Event Curators assess the impact of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and its space in the art world.

India’s first art biennale – the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) – opened to a grand reception weathering the doldrums. Although speculations are still rife about its validity and success, it will go down in the history of art in India and Kerala as a landmark event.

A seminal venture, whether it fails or flies, it has in its conception and execution, impressed in more ways than one. Despite allegations of fiscal aberrations, the fact that it has raised so much colour and creation, heat and dust, much debate and dispute itself lends the event a historical vantage.

Several insiders from the art world categorically state that it is different in several ways. Most importantly and most significantly its difference lies in the way it engages with the heritage of a city. Many biennales are town-oriented or city-centric but this goes further in its engagement. Secondly, it is more interactive than the others, point out visiting curators from across the world. Thirdly, it presents contemporary Indian art as never before, in the number of local and regional artists represented. Its unabashed push to take art to the people gives it an openness that is often denied to art by esoteric galleries and museums. The KMB woos the common man as never before.

Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the artists who mooted and conceptualised the art exposition, are addressing an audience not familiar with contemporary art and changes therein. The scope, aim and direction of an art biennale, the first which originated in Venice in 1895, has undergone tremendous change. Many biennales since then have sprung up around the world. Art has morphed from its atavistic definition, growing to encompass different streams, turning contemporary with every new movement. Besides art is now negotiating with a viewership that feeds on social media. Everything about the audience has changed. Hence each biennale speaks a language that will communicate with the viewership it addresses, which gives each curated show its identity. So what is the identity of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale?

Bose says that the brief given to the 92 artists showcasing their work was straightforward and direct. The city of Kochi and the mythical port of Muziris was the canvas they could express on. Centuries of migration to the city and its subsequent creation of a cosmopolitan society was just a single aspect. Displacement, the dispossessed, the intermingling and the co-existence of communities were fallout themes. Thus artists had a very large spectrum to work on.

“More than the history the sensitivity of the people is important. Normally no biennale gives so much representation to the artists from the State or region,” says Bose.

Paul Domela, director of the Liverpool Biennale, reiterates the sentiment. “It seems a biennial that is very interested in where it takes place and how it can connect with people. The range of film, music, dance and literary programmes that take place is extraordinary and I would think many people will come in contact with art through these aspects.”

Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and currently preparing to host the Sharjah Biennale, expresses the same sentiment. “The city of Kochi with its layers of architectural historicity has definitely been tapped by the project hosts. The biennale has used historical heritage to a very good sequence,” she says, adding that on her first visit itself the biennale gets the viewers right into the different aspects of the city. In most other biennales she feels that the dialogue with the city goes missing.

To commence and continue this dialogue, is what Bose says, has been his main aim. “We have intentionally stressed on the cultural aspect,” he says. Driven by the wish to extricate art from the white cubes and open it up was one factor that comes across in the KMB. The Let’s Talk programme, its Educational Outreach programme, the cultural programmes that include theatre, music, performance arts and so on clearly take art to the people in a way never accessed before.

Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, senses that openness when he says: “What IS different is that this biennial functions as a perfect vehicle for ‘performing the difference’: a public friendly ‘diy (Do It Yourself) platform for visual culture’ initiated and organised by artists, with and for artists. As a platform it unites and re-unites Indian contemporary artists who are showing an intellectual and visual ‘togetherness’ as never before. As a visitor, everybody can step in and make up one’s mind.”

Art critic and culture theorist Ranjit Hoskote believes that the curators of the biennale have given credit to an audience ready to accept the changing face of art, showcased here. “Exhibitions, especially biennales, are opportunities to expand one's mental and experiential horizons as viewers – they should not be reduced to fit the size of one's assumptions. A great many of the works are geared to affect the viewer at a primal, sensory, sensuous level even before their conceptual strategies came into play – through smell, shadow, sound. Today, viewers are more willing to experiment with new artistic experiences than before.”

Paul agrees: “One of the qualities of this biennial is the great variety of work: for example, Dylan Martorell’s sound installation is very tactile whereas Amar Kanwar demanded a different kind of engagement. Both seemed to captivate people. There is a playful intensity to most of the works which often touch upon serious issues but touch them lightly, for example the works of Subodh Gupta and Vivan Sundaram, who also had a beautiful video piece.

“I became rather sensitised to the smell from the waft of old buildings, the streets and the sea, to Ernesto Neto in the Pepper House and the mosquito repellent by Anant Joshi. The exhibition struck me as being both very open as well as intellectually ambitious. Of course one of the qualities of contemporary art is that it questions established ways of seeing and this can be challenging.”

Maurizio Bortolotti, a Milan-based curator, says, “the level of the artists invited guarantees the high quality of the show, in which the impressive quality of the Indian ones became very clear to the international audience. I believe as the first biennale in India, it is going to play an interesting role to promote a new generation of artists, gallerists, curators, collectors. And, in a few years, the KMB will play a key role to keep the Indian audience in step with contemporary art.”

“The KMB is unique in that, while many biennales originate in the desires of urban elites or civic or national governments, KMB is primarily the outcome of the desire of two major Indian artists to contribute to their regional as well as national contexts by creating an institution (KMB) that will allow for productive interface between regional and global circulations, to the benefit and cultural enrichment of both the global and the local scenes.

“There is a rich diversity of artistic positions, as well as a layered manifestation of several generations, styles, practices and ideological stances. KMB does not narrow itself to any single idiom or practice – this is its strength, as an inclusive platform,” says Hoskote.