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Upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale to celebrate the ability to flourish artistically in dire situations

Regional realities and the new common: The fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2020 will celebrate our ability to flourish artistically in dire situations

For a Biennale that has always been artist led, every edition of KMB allows for an unconventional exercise in curating. As an artist in conversation with other artists, for me curating the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is not just about the final production. Process, method, technique, undercurrents and original contexts are also part of the exhibition and discourse.

South Asia’s largest arts festival

As South Asia’s largest arts festival, and with the upcoming edition to run for four months this year, the scale of the Biennale is rich, diverse, and immersive. It can also be challenging. How can one retain regional contexts of artworks from across the globe? Perhaps one method would be to recognise how so many of these contexts intersect. An obvious example would be post-colonial nations continuing to grapple with generational trauma and how artists navigate the diffusion of borders, communities, languages, media, and so on when negotiating this. These approaches may be similar or divergent, but what is notable is that they remain imperatives that are still current, especially when thinking about the way so much of the global south continues to cater to the north, in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of our nations as ideological battlegrounds.

In formulating the curatorial structure of a biennale such as this, it is important to consider the problem of how we construct region. As the first curator of KMB, not based in India but in Singapore, I am excited by the opportunity to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in Southeast Asia, while simultaneously examining the term itself. The main reason, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Terms like ‘South Asia’ or ‘Southeast Asia’ are difficult to reconcile. They appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically but, also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, a term like ‘South Asia’ would present them as a supposedly unified geographical region. For me, these terms are especially troubling because it assumes that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state (or nation) first. This is especially applicable when we see how the interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or statist, where national identity is regarded as the signifier of all parties in the conversation. At the same time, I recognise the importance of cultural production (in thinking, writing, and in making) in post-colonial states having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship. It is about recognising other forms of power within communities and collectives. It is about recognising that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or dismantled, and that a key aspect of this reframing involves the acknowledgement of intersecting contexts.

Kochi’s cultural and historical multiplicity

Yet the idea of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale being only regional is an assumption that I am unwilling to make. It seems to be rooted in the perception that sites ‘outside’ of the global north are, by simple virtue of location, necessarily regional. Where the KMB can be considered regional would be in its localness; in its connection to Kochi. It’s one of the first things we notice when we visit the Biennale – the way its residents have a personal involvement, with strong opinions about the art and artists of each edition. At the announcement of my appointment as the curator, I had spoken of the way biennales are often akin to floating cities that are unmoored from their locality or regionality. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is unique in that it is rooted in the intertwined histories and cultural multiplicities of Kochi, while providing a crucial platform for larger discourse of the critical, political, and social impulses in artistic practices. To shift the lens through which we read the spectacle of exhibition, especially biennale spectacle, we must reposition dialogue and practice through acknowledging intersecting narratives, and retain, as much as possible, the original contexts of the works. I believe it is possible for the Biennale to retain regional realities and histories through cementing existing affinities and establishing new commons.

Perhaps this why I can imagine the Kochi Biennale as being more than a cultural staging area, but a crucible within which these intersecting discourses and practices can occur. As a possible knowledge commons, the conversations that would emerge from the exhibition, the seminars and other programming would be vital in demonstrating the diversity of strategies that artists employ. Though we may share the same concerns of land, migration, the climate crisis, rising neo-fascism, the future of technology, for instance, we diverge in our methods and approaches in thinking and in making. This is what I’ve been looking for during my curatorial research and travel over the last six months. This diversity of strategies, methods, and production can be emphasised and shared. This is not new, and is evident in, for instance, the significant work increasingly being done by artist collectives. A powerful example would be the multiple acts of remembering and reintegrating pre-colonial community-based thinking and practices in performance, for instance. Active decolonising initiatives, unearthing of overlooked histories and bodies of knowledge – all these are of keen interest to my plans for the biennale, as they have always been in my work as an artist.

Celebrate our optimism

One of the roles of cultural institutions, artists, writers, academics, etc. is to engage with the issues of their times and to be a mirror to society. In grappling with these issues it is easy to become disenchanted with, or apathetic about the state of our societies, our collective futures, and the planet. Yet I would argue that our fears for the future do not detract from our abilities to think and to make, but fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities. This affirming power of artistic work, no matter the medium, has been a keystone in my practice, and will continue to inform my curatorial work for KMB. The ability of our species to flourish artistically in fraught and dire situations, this refusal in the face of disillusionment to disavow our poetry, our languages, our art and music, our optimism and humour, is a stubbornness to be celebrated. The communities that come together to make this happen are to be celebrated. This is what I hope to foreground in the next edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

(The writer is the curator of the KMB 2020)

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 12:21:05 AM |

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