated and artist-centric biennale,” says Priyanka Raja, of Experimenter Gallery, adding that it is “built on friendships and trust and needs to be nurtured and cared for not just by the organisers but also the artists and the art community at large. Give the team this much—in spite of the challenges, I feel it was a commendable effort.”
(Kochi-Muziris Biennale runs till April 10)
Anxiety to Stay Relevant Amit Khanna
Return to Greatness Zakia Soman
‘This Is Not Fusion’ Akhil Sood