India profits from loss-making biennale

About a couple of years ago, when two Malayali artists from Mumbai announced their audacious intent to hold India’s first biennale at Kochi, they grabbed headlines world over. When the Kochi-Muziris Biennale opened on 12/12/12, it was jeered by Malayali naysayers, but was welcomed by artists, art-lovers, local residents and soon, the city owned it up. Now, the biennale is a grand success, though a Rs. 5.5 crore loss-making proposition to the Biennale Foundation trustees. Despite lack of public funding and piling debts, the biennale seems to have come to stay at Kochi. The trustee-curator-administrator duo Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu spoke to The Hindu at length about the triumphs and troubles of their three-month journey, which is coming to an end, for now, on 13/03/13

What is your assessment of the biennale?

Bose: In my opinion, it’s a super successful project. It is as big as the Venice Biennale. You can say it is one of the most successful biennales in the world. The success is mostly because of the site itself. The location has inspired architectural interventions and projects.

Riyas: Whichever project it is, the success ratio can be understood from the pride local people take in it. I don’t think many projects, especially contemporary art projects in India or biennales in general, have touched society. A Kochiite feels that he is part of a larger history. The biennale has celebrated and contextualized history and started a discourse around it. That is the success of the new visual culture.

In Kerala, the word (written) is very powerful. Earlier, what was powerful in art was materiality. Later, the material died off in the Kerala art context and the biennale brought it back. Vivan Sundaram, for example, was trying to address socio-political issues through completely different materials and media. He came here, took excavation as a metaphor, and is trying to solve contemporary issues.

Is there a shift from the word to the visual?

Riyas: Not just word to the visual, word to the material also. Materiality is so important in art. Certain materials speak a certain kind of history. If you look at Tallur’s work, he took clay, a common material, and introduced a new consciousness out of it.

You have ideated the biennale, curated it, and administrated it. You are also caretakers. Normally artists are bad administrators.

Riyas: We had a good team in place. The team knew that the project was struggling so they put in all their energy. Everybody was working overtime.

How will you do it two years hence?

Bose: No, we are not doing it. We will have a new curator. In most biennales, almost every edition has a new curator. We will definitely be present as the foundation’s heads.

Curating is the most paid job in the world and curators get maximum recognition. Here, you had curators who were paid zero money.

Will the future editions be held at the same venue?

Riyas: We hope that we will get at least some of the venues like Aspinwall again. This venue is better than many other biennale spaces. Each room here has an identity.

What is your count of the number of people who have visited?

Bose: We had about 3.5 to 4 lakh people visiting. We were expecting about 5 lakh. But it’s an incredible number for the first biennale.

How does it compare with other biennales?

Riyas: Venice had about 4.5 lakh visitors. But they were running for five months.

Here we’ve had visitors all through the three months. You also had the millionaire and the auto driver paying just Rs.50 to get in. You get one artist for 60 paise.

What are the lessons you have learnt?

Bose: I tell all my friends even if a bomb falls in front of me, I don’t feel threatened. I used to see Riyas looking worried. I too used to worry earlier. But we have faced so much in these three months.

Riyas: One of the problems with projects like the biennale or a football match is that people are there for the spectacle. Even with the biennale, though it has been rated as one of the best art exercises in the world, there is this idea of turning it into spectacle. Contemporary art can change that attitude with a project like this.

In the first week, I felt that everybody was just coming in for the spectacle; not even seeing it, not letting others see it. My learning is that a little bit of transformation happened to maybe 10 per cent of the people who visited it. That tells you that there are people who want projects like this. You have to try and continue it and not just stop with the biennale.

I think we need to immediately start a museum in Kochi.

Bose: That’s one of the (Kochi-Muziris Biennale) foundation’s intentions.

Riyas: People want a cultural centre with strong contemporary art projects going on, have a reading room, a small screening space, a coffee shop, a small space for kids to enjoy.

Bose: Culture brings in better thinking, better living. Most nations are going for cultural diplomacy rather than political diplomacy.

How do the two of you get along so well?

Riyas: We actually fight a lot.

Bose: We don’t agree on everything.

Were you batchmates at J.J. School of Arts?

Riyas: No, he was my senior.

Bose: I was out of college and I didn’t have a place to go. So I used to hang around with these guys in the canteen or their hostel.

Riyas: There are very strong differences. But those differences revolve around logistical problems or it can be about aesthetics, mannerisms. But the goal is the same.

Bose: Our success comes from our involvement in the project. Inquisitiveness can also take you far. I didn’t know how to speak English. I was a typical Mallu from a small village. I didn’t know that I would become a successful artist but I used to go and meet senior artists. That is the best thing about Mumbai – there is no ego, no age.

We spent time with people like Akbar Padamsee. You take any artist in the Indian scene, they have no ego. Here I see that you have to respect age. If an artist is not a good human being, I don’t care.

Has organising the biennale affected your sensibilities?

Riyas: As an artist, I’ve reached a stage where I feel totally confused about my art practice. I never thought that I would go into that kind of a mindset.

Bose: Which is good, Riyas. I always say that if you’re not confused, if you’re complete, there is no point in living. I’ve been curating shows since 2004.

What does the success of the biennale mean in the global context?

Bose: It’s an international biennale. People should understand that. It is not Kerala’s project. It should be seen in that sense.

Riyas: The first edition of the biennale was anchored on the concept of cosmopolitanism, bringing in the multicultural aspect of Kochi. The idea has fired up the creativity of artists. The biennale looks the way it does because artists were provoked and inspired by Kochi’s global genealogy. This is a region that was globalised 3,000 years ago.

People here also have the maturity to understand the political landscape. Even a barber here may talk about globalisation by citing Santiago Sierra’s work as a reference.

The works included in the biennale also have a political character. The inclusion of Amar Kanwar, Jonas Staal, and their revolt all makes the foundation of the show more credible. Even after the project is over, what is discussed is the politics of the art. And it is the politics of protest, of rebellion against greed.

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