In a world characterised by insurance agents and automobile dealers ‘who do things at you’, the absolute lack of forms of representation stares people in the face. It is where art plays an engaging role, dealing with real issues, helping you build self-confidence and discover yourself. It is inclusive. This is why you have people thronging the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, reasons art historian Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern (which hosts five million visitors in a year) in the U.K. and noted Indophile who ‘discovered’ Kerala exactly 20 years ago.
Mr. Dercon, who was at the biennale on Monday to deliver a talk on the ‘importance of public investment in art and having institutions like museum and public art galleries’, told The Hindu that India’s first biennale is the most radical because “it’s an artists’ biennale with selection of artists and organisation done by artists themselves.”
It has brought about a paradigm in self-representation and governance; and with local people making a beeline for the event, no one can side-step its impact on the local, national and international world. Art by nature packs paradoxes, contradictions and negotiations, says Mr. Dercon, citing the flurry of rejections that spawned the avant-garde movement in 1849. The way of art is not of compromise, but of constant negotiations. Compromise and conformity is kitsch, he maintains. “Maybe those who haven’t got a berth now would be in next time around. That is how it works,” he quips, partly in jest, on the biennale being opposed by a section of local artists.
For Mr. Dercon, the biennale is ‘affective’ as it cares for the people in its social milieu. While biennales elsewhere see organisers and artists receive support from the political system, they often fail to draw the crowds. The Kochi Muziris Biennale talks to people in a direct way. On his first day at the biennale, Mr. Dercon had to wait in line for a long time to get into the exhibition space of Amar Kanwar (whose installation ‘The Sovereign Forest’ is a big draw). “Besides enjoying works, people were seen reading those long synopses at these spaces. That isn’t unusual given the State’s high literacy and the long tradition of reading, writing and performing art,” says Mr. Dercon, himself a documentary filmmaker and a regular at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).
His ‘discoveries’ at the event include South Indian artists Sumedh Rajendran, K.P. Reji, Justin Ponmany and K.P. Krishnakumar (who committed suicide on December 26, 1989 at the age of 31; two of the rebel artist’s works are on display at Pepper House).
Public art is contemporary necessity, but it takes time to yield results. “Good politicians are interested in long-term strategies; good art is about long-term memory and value, too. Only, they need to understand the relevance of what’s going on and seize the opportunity,” says Mr. Dercon.