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Art sprouts at Kochi Biennale, bringing hope to a contrarion state

Kochi: Over  1.5 lakh people have visited the first  Kochi-Muziris Biennale,  making it one of the biggest public art shows mounted in India. The biennale which began on 12/12/12 amid the contrarion culture of Kerala, with the culture minister slapping a case against the organizers for alleged misuse of  government grant of Rs five crore and some ‘poor artistes’ going on a strike at the venue. It has become a  grand cultural event with top Indian creators taking their show to the people and transforming  this ancient port town of Kochi  (old name Muziris) into a weird and astonishing cultural plaza, with its moss-filled walls suddenly sporting paintings and decaying buildings getting new life with post-modern installations.

Biennales are art shows which are held every two years , a tradition which started in Venice in 1895.  The Kochi biennale was conceived and executed by Mumbai-based Keralite artists Bose Krishnamachari and  Riyas Komu.  Installation artistes, sculptors, painters. photographers from around the world have put up their works in 14 venues in and around Fort Kochi which is flanked by the harbour, a ship buildling yard, a container terminal and the other paraphernalia of a fishing and trading town trying to shirk off  its destiny.  Four venues, the Aspinwall House, Pepper House, Heritage Plaza and Durbar Hall are ticketed at Rs 50.

Subodh Gupta's untitled installation at the Kochi biennale. Image courtesy Binoo K John

“If artists creations are not taken to the people how can art become popular?” asked Komu referring to the protests by some artists. Komu is delighted at the popularity the biennale is garnering. The show is  the result of the drive and determination of Komu and Krishnamachari , who worked against all odds and typical Malayali cynicism.  It can also be seen as an effort of non-resident Keralites trying to stem the decline in discourse and instill hope.

In a small state where the only big installations are airports , with the fifth coming up  in this  small sliver of land a 100 km to the south of Kochi , the biennale is also a reminder that the fully literate state has to show the way for higher art and culture. The biennale has pointed to the right direction and announced how terrible beauties can be created in a place becoming increasingly sterile.

The focal point of the biennale is the Aspinwall House,  the over a century-old  godown and trading place, now owned by real estate giant DLF. The godown  is decrepit but the installations in each room makes it an amazing albeit quirky walk-though experience. In one big hall, a former pepper godown,  the installations of two of India’s foremost contemporary artists Vivan Sundaram and Subodh  Gupta can be seen.  Sundaram’s installation called 'Black Gold' is made of discarded pieces of pottery from the Pattanam, an archeological site in central Kerala. Forming a backdrop to this is Subodh Gupta’s  untitled installation in typical style using discarded things of daily use stacked in a huge wooden canoe tilted upwards, as if  emerging from the debris of  history.

Atul Dodiya's photograph exhibition at the event. Image courtesy Binoo K John.

Mumbai photographer Atul Dodiya  has an entire floor to himself for his show titled ‘Celebration in the Laboratory’. Dodiya says his photographs “opens up choices of great freedom’.  The room is a sort of broken down kitchen or cleaning room with shattered sinks  and broken pipes all along its walls and now there are pictures hanging there reminding us of the irreversible reach of art.

The first installation that catches the eye in  the lawn of Aspinwall House is Karnataka artist Srinivas Prasad’s 'Erase', a gunny bag , mud and steel installation hung up among the coconut trees like a hammock which on its own grew out of all proportion.

Fort Kochi has a Goa-like look, awash with backpackers and the shores lined with shacks that fry lobsters and prawn. It is steeped in history too and Vasco da Gama’s body was interned here before it was dug up and  in 1524 and transported back to Portugal in 1538. The tomb is still preserved at the church. The early Chinese traders, the Dutch, the French, and then the English came here and fought battles.  Huge basilicas with their own histories  line the narrow streets.  The churches of the new age: the swanky hotels like a Neemrana Portuguese property, Brenton’s Boatyard and Taj  surround  the Chinese nets.

The biennale may look and sound elitist and is surely an European import. Kochi and Kerala needed  something as elitist and yet popular to change the level of discourse and create “an occasion to explore a mechanism to process reflect and rewrite history, different histories, that would confluence at Kochi,” as the concept note says.

In any case Kerala needed some high art. If not anything at least to drain its clogged veins of forgotten ideologies and static debates.