A city that did not have a single gallery of international standards is now getting ready to host a major three-month-long exhibition of contemporary art. A week before the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a look at the preparations and the politics on the ground.
The road snaking past Fort Kochi is slender as a supermodel’s waist, and the passage ahead is cinched tighter by two large, idling vans containing shooting supplies for Shoojit Sircar’s new film. Further on, an unseen procession is in progress, making its presence felt solely through rumours trickling through the backlogged traffic that the marchers are marking World AIDS Day. Inside the crawling car, I do what people usually do in this situation. I look at my phone. I speak to the photographer beside me and the guide in front, a wiry youth who, but for the light dusting of fuzz on his chin, could pass for a ten-year-old. And I look at the walls outside, where vivid murals have sprung up – something like a fish from an illustrated textbook of Chinese myth, something else like an annihilative corkscrew-machine from the Matrix movies. In Shoojit Sircar’s world, these would be called trailers, advertisements for a coming attraction, one that, provided the Mayans were merely jesting and the world still stands, will be unveiled on 12-12-12. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
And yet, there are few signs that a large-scale, three-month-long exhibition of contemporary art is going to open in a week. The abandoned dockyard in Mattancherry that will serve as the muse for Rigo 23, the Portuguese artist whose name suggests a health drink with nearly two-dozen ingredients, is now occupied by squatting anglers. Another venue, Parade Ground, is filled with shirtless footballers who, in the evening light, are a blur of sweat and skin. David Hall, meanwhile, houses an exhibition of Gond, Warli, Kalamkari and Madhubani art – vibrant but generic paintings small enough to fit into the suitcases of pale tourists who will return to their countries and display on their walls these souvenirs of an exotic vacation. As for Aspinwall House – built in the 19th century as the headquarters of a British trading firm, overlooking backwaters bearing the mild stench of seaweed – the only evidence of workmen are the empty packs of M-Seal and Scissors cigarettes in the grass. Where, in the eight venues earmarked, is the hive of industry surrounding the country’s first ever biennale?
Aspinwall House appears as good a place as any to look for answers. I retrace my steps and reach the part of the property that looks away from the sea, and, in a far corner, on the ground, I sight a lonesome stretch of canvas with droplets of fluorescent green and puddles of blue, as if a klutzy apprentice took a spill in Jackson Pollock’s studio. The artist is nowhere in sight, though, a few feet away, a carpenter is bent over a sheet of plywood, marking measurements for a crate that will bring in sculptures from Pattambi in Palakkad. Behind him, in a cavernous warehouse, lies another work of art whose artist, Vivan Sundaram, is missing. I seem to be looking at a walled city as if seen from the moon, or at least on Google Maps, and the structures are made from shards of pottery excavated at the site believed to have been Muziris. That’s right. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is named for a port that exists and one that was submerged in a flood in 1341. That’s a powerful hyphen, bridging old and new, legend and fact.
The other side of the warehouse will display the work of Subodh Gupta, another artist who has, for the time being, parted ways with his creation. It is not yet a creation – just a number of individual components strewn around a patch on the floor being levelled by workers with trowelfuls of stone and cement. These components are strange. What feat of accretionary alchemy could produce glittering art from one cupboard with a missing mirror, one Kelvinator refrigerator, one ancient easy chair with extendable armrests, one Petromax lamp, one Onida TV set, one Vintron computer monitor, two bicycles, two old iron trunks, bales of fishing nets, and several corrugated asbestos sheets chewed up by rust? A more complete creation rests in a room upstairs (the artist, LN Talur, is inevitably absent) – two gigantic panels intersecting in a near-V, made of terracotta tiles whose ceaseless symmetry is interrupted by tiny, loincloth-clad men contorted into various yogic postures. This is art you can literally enter, walk through. I walk through. I walk down. I walk across the lawns.
As if to dispel my unease in the presence of works of art that have apparently shaped themselves, untouched by human hands, the cosmos confers on me the sight, under a distant tree, of two men bent over a sculpture. Going closer, one of them is revealed as Valsan Koorma Kolleri, his human hands sheathed in cotton gloves and fashioning a globe made of copper wire. It looks like a planet made of spaghetti. He takes me inside, to a storage area filled roof to floor with shelves, and each of these shelves contains an item – a thatch of woven palm leaf, a fragment of a white ant colony, a pyramid of rice husk, the bird-like skeleton of an umbrella (recognisable only by the handle). “I am working on the rebirth of material,” he says. “The concept is that nothing dies. It doesn’t have a mind of its own, so you give a mind to it.” A couple of ladders will allow visitors to inspect the topmost shelves, all to the accompaniment of “the sounds of the subconscious” – snoring, talking in one’s sleep – recorded with the help of the artist’s son.
My next stop, Pepper House, is filled with a few more people – if not quite the hive of industry I anticipate then at least a handful of workers scurrying this way and that while, in a room in the floor above, KP Reji toils away on a 10x15 canvas he has yet to name. He climbs down from his platform and points out the ducks in the painting that evoke the waterways of his native Alleppey, and the children to the right who personify his childhood memories of Gandhi Jayanti, when he would, with his classmates, be asked to clean up the neighbourhood. And what about the two defecating children in the corner, partly hidden by the grass? Reji smiles. “We used to do that.” At the centre is INS Viraat, the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier that shows “our dependence on Britain even after Independence,” while at the bottom of the painting, a man has positioned his body in the breach of a bund, preventing the flooding of crops. This instance of oral history, Reji says, came about from the brief by the curators, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu: My Kerala. “I won’t sell it now,” Reji says. “Maybe later. A biennale is not commercial. It’s purely an exhibition.”
The office of the Kochi Biennale Foundation – swarming with interns and volunteers, like a 22-year-old graduate from SB College, Changanacherry, in a Texas Trojans T-shirt – is where I finally sense the pressure of preparation for an event involving more than 80 artists from 24 countries. Bonny Thomas, treasurer and research coordinator, hands me a copy of their newsletter, Biennale Leaf. “It’s a pun on Banana Leaf,” he smiles. When work began on the biennale, in late 2010, the Foundation’s office was in Mumbai, but it shifted here eventually. Thomas tells me that their team is as multicultural as the seafarers who, centuries ago, transacted with Muziris. Two students from Switzerland sit in the editorial room above. The communications chief is French. There’s also an Indian-born Englishman. I ask Thomas if they expect the biennale to bring in a lot of revenue. “That’s the million-dollar question,” he says. “But it will definitely bring in a lot of tourism.” He also hopes that the days ahead will bring in more volunteers. There are only a hundred now, 400 short of what Thomas estimates they need.
He breaks off when a man walks in – someone important clearly. Unimportant people don’t sweep their hair into a pompadour, don’t wear striking red canvas shoes, and don’t pierce a safety pin on their shirt, near the collar point. This office, presumably, is where the missing artists are – though this artist, Robert Montgomery, has just stepped off a plane, and has yet to see the site for his installation, a “light poem” in front of Aspinwall House. He shows me a photograph of what looks like an advertising billboard, except that it’s covered with words shaped from LEDs.”My poem talks of travel by sea,” he says. “Before the skies opened up, the sea was the way to escape. You got on a boat. You went far from home. You came to a new place. You made a new identity.” The billboard, here, will be 44 metres long, and will take the local craftsmen nine days to erect, which is why Montgomery cannot afford to think of jet lag. Before leaving for his studio, he says that this biennale is “really interesting because, apart from important international artists, it will showcase, for the first time, 40 or so young and mid-career Indian artists to an international audience.”
Thomas smiles, remembering that, not very long ago, Kochi did not have a single gallery of international standards, with a climate-control system to save artworks from damage due to humidity. To prove that the city could put on such a massive show, the Foundation, with inputs from a Mumbai-based conservation architect, refurbished Durbar Hall, where the Maharaja of Cochin used to hold court. A team from Dresden State Art Collections flew down to inspect the facilities, and then, this April, for the first time in Kerala’s history, a local hall hosted an exhibition from abroad – the works of the German painter Eberhard Havecost. “This gave us a lot of confidence,” says Thomas, seemingly unconcerned about acquiring this confidence mere months before the scheduled opening of the biennale. Others, however, picked up on this inexperience. A group of artists, led by Kanayi Kunhiraman, demanded that the state government look into the “misuse of funds” (Rs. 5 crore, issued by the previous government). An inspection followed, and then came a news report “leaked to the media” that the investigation team found irregularities in the Foundation’s accounts.
“Till today, we haven’t got any official confirmation about this,” says Thomas, adding that the Foundation was given carte blanche to use the funds as seen fit. He is amused by reports that suggest the Foundation be blacklisted. “Only terrorist organisations are blacklisted,” he laughs. But behind the cheerful façade, there is concern. Before this controversy, the Minister of Culture, KC Joseph, paid a visit to all the biennale venues, and the Corporation of Cochin declared Kochi “Biennale City.” But afterwards, Joseph announced an enquiry into the previous government’s awarding of funds to the Foundation. “There is still no clarity about it,” says Thomas. “But this shows that they’re not going to blacklist the Foundation, and that they will extend all support except financial support.” This government, initially, had decided to award the Foundation an additional Rs. 5 crore. That won’t be forthcoming now. “But,” says Thomas, “Durbar Hall is government property, and they’re giving it to us for the duration of the biennale.”
I go to Durbar Hall the next day. It is closed for the weekend, but outside, near the lawns, I see a stage being constructed – the triangular wings look like pizza wedges pointing to the sky. The renovations at the other venues aren’t as flamboyant. Aspinwall House still looks like it was built in 1867, the year embossed on its rusty iron gates. But KP Reji, at Pepper House, tells me that a lot of work has gone into replacing rafters and floorboards, and the wild tangles of weeds in these long-unused venues has been mowed down into neat beds. “Plus, they cleared all the snakes.” A kitchen and café are going to be built in Pepper House, but even with these brand-new additions, the character of these venues comes from the fingerprints of past users. In one of the ground-floor rooms of Pepper House, the walls are painted with Kathakali mudras. Sometime in the past, this was a dance school. Today, these illustrations of vardhamanakam and oornanabham hover over a Yamaha Fz5, parked here presumably by one of the workmen, while at a far corner of the room, a line strains with the weight of clothes in its middle. I could be in the midst of a modern-art installation.
In the week ahead, as I write this, more artists will arrive, more installations will come up, and the shirtless footballers in Parade Ground will make way for dignitaries at the opening ceremony, where Mathangi Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.) will perform for the first time in India. The Foundation will invite all artists for the inauguration – even Kanayi Kunhiraman. “This is everybody’s biennale,” says Thomas. “From the beginning, there has been a lot of criticism and opposition, some ideological, some personal, and a part of the media has been against us. But this isn’t anything new.” He recalls the time computers came to Kerala. “There were so many strikes, so much propaganda – and now, everyone uses a computer. Even when the cell phone arrived, there were damning reports in the press that it could scramble your brain. “This is our first biennale. Whenever there’s anything new in Kerala, there’s a controversy. So this is only to be expected.”