Going gets tougher for Kochi biennale

The fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale got over on April 10. But the biennial art event is marred by paucity of funds, mounting debts, uncertainty over a permanent venue and pandemic-induced issues

Updated - April 14, 2023 08:35 am IST

Published - April 13, 2023 07:51 pm IST - KOCHI

Visitors look at a community art project from north-western Bangladesh in the village of Balia ‘Bhumi’ at the 2023 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The biennale is one of Asia’s biggest contemporary art festivals.

Visitors look at a community art project from north-western Bangladesh in the village of Balia ‘Bhumi’ at the 2023 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The biennale is one of Asia’s biggest contemporary art festivals. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Chinnappa

The fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) curated by the Singapore-based artist Shubigi Rao around the theme In our veins flow ink and fire drew to a close on April 10. The pandemic-delayed edition, which saw participation by 87 artists and held across 14 venues at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, witnessed over nine lakh footfall — the highest in the KMB’s decade-long history.

The edition was not without hiccups, but it rose up to its billing as the days passed. There were delays on account of sparse availability of artisans and issues with freight logistics thanks to the pandemic. Non-availability of the main venues for maintenance, repair and setting up of structures delayed the opening, which drew flak from the art fraternity. 

But the edition helped local businesses —hotels, cafes, homestays, shops, hawkers — fetch overwhelming returns.

Digital art 

A noticeable effect that COVID-19 triggered was isolation of artists and a resultant spike in digital expression. Almost 60% of the exhibits were digital, on film or related.

According to art mediators, who worked tirelessly on ground, the digital works “received excellent response from visitors, as they provided a unique opportunity to engage with art in a remote and virtual setting”. 

A visitor lies in a stairwell with Scottish artist Jim Lambie’s artwork ‘Zobop’ at the 2023 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

A visitor lies in a stairwell with Scottish artist Jim Lambie’s artwork ‘Zobop’ at the 2023 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Chinnappa

Their inclusion showcased the potential of digital art to reach and inspire a wider audience. 

“The focus on art theories and the involvement of academics in every concept was a different experience,” says gallerist Dilip Narayanan of Gallery OED. He adds that works of artists Jitish Kallat, William Kendrige and art collective MAP Bangalore and the Students’ Biennale were impressive. “Another captivating experience was the pavilion at Cabral Yard constructed by architect Samira Rathod,” he says. 

Also read | Kochi Muziris Biennale: a lot of ink and fire

This edition drew several high-profile individuals, including Jessica Morgan, Director of Dia Art Foundation; Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art; Abhijit Banerjee, Nobel laureate and Indian-American economist; Kiran Nadar, founder of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art; Adam Szymczyk, Curator of Documenta; and Yuko Hasegawa, Artistic Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.  

Visitors at the biennale.

Visitors at the biennale. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

“Their presence helped bring more attention to the biennale and established its position as a significant platform for contemporary art in India,” says Bose Krishnamachari, president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. 

Bigger ABC programme 

The ABC (Art By Children) Art Room programme facilitated over 60 artists and featured 15 outreach programmes, conducting approximately 30 art workshops for schools, colleges, architecture colleges, interior design colleges, and design colleges such as the NID and NIFT. Nearly 30,000 people engaged with the Art Room, helping to create a new generation of art enthusiasts in the country.  

A testament to the diversity and quality of contemporary art in India and the world, the biennale featured a diverse range of performances by artistes from all over the world. T.M. Krishna, Lifafa, Tribemama Marykali, and Mehfil-e-Sama were among the notable performances, as were the works by South African artist William Kentridge and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.

The biennale also included talks by Anthony Gormley and Homi Bhabha and performances such as Giraffe Humming as part of the Insurrections Ensemble Project. The Dharamshala International Film Festival’s DIFF on the Road, which included films such as Navalny and All That Breathes, was also showcased, along with collaborations with the Kerala Chalachitra Akademi and TBA 21. 

Space for regional artists 

For the first time, the Kochi Biennale Foundation initiated a space to provide parallel opportunities to regional artists with the support of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. 

Held at Durbar Hall, the show Idam was curated by three artists: Jalaja P.S., Radha Gomathi, and Gigi Scaria. The exhibition showcased the works of 34 artists from diverse art backgrounds. 

But a lot has obviously changed due to the pandemic. Shwetal Patel, Director, International Programmes, KMB, says it is time for the foundation to take stock. “There is a growing movement among artists that questions the ecological footprint of shipping artwork. So will we be looking more at site-specific art in coming editions?” he asks.

An installation at the biennale

An installation at the biennale | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Shwetal also points out that while the first edition in 2012 had 13 women artists out of 89, 60% of artists in this edition were women. Another evolving aspect was the emphasis on artists from the global majority and not only artists from the global north. “This is not an accident but an evolution of the art world. This edition had artists of colour and non-western artists.”

Meanwhile, K.J. Sohan, former Kochi Mayor, rues the lack of support from stakeholders and beneficiaries of the biennale. 

“Look at the roads and bridges, the civic condition of the locality. When the area is hosting an event of such a scale, one that has caught the eye of the international world, is not it the duty of all government departments to pitch in to make it succeed? Should not the businesses that profit from it pitch in?  

Fiscal prudence 

The biennale is reeling under a huge debt, which makes its return on schedule difficult. Neither is the issue of a permanent venue, Aspinwall House, sorted. The KBF had estimated the expenditure of the just-concluded edition to be ₹23 crore. A scrutiny committee of the Tourism department arrived at an estimate of ₹12 crore, following which the department said it would foot not more than 50% of that amount.

Bose says getting the edition going was a huge challenge. “We had to navigate a range of obstacles, including the lack of funds and the difficulty of working and connecting with diverse communities within the art world. With an exhibition of this scale in our part of the world, financial precarity and irregularity in terms of funding scales are sadly the norm. While we do receive seed support from the government, it is still a challenge to raise from other private and public sources, especially since we can’t receive any foreign funding and there are not many grant-making organisations here like in the West,” he says.

“We are heading into a considered process of organisational, structural and financial model. We need to embrace the reality and the shortcomings of operating from here and build a biennale that is measured to that. This is the intention of the foundation at this point. The next curator will be announced after reforming the organisation. We are not in a hurry to run towards the sixth edition,” Bose says.  

Sohan hopes the city will not lose the event and be able to conduct it every two years as envisaged. 

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