- The southern Indian city of Kochi is hosting India’s first biennale.
12/12/12 at 12 o’clock. That’s not another end-of-the-world prophecy. It’s the official start time of India’s first-ever biennale, an international art exhibition that is set to take over the southern city of Kochi for the next three months.
Artists often complain that India’s contemporary art scene is too market-focused , with galleries and trade fairs dominating this space. The aim of Kochi’s biannual event is to help change that by providing a platform that focuses on the art, rather than on the art market.
“We hope it will become a hub to launch a discourse on art,” says Riyas Komu, co-curator of the Kochi biennale.
At a concert Wednesday evening for the biennale’s opening, British musician and artist M.I.A. will take the stage. Best-known for her song “Paper Planes,” featured in the Academy Award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” M.I.A., who grew up between Sri Lanka and India before moving to the U.K., is expected to draw a crowd of around 50,000.
Kochi’s art show is modeled on the Venice Biennale, an exhibition started in the 19th century in Italy’s lagoon city, where today countries send their most promising artists to showcase their work.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is on a much smaller scale and a lot less structured than the one in Venice. Around 80 artists, Indian and foreign, will exhibit at the event’s several venues.
Big names from India include Bihar-born Subodh Gupta, best-known for his steel-based installations, and painter Atul Dodiya, whose series painted on shop shutters engages with themes like political myths. Both of them will be showing new work in Kochi. Mr. Gupta is presenting an installation of a boat filled with furniture and other household objects.
International artists include Pakistan’s Rashid Rana, who uses photographic mosaics to address contemporary issues, and Baghdad-born, Israeli artist Joseph Semah.
Plenty of the work on show will be site-specific, inspired by Kochi and its history. A spice trade hub, the city fell into the hands of the Portuguese and the Dutch before becoming a princely state under British rule. Today, Hindus, Muslims and Jews coexist there, contributing to its multicultural reputation.
This, say organizers of the Kochi biennale, is what makes the town better suited than anywhere else in India to host an international art exhibition.
It also stands out for the kind of spaces it can offer to exhibiting artists. Ranging from 16th-century trading warehouses to the former court of local royalty, many of the venues are reminiscent to those you find at Venice’s Biennale.
- Kochi Muziris Biennale
- Aspinwall House, a colonial-era tradition house and main venue of the Kochi biennale.
For instance, Aspinwall House – a sea-facing compound where goods like ginger, pepper and tea were traded in the 19th century – is likely to remind visitors of Venice’s Arsenale, an old shipyard that similarly opens onto the sea and that is one of its biennale’s key exhibition grounds.
That was the impression of Italian artist Giuseppe Stampone, who described the spaces as “fantastic.” He is participating in the show with a new work called “The Perfect World, Bye Bye Europa,” an autorickshaw modeled into a car of a European diplomat.
The autorickshaw will be driving around the streets of Kochi blaring from its speakers. “It’s on the end of Europe, on the new economy,” he explains.
Organizers expect up to 500,000 people to turn up to see the show, benefiting from the peak tourist season in the state of Kerala around this time of year.
While the show is on track for its opening, until recently it was uncertain whether it would happen at all. Funding has been a major issue and the budget had to be significantly reduced as a result. The project, initially estimated to cost around $750,000, was completed on a shoe string, largely thanks to private sponsorship. Organizers are unable to give an exact figure but V. Sunil, one of the biennale’s trustees, estimates the original figure has been cut by around 70%.
Allegations of financial irregularities pushed the current Congress party-led government in Kerala to suspend funding of the project started by a previous administration. Last month, the local government announced it launched an investigation on these allegations. Organizers of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale deny any wrongdoing.
While it’s no longer funding it, the local government has shown its support for the biennale, describing it as an important cultural initiative. Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy will be participating in the biennale’s opening ceremony.